There’s a sweet, unexpected moment in the film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." The scene doesn’t move the plot ahead. The characters’ decision to take part in the scene reveals something about their characters, the actual scene itself doesn’t. It’s one of those instances that might easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. However, for a beautiful two minutes the scene plays out, and as a soccer mom, it touched me deeply.
Walter, a photo editor at Life magazine, had been searching for a photographer, who may or may not know what happened to a negative he supposedly sent to Walter as the cover shot for Life’s last issue. Mitty’s journey takes him to several treacherous and unusual locations. Eventually his travels extend high into the Himalayas where he makes an important and remarkable discovery. While that revelation unfolds, the camera cuts intermittently to a youth soccer game in the valley below. The audience can hear the shouts, cheers and laughter over the actors’ voices in the scene. When Walter realizes he has once again been thwarted in his quest, the characters make the decision to run down the mountainside and join the game. That carefree decision would normally have been enough for any filmmaker. It shows that in the face of adversity, Walter can still seize some joy. There would be no need to actually show the characters playing in the game. Yet, Ben Stiller, the director and star, creates a beautiful scene bathed in the warm glow of a setting sun against the wild green of tundra, the colorful clothing of the participants, the flags used to mark the goals, and the rough greys and whites of the peaks. The camera lingers on the play while exposing the joy of the game richly depicted in several vignettes.
These players will never play on a club team, much less a state, regional or national team. The game will never earn them a living or garner them public honors. They don’t have state-of-the-art equipment, no uniforms to distinguish their allegiances, and no crowds cheering them on. With no buildings in sight, it was obvious that these boys had gathered to play on a wild expanse of grass without expectations. The young players welcomed the strangers from the mountainside willingly and happily. This game had no other purpose than the exhilaration of play.
I loved this scene because it said volumes about youth sports. In the U.S., we have ended up corrupting the original purpose of kids playing in organized sports. Rather than being about enjoying the moment, youth sports have become stepping stones to more serious, competitive levels. National sports organizations look to identify players who can function at an elite level. What parents don’t foster the hope that their child will make that cut? When our boys first started playing soccer, I was completely naïve about anything beyond the yearly sign-up for recreational soccer. The biggest stress was insuring that we registered our kids together so we could carpool to the same team and practices. All too quickly the promise of traveling teams and other elite opportunities became the focus. The fun of the sport gave way to where the sport could take our children: state teams, high school, regional teams, even national teams, and of course the strong siren song of college soccer. Clubs offer training to "get to the next level" with a not too subtle message that achieving that level should be why our children play. Parents begin to invest more and more into the possibility that their child will win the golden ticket with their help. We pay for camps, extra fitness training, top clubs, tournaments, indoor sessions and even overseas opportunities. Instead of the wild abandon of the young child gleefully running on the grass, we now have the business of soccer with all the constraints of protecting and nurturing an investment. While I don’t suggest that our children shouldn’t improve over the years and that their passions shouldn’t be fed, I do suggest that we may go overboard, forgetting that most children won’t become the elite athletes we envision. Yet we persist in making the sport more of a job than a pleasurable activity.
I would love for this short scene in the film to be on YouTube, and perhaps soon it will be. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to see the entire movie, I really encourage you to watch that one particular clip. It renewed in me the deep love I have for soccer. It is a sport so universal that even in the Himalayas a group of soccer-playing Sherpas could assimilate a pair of all-American interlopers. The scene spoke to me because it revealed not only the deep joyfulness of play but the message that adventure isn’t always about extremes. We can appreciate unexceptional events as exceptional when showcased against the backdrop of a surprising location. Soccer is a language we can speak anywhere in the world and be fully understood. Soccer creates for our children a world-view activity in which they can flourish and cultivate happiness without any other expectations than having fun. I can only speculate why Stiller left this scene in his film. Mitty’s life was either primarily hum-drum or newly filled with daring and extreme adventure. Playing soccer highlighted that something ordinary can translate into a moment of abandon and ecstasy, giving his and anyone’s life the balance they are missing. It reminds us that the simplest and most commonplace of activities can bring the greatest joy, whether it be taking a walk during a fresh snowfall, roasting marshmallows on a fall evening or playing a game of soccer. If we can provide our children with the uncomplicated delicious pleasures of just experiencing a moment then we have given them the gift of happiness — no strings attached.