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Soccerpreneur Chapter 17: Never Give Up

From the upcoming book Soccerpreneur by Damir Perge (Download a PDF of this Chapter)

Chapter 17: Never Give Up

Don’t stop playing until the final whistle blows

Living in America the first few years was difficult for our family. My parents worked hard, but we were not getting even a sliver of the American Dream. Hard work, by itself, just wasn’t paying off. Returning to our parents, after living with our Uncle Lili and Aunt Nada in their luxury apartment in the beautiful city of Austin, my brother and I felt we were stepping down a few notches on the socioeconomic ladder. The five of us were crowded into a one-bedroom apartment in a complex on the outskirts of Richardson, called Sancho Panza.

The apartments had a Spanish feel, but were more like the slums of Mexico. Living at Sancho Panza was a major culture shock. In Yugoslavia, we had lived in a large, comfortable farmhouse. Our entire apartment at Sancho Panza was the size of the bedroom Danny and I had shared back in Yugoslavia.

When the movie, Coming to America came out a few years later, I could truly relate to Arsenio Hall’s character. Our farmhouse in Yugoslavia wasn’t a royal palace, but compared to Sancho Panza apartment, it sure felt like it.

The first time I set my foot in our apartment, I wanted to shout, “Can you please tell me why the hell we moved to America?” I stayed silent because I knew I would either get an ass whipping, hurt my parents’ feelings or both. I looked at my brother, and because we had twin telepathy, I knew he was thinking the same thing. My sister looked like a deer caught in headlights.

The Sancho Panza apartments were a cluster of dingy, grey buildings trimmed with reddish Spanish tiles, with flat roofs. They were low rent and that included Texas-sized cockroaches. Even having lived on a farm, I’d never seen roaches like those. I fully expected to wake up each morning to the roaches dancing and singing “La cucaracha, la cucaracha … la cucaracha.” My parents had to be just as horrified, but they held strong and remained positive to keep us from freaking out.

Living in that tiny apartment, even as an eleven-year-old, somehow “Welcome to America, the land of opportunity, the land of the rich,” just didn’t resonate. I often whined to my brother, “Danny, we lived better back home than we do here.” He was not the complainer of the family like I was. But how would you react if you woke up every morning and went to get a drink of water only to see a six-inch cockroach fighting for the same glass of water? Okay, the roaches were half that size… but still!

For the first month of living in the Sancho Panza apartments, my brother and I slept on the floor in the living room because our family didn’t have enough money to buy additional beds. We tried to pretend we were camping. After a few weeks, I tried to convince my brother to run away with me, back to Yugoslavia. We scratched that brilliant idea off the list when we realized we’d get an ass whipping for even thinking about it.

I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong. After ten months of working for my uncle Lili’s company as a mechanical engineer, my father lost his job because he didn’t speak English well enough.

In Yugoslavia, my father Ivan had been a great civil engineering talent. He had built major highways, buildings, and water systems. But he just didn’t get the hang of mechanical engineering quickly enough, working alongside American employees, and was fired. Welcome to America, welcome to capitalism. The only thing missing from the experience was having Donald Trump there to yell, “You’re fired!” I think that was the only time my father was ever fired. I can only imagine how he felt. Talk about pressure. You come to America with your family, thinking life is going to be absolutely awesome, but everything goes right down the toilet.

All hell broke loose. Our family ran through our savings quickly because 1974 saw a huge inflation rate. My parents took any job they could get. After searching for weeks, my father found a job in construction as a menial laborer. And he had a civil engineering degree. My mother had a liberal arts degree and had worked at a bank in Yugoslavia, but couldn’t get hired at a bank in the U.S. due to her lack of the command of the English language. She took a job as a maid. Two educated people, without the ability to pursue their careers due to their lack of knowledge of the English language. I can only say “ugh.”

The thing that kept my family going, inspired and motivated was that Danny and I were playing soccer. Despite his limited English language skills, my father signed us up to play in the North Dallas Soccer Association. We joined a team called the Cougars. Of course, my brother and I were excellent soccer players because we grew up playing soccer on the streets in Yugoslavia. The other players on the team—Cougars they were not. To put it bluntly, most of the other players weren’t any good, with the exception of the coach’s children and another set of twins.

When you play on a team of eleven and only six know how to play, you play differently than you would if you had a team of eleven good players. My brother played defense while I played offense. Our standard soccer formula worked, like the old days of playing soccer in Yugoslavia. We took full advantage of our magic twin connection while playing soccer throughout our teens. We had a routine; my brother would hit me with a long pass. I would trap the ball, and get to work—focused on dribbling through the entire defense. I told myself that I was a “team player” because my brother passed me the ball and I would look to dribble, attract more defenders and then look to pass the ball back to myself—unless I saw my brother, one of the other twins or the coach’s sons in my view.

It was during this tween soccer era that I developed “ballhog-itis.” This is a terrible soccer disease. I needed an intervention. My dribbling was out of control. Even my father would yell from the sideline for me to pass the ball to others. Of course, I wouldn’t listen. I justified my selfish dribbling actions because most of the others players could not even trap the ball when I passed it to them.

I tried to be a team player at the start of the season. But when my father gave me world-class instructions during a game to pass the ball to another player into open space, I’d nod in agreement—only to go off and dribble like a demon against the entire defense.

After a few games, I had the reputation of being a ballhog dribbler, in the team’s eyes and especially in my father’s eyes. I could see the intense displeasure on his face—especially when I dribbled too much and lost the ball. But I silenced his frustration when I dribbled through a bunch of defenders and scored goals.

Dribbling and Dribbling and More Dribbling

It must have been an interesting sight to see me dribble so much—on one hand I was almost shameful because of my selfishness, and on the other hand my technical ball skills were impressive. My brother, being a team player, would find me with a long pass on the front line with defenders surrounding me; I would turn the dismal opportunity into showboating of my dribbling moves.

From the sidelines, I guess it was kind of like watching the soccer version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Everyone on my team stood around while I dribbled … and dribbled … and dribbled. I dribbled so much that my teammates stopped asking for the pass. The more I dribbled selfishly, the less they tried to even help me. Can you blame them?  Why run into open spaces and ask for the ball back when you know 99.99% of the time that I am not going to give the ball back to you.

The season got long quickly. We lost quite a few games. It was not pretty to watch, or something worth writing about to our soccer friends in Yugoslavia. During that first season, we lost to the best team in the league 0-11. Our first season of playing soccer in America was a complete failure from a team perspective. However, my dribbling skills improved to the legendary status. It is simple soccer logic—you get better at dribbling the more you do it.

When Coach Bush decided to move to Lubbock, he asked my father to take over the coaching position for the next season. It’s one thing to have my father as an assistant coach, it’s another to have him be my head coach.

Ivan coaching kids who knew nothing about soccer, with his thick English accent, would have been a great reality TV show. It was funny watching him explain complicated soccer drills to these kids. It was like Ivan’s Babysitting Adventures on the Soccer Field. Soccer moms would drop off their wannabe soccer player children so our dad would teach them soccer while mommies and daddies got some free time to themselves. However, there was a coaching problem simmering before the season even started—my father knew to coach only one way—the serious way. He never ever yelled at players like some of the American coaches you see during soccer practice but he demanded hustle and effort. And most importantly, he demanded curiosity to become a better soccer player.

As I said before, Ivan was the greatest soccer development coach the world has never known. If he coached you, I don’t care what your level of your soccer skill at the time, you become a better player almost overnight. All you had to do was have the desire to learn and a little talent. Not a lot of talent. Just enough. Ivan always found a way to mass-customize the drills and make you exercise technical skills that helped you become a better player quicker. Ivan “Chichi” Perge, our father, missed his calling in life. He would have made a great professional soccer coach at any of the top European soccer clubs.

As the season progressed under my dad’s coaching, we lost most of our games. But it was because the coaches’ kids had left, and the other twins changed teams. Things had gone from worse to despicable. My brother and I were the only ones who knew how to play. However, the horrible level of other players didn’t waiver my father’s coaching spirit. My father’s objective for coaching a team of 13-year-olds was not to win games and receive some stupid plastic trophy that would sit in the garage year after year. His objective was to teach all the players on the team how to truly play the game. He often said, “Son, it is easy to learn how to win. It is harder to learn how to play.” He was all about learning the fundamentals. He wanted us to learn to play simple—which is the hardest thing to do in soccer.

The Art of the Technical

Chichi wanted all of us to first become technical players so we could truly master the fundamentals of soccer. He would tell us, “The winning will come later, when you know the fundamentals of the game.”

America, unlike Europe, is all about winning, even at an early age. The American parents just didn’t get Chichi’s “learn to play first” philosophy. They didn’t understand why “Johnny” was on a team that was losing all the time, or why our father gave soccer homework. They didn’t understand why Johnny had to play every day to become a better soccer player. Surely, Johnny could learn all that “soccer stuff” during practice.

If the previous season was scary, the new season was a nightmare for the entire Perge family. Watching Chichi deal with parents pressuring him to win games, as if their children were playing in a World Cup, put a bad taste in my mouth about coaching youth soccer. It’s probably the reason why I refuse to coach a youth team, even today, and I only offer technical coaching instruction to my friend’s children.

I strongly believe in my father’s philosophy—a player learns to become technical quickest between the ages of 10 and 16. That is the time to teach the fundamental and technical side of soccer: dribbling, passing, shooting, heading, trapping, kicking, etc. Leave the pressure of winning games for later. Don’t get me wrong. My father had a winning mentality. He just didn’t want us to win at the expense of learning how to play technically.

It was during our second season that I received my first major soccer lesson from Ivan that would transfer later into my life and business—not from a technical perspective but from a psychological one. My father gave me a mental ass whipping about never giving up, never accepting defeat—until the final whistle blows. I learned this important life lesson during one specific soccer game.

Never Give Up

The game was played during the week, on a school night. Chichi drove Danny and me to the game in our red, four-door, Ford Grenada. Because we were in a lower division, the soccer field was a little better than a cow pasture. When I saw the soccer field, my first thought was that front yard of our Yugoslavian farmhouse was better. The field was on Custer Road, in Richardson, a suburb of Dallas. Our apartments, were about five miles from the soccer field.

We were playing against the Richardson Vikings, one of the better teams in the league. It was one of the last games of the season, and we had gotten better as the season progressed because we were learning the fundamentals. Even though we hadn’t won many games, we were getting so much better that you could feel our cockiness before this game started. We were no longer at the point of accepting an automatic loss before we even stepped on the field. And to everyone’s surprise, I had become more of a team player. I passed the ball more than I dribbled. But let me not fool you. I was still somewhat of a ballhog.

For the first time, even though we were playing against one of the top teams we felt like we could beat them. The Vikings players knew I planned to dribble and dribble a lot, so they stuck two defenders on me for the entire game. I was a marked man. I was too cocky to be concerned. The two defenders were older and larger than I was and, unfortunately for me, they were no soccer dummies either. Since coming to America, this was the first game where I felt I finally had some competition.

My brother and I played our usual “twin telepathy” game. Danny found me with a long pass; I trapped the ball and turned on the defenders to dribble against them. Confident in my dribbling skills, I tried to go around both of them without even looking for the pass. To my surprise, they started shutting me down—just about every time. I managed to go around them more than a few times but the convergence of the other defenders coming at me created a difficult situation—I wasn’t able to dribble through the entire defense. Every time I got the ball, they converged on me like a swarm of bees, from all sides.

Seeing that I was double and triple marked, my father kept yelling to me in Serbian to receive the ball, draw in the defenders and pass the ball to others. Feeling still cocky, despite the tough opposition, I did my famous nod and continued to play the same selfish way. The Vikings kept scoring goals. The halftime whistle spared us.

In the second half, I became even more predictable as the game progressed. I started losing most of the dribbling duels against a tighter defense because I was forcing my play to try to score goals. They continued killing us with their team play. With less then 20 minutes to go, they were winning 6-0.

It was the first time I’d ever felt frustrated on a soccer field in America, because I kept losing the ball as I tried to do it all alone. The Viking’s coach kept sticking fresh defenders on me during second half, in the meantime, they continued kicking our ass all over the field. Goals kept pouring into our net like it was Christmas. Their defense was good. The also had speed; so even when I got around them, they would catch up with their sliding tackles and kick the ball out of play.

During the second half, my father kept yelling to me in Serbian to attract the defenders and pass the ball into empty place to other players. Of course I continued not to listen to him and my play only got worse. We could not hold the other team down defensively, and they kept scoring more goals as my frustration got worse.

Unlike my father’s strategy of teaching the entire team to focus on the technical and fundamental side of playing soccer—I believed I was already technical enough, and I actually wanted to win games. As the goals poured in against us, I developed a major negative attitude toward my teammates. I started blaming everyone else and pointing fingers. I started yelling at others. I had never done that before.

Worst of all, in the last ten minutes of the game I stopped playing. I stopped hustling. I stopped dribbling. I stopped caring about the game. I was just standing there, watching everyone else run around me. My father saw me and yelled for me to hustle for the ball again.

“Damire, get the ball, get the ball!” he yelled.

“I’m not going to run anymore,” I said loudly.[1]

“Get off the field!” he screamed in Serbian.

I thought he was kidding. How dare he throw out his best offensive player?

“Get off the field!” he yelled angrily.” He pointed for me to get out without even asking the permission for me to leave the field from the referee.

Mad and stubborn, I ran off the field and headed straight for the street. I was furious. I decided to walk back home in my soccer cleats. I knew our home was five miles away, but I didn’t care. I just couldn’t believe that my father threw me out of the game. I played so damn hard for the first 80 minutes out of the 90 minutes. I had played my heart out. It was the hardest I ever played on the soccer field. How dare he throw me out of the game! This was my first red card in my soccer life, and it was given to me by my father.

It was a long, long, long walk home. The day turned into night and as I trekked the concrete pavement in my soccer shoes, the weather got colder but I didn’t notice because I was so angry but the longer I walked, the calmer I got as I reflected back on the game and why Ivan threw me out.

Despite walking and jogging from time to time, it still took me more than an hour to get home. When I entered into our new second-floor, two-bedroom[2] Sancho Panza apartment, my mother asked, “How did you do?”

“Fine,” I muttered.

I spotted my father and brother pulling up in our Ford Grenada, from the second floor window. “We lost,” I added as I passed quickly by her to the bedroom my brother and I shared with my eighteen-year-old sister.

When my brother and father got into the apartment, my mother quickly found out I had walked home. I heard them loudly arguing.

“Why would you make my son walk all the way home? You are crazy!” she said.

“I didn’t make him walk home. He left,” he said.

“Ivan, you should have not let him walk home alone in the dark!”

“Be quiet, Miro! You don’t know what he did. He stopped playing, he stopped trying … and he also talked back to me,” Ivan shouted.

Usually my father spent hours with us after every game, discussing our level of play. Not this time. I never got a word, a speech or anything about that game. He knew I learned my lesson to never quit a soccer game until that final whistle blows.

He was not too frustrated with me for talking back to him as our coach or our father.  He was not so much mad at me for not listening to him during the game about dribbling too much or not passing the ball to other players. He was absolutely furious with me because I gave up trying after we were losing 8-0 in the last ten minutes of the game.

Ivan had spent an incredible amount of time teaching us the fundamentals and technical skills of being a soccer player. But the biggest lesson I learned from him was to never give up. Never ever give up until the final whistle blows.

It didn’t matter to him what the score was during the game. He believed that when you play in any game, you always go all out until the final whistle blows, whether you are winning or losing. From his perspective, small or big games are won or lost in the final minutes of the game.

Because of the lesson I learned that day, my life in soccer and business has always been about never giving up. It has driven me to succeed in life, many times, after experiencing failure. As an entrepreneur and investor, I have always been the last to give up on any venture. This is a good character trait to acquire. Most entrepreneurs quit too soon in their ventures after experiencing temporary failure.

Sure. You could consider pivoting your business into another sector if the market is not accepting your solution—but consider it carefully. Don’t give up too soon in your passionate quest to disrupt an industry. Everyone experiences failures in sports, business and life. The most important thing is to never give up on yourself in anything you do. You may not make your business a success overnight, but quitting too soon could be the biggest mistake you make. You may be close to your biggest win without even realizing it. Your win may be just around the corner, you just have to believe in yourself and never give up.

As I walked home on that cold night, despite being furious with my father for throwing me out of the game—deep down inside my soccer heart, I knew he was right to red card me. I never told anyone, not even my father, that I wasn’t embarrassed at being thrown out. I was embarrassed at quitting before the final whistle blew.

My father’s lesson of never giving up proved to be the decisive point in the greatest comeback I have experienced as a soccer player—a lesson to be learned next. As our soccer coach, and as our soccer father, the next major lesson he taught us was to be “inspired by the impossible.”

[1] Important coaching hint: you never want to talk back to a coach, especially if it is your father.

[2] Just like the sitcom The Jefferson’s, we had moved on up to a two bedroom apartment at Sancho Panza after living in a one bedroom apartment for the first six months. The good news is that this apartment had fewer cockroaches.

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by Damir Perge

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Damir Perge, author of Entrepreneur Myths: The Startup Reality, is the founder of entrepreneurdex, a startup studio using complexity science to fund, launch, accelerate and scale startups and growing businesses.

An entrepreneur and investor, with more than 25 years experience, he's worked with ventures in the technology, internet, media and publishing, entertainment, energy, and manufacturing sectors raising more than $300 million in capital for various companies and investing more than $50 million into startup and emerging ventures. He's sat on the boards of 11 companies, served as editor-in-chief of Futuredex, a private equity magazine. Follow 

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