Author Eric Simpson examines mind over matter in “The Mental Side of Sports Workbook”
Regardless of whatever it is that fuels your passions, if you’re doing things the right way you are spending the majority of your time adding to your legacy. What your legacy becomes is entirely up to you—it can be spiritually based, monetary, vocational, familial, etc.—but ultimately it becomes whatever it is you spend your time on.
For many years, Eric Paul Simpson—a factotum in the basest sense of the word, who has either at once been or currently is all at once an athlete, sportswriter, educator, coach, scout, author, organizer for athlete travel and much, much more—has been cultivating a legacy built on earnest enthusiasm for athletics, which he views (through decades of personal experience) as one of truest lenses through which gauge the depths of the human spirit. His own spirit was tested early in his life when, as a young soccer standout from Los Angeles, CA just five days away from traveling to Uruguay for a professional tryout, he broke his neck while surfing. Although he regained his ability to walk, his dreams at professional athleticism were dashed in an instant.
But his love for sports was so much that he couldn’t be kept away from them for long. In high school, he endeavored to remain close to the playing field working behind the scenes at his school’s TV station. His versatility backstage, encyclopedic knowledge of hockey and multilingualism earned him a staff job in the Los Angeles Kings locker room, where he worked for two years. Later, he crossed the border southward to attend Escuela Nacional Directores Tecnicos, where he earned a degree and subsequently took a job as coach and talent scout for the indigenous areas of Mexico, the technical director for several youth soccer teams and the administrative coordinator for the Atlante U-14 Alliance Team. Carrying his knowledge from the east coast to the west, Simpson used his vast knowledge and natural gift for writing to author numerous fiction and nonfiction books and serve as one of the more versatile and hardworking sportswriters in South Florida, writing about hockey, soccer, cricket, film, sports history and the burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts.
This Friday, Simpson turns 50 years old—an incomparably young 50 years old, as anyone who has met him—and anyone who has rolled with him in jiu-jitsu—will attest. He’s had a rough few years of recent, losing both of his parents (one of whom was a Holocaust survivor who later became a U.S. citizen and an army veteran) and having to reinvent himself professionally from the ground up by earning a real estate license, working as travel coordinator for TeamInn, a hotel booking company that specializes in sports and group travel, interviewing fighters backstage on CBS Sports’ televised portion of Fight Time Promotions and serving as the public relations officer for the Pro Footvolley Tour.
Still, he regularly finds time to update his sports blog, The Sports Avenue, and continue to write books (available HERE). His most recent release, The Mental Side of Sports Workbook, focuses on the cerebral aspects of physical competition. Not just a psychological examination of athleticism, the book—which at the end of every chapter challenges readers to look inward through assignments and introspective questions—chronicles Simpson’s own life’s work in sports, juxtaposing his own experiences with those of guest writers and historical examples of “mind over matter.”
TuffGnarl.com: Usually when sportswriters publish a book it’s to offer up information and insight and peel back the cover to expose an aspect of whatever sport they’re writing about that hasn’t been shown before. Basically, most books written by sports journalists are for fans. But The Mental Side of Sports Workbook was written for athletes and their coaches. What made you want to write this sort of book?
Eric Simpson: I wrote this book because of the importance of the youth sports triangle between player, coach, and parent. Through my own experiences as a youth soccer prodigy, and then the amazing experience I had working for the Los Angeles Kings Hockey Team, and then my own professional coaching experiences of youth and young adult players, I am blessed to have had many experiences that most people will never experience. I mean, how many 12 year old kids can say they played soccer with Pele, and Maradona in hotel lobbies, and at 13 years old were invited for team meals with some of the greatest soccer players to ever play the game like I was when Boca Juniors allowed me at their table. The most important part for me making this book was to open the eyes of all three parties in the relationship, to aspects on how things are done in other areas of the globe.
The time-tested sports adage “no pain, no gain” comes up in many different ways throughout your book. Now, obviously the ability to persevere in the face of adversity is a necessity in achieving greatness anywhere one might hope to find success, but what interests me about the way you approach it is that you suggest that in many way’s it’s crucial that a coach or trainer place their athletes under duress—sometimes bordering on what some might call abuse—so that they can grow properly. Where do you believe the line exists between healthy pressure and abuse and why do you think it’s such a fundamental element, when applied correctly, in positive growth?
I never advocate for anything close to the line of abuse but I do believe that coaches need to be problem creators, and not just problem solvers, otherwise it just becomes joystick sports and they can do that at home on Playstation. A coach needs to understand that not all players are alike, and through experience and seeing how it’s done in other cultures, they can be more effective in knowing that line of who needs to be pushed a little harder, and who needs a little more encouragement.
I am a product of the good old fashioned games of the street, where there were no coaches, no parents, and no referees, with situations where the group involved had to figure out the rules for the day. It is where the youth athlete learns the greatest lessons of camaraderie, hierarchy, teen angst of trying to succeed amongst the peers in the neighborhood against other schools and towns. Players have to be put in situations where they might fail, but more importantly they have to be put in situations where they have to figure out with conviction what might be the best option to try and succeed. I’ve stated it many times that in this 100 million dollar me-me generation of pro sports that we live in, that these games of the street are gone, and now 10 year olds have private trainers, and it’s a shame.
How long did it take you to write the book? What, if any, obstacles did you encounter while writing it?
This book I actually was able to write in about a month. I was facing an obstacle of a parent with a fatal illness, so I spent many hours sitting at my computer in the hospital and hospice. It was a great therapy for me, and I am very passionate about trying to help the next generation of coaches, players, and the parents who will support them so there were many nights where I wrote till the early hours of the next morning.
Were there any influential texts you looked at for inspiration while writing The Mental Side of Sports Workbook?
A book I read many times during my years while coaching in Mexico was written by Aubrey Fine and Michael Sacks, named The Total Sports Experience For Kids.
There are a multitude of assignments throughout the book—unsurprising, considering it’s a workbook—that force readers to take a big step back and introspect. What kind of feedback have you gotten from pro athletes who have used your book? Have any of them made personal breakthroughs as a result of some of the things the book has asked them to do?
The Japanese baseball story is actually one that I tend to get a ton of feedback on, and yes many professional athletes have contacted me about how it helped them to understand the vital characteristic of being a better teammate. To me it all goes back to a statement I made before about the 100 million dollar me-me generation. Most of the chapters were geared towards offering the reader an option to see that there are a multitude of ways to be a better player by making those around them a better player as well. In one of my earliest sports books, I was blessed to interview college basketball coaching icon, Rollie Massimino, and he told me “Isn’t it amazing what one can accomplish if no one takes the credit?”
One of the things I really liked about The Mental Side of Sports Workbook and something I feel is often overlooked in texts of this type is how comprehensively you approach an athlete’s support system, which if you really think about it—and you obviously did that—can be the difference between success and disappointment, depending on how well it all works together. Can you tell me a little bit about your process in developing this aspect of the book?
The support system, be it in a team or individual sport, is everything. I have interviewed hundreds of athletes now for all of my books, and there hasn’t been on player that failed to speak about the importance of the support system be it a parent taking the child to games or practices in early morning or late night, or those friends who were always there to shag balls, play goalie, hit grounders, rebound the ball etc… I am a firm believer in this concept, and maybe it’s because I was blessed with incredible parents whose philosophy always was “If it matters to you, then it matters to us.” I also would have never graduated from the FIFA Professional Coaching School in Mexico City without the group of seven friends I had there as confidants, study partners, fans in great times, and critics when necessary. I felt that it was important for all three members of the triangle (players, coaches, and parents) to understand that a support system is important and the necessity of really putting yourself out there to make a difference in other people’s lives, and not just your immediate inner circle.
The chapter that touched me the most, personally, was “Compassion For Others,” in which you detailed the efforts of Garrett Holeve, a young man with Down Syndrome and Rheumatoid Arthritis who trains and fights out of ROCK MMA under Cesar Serje and Carl Ranieri. This is no knock on you, but when I began reading the chapter all I could think was “Eric Simpson is walking into a minefield here.” But it turned out to be one of the most effective, sensitive and empowering looks at how sports can build people of all walks of life up—not dissimilar to how you described your experience meeting and interviewing him. Do you still speak with him? I know he had a fight back in July…
I am a huge fan of Garrett’s as he has not forgotten all he went through, and it would have been real easy for him to do so, and just focus on his own needs now that the media exposure has been at a high level. Garret continues his work in the challenged community, and is always looking to seek out additional opportunities in where he can make a difference. Many people pick on others from their own insecurities and personal needs to be cool amongst their peers, and it’s quite sad the ignorance that some youth of today have, but it’s even sadder that my generation has not taught their kids better, and this new generation will do the same with their kids. The chain of stupidity has to stop, and yes I know that kids are just kids being dumb sometimes.
An interesting detail about you: aside from 5 other books on sports, you’ve also published a book on the Holocaust and a dramatic sports novel. Can you tell me a little bit about both of those?
Both of those books were written out of respect to my father who spent 11 months in Auschwitz and also Dachau Allach. My father survived obviously, but his closest friends (Hanzi, Doffi, Imre, Sanyi, and Rudi) did not survive, and my father felt guilt for almost 70 years before his passing in 2013 for being the one to survive. One book is a very serious look into what life was like before the concentration camps, his time in the camps, and then the last part is about what became of the survivors after they were freed, which many times gets left out in survivor testimony books. Displaced and Found is more of a book about soccer with some flashback scenes to the Holocaust, and I’m proud to announce that some movie studio heads are looking into it as a possibility for the big screen. I have the schematics laid out to continue the story for books, 2, 3, and 4.
In a lot of ways, The Mental Side of Sports Workbook feels like a long, thoughtful letter you’re writing your younger self. Is there any truth to that assumption on my part, or am I just projecting here?
It is absolutely a book written to my younger self because it’s a good reminder of so many memories that I was able to participate in, but it’s mostly written for that next young athlete to understand that there is more out there than the town or province they come from, and for the coach to see that there are new methods to be learned from the old teachings, and for a parent to understand their role in the process, and how they can be a positive support in the process.
Your book mentions travel and dealing with other cultures—something us Americans are notorious for handling rather poorly. But in the context of sports and competition, it’s an interesting parallel to draw because of how well it translates into inter-team and interpersonal competition. To understand your opponent is to understand their specific language. Was this an intentional theme when you set out to write the book, or did it develop while you were writing it?
I feel the importance of branching out into new customs, traditions, and cultures is so vitally important to the development of not just young athletes, but obviously, and far more importantly, the development of youth in general. How many of us had that new kid in elementary on that first day that was from a foreign land, and it was just much easier to laugh at his accent, or strange mannerisms, rather than introducing ourselves, and maybe learning something that could better our lives. The comparison for a sports team full of players from throughout the globe is equal to having a team full of the elements needed for success. Each team needs a number of superstars, a number of workhorses, a number of flexible players that can play anywhere, and a number of role players that might be limited in minutes but do their role effectively. Having a team, or a class in school, or an hobby where the participants are from various locations can only make you a better person, player, teammate, co-worker etc… It’s not making changes to something new, it’s learning valuable lessons from the old.
What are some upcoming projects that are in development for you? What can readers look forward to in the near future?
I have the schematics laid out to continue the story for books, 2, 3, and 4 for the soccer movie project. I also expect that there will be a second edition of The Mental Side of Sports as I have now accepted a new worldwide position as a travel consultant organizing hotel accommodations for individual teams, and for tournaments, events, and conferences, so I expect I will see many new things through those experiences where I can then offer guidance though my writing.
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