3 Lessons I Learned while playing football in Spain

The value of my experience playing football overseas is immeasurable. I played three seasons (two in Ireland with the Limerick Vikings, one in Spain with the Valencia Firebats), won three championships, learned a lot about myself, and made lasting friendships. Summing up that experience into “three lessons” is a daunting task. For that reason, I will focus on the lessons which most directly influence my current occupation: Coach. At the Good Athlete Project, we anchor our coaching to three tenets – Start Fast, Stay Focused, and Finish Strong – and our athletes have experienced the benefits. Having a personal relationship to those ideas makes them more effective and easier to transfer.

Start Fast

My flight from Chicago included a long layover in Paris, and when I finally arrived in Valencia, Spain, I was exhausted. When I got to my new apartment, I exchanged some standard preliminary conversation with my room mates, checked out what would be my home for the next four months, then went down for a much needed nap. A few hours later, the knock on my door told me it was time for practice. Though I could have used another few hours (or days) to recover, I got up and took a quick shower to shake myself awake. One absolute truth for Americans playing overseas is that you have to be humble. It does not matter how good you were (or thought you were) back home, you are a guest in a new place. Which means, in part, you cannot skip the first practice because you need a nap.

My roommates and I grabbed our bags and took off toward the practice facility. One of my roommates was an old friend, Coeny, who I lived with in Ireland. He was integral to the team bringing me over, and a welcomed presence in my first few days in Spain. He introduced me to Dustin and Turill, who I would become close to in the coming months. That night we walked through beautiful stone streets, past ancient buildings (which made the oldest buildings in the US seem modern), and through the sweet odor of orange trees blossoming. Valencia orange trees were planted in the parkways every twenty yards or so. There were palm trees hushing in the cool dark, new sights and sounds, and I was in awe.

There was no time for awe, however. Practice started soon. I was a late addition to the team, and this would be my only practice before Saturday’s game up in Barcelona. I had studied the plays during travel, which were similar enough to the system I played in during college. 24 Power seems to be part of the universal language of football. Still, I would only have one night to ingratiate myself to new teammates and develop a small amount of trust before game time. I would have to start fast.

Practice went well, and the next day we were off. The bus picked us up from the stadium and we began weaving our way up the coast to Barcelona, where we would take on L’Hospitalet Pioners, a regular power in La Liga Nacional de Futbol Americano. That year the Pioners were especially strong. In Spain, a team is allowed only three US “imports”; their imported players included a LB/FB who played at the University Nebraska, a WR from the University of Washington, and a QB from UNC (North Carolina) – all big time players from power conferences in the NCAA.

Jet lag kept me sleeping for most of the bus ride. When we arrived, I repeated a line in my head that would become a mantra: Start Fast. Start fast, I told myself. The Valencia Firebats had invested in me, believed I could help them get to the next level, and I didn’t have time to feel things out. I thought back to what one of my college coaches, Andy Gibbons, told me, “don’t dip a toe, jump in – the water’s fine!” So I did.

I was on the kickoff team and we kicked off to start the game. I don’t know how many tackles I made that on Special Teams that season – not many – but I can tell you for sure that I made at least one. I sprinted down the field and, at 6’2” 250lbs, ran over the unsuspecting opponent on the front line of the Pioner’s kick return, then tracked down ball carrier for my first tackle of the year. My new teammates went nuts on the sideline. I wasn’t too good to play special teams, I was ready to give full effort for my team, I wanted to be part of this new football family and I intended to show that passion right away.

We went on to win a tough game 6-0, and I was happy that football season was underway. I was in a new place, surrounded by new faces, but we were off, and there was no slowing down.

Jim Davis about to get a Gatorade bath

Stay Focused

Playing overseas offers incredible travel and cultural experiences. Everyone who goes to play should do their best to absorb their new culture. Be humble, ask questions, try new food, speak the language, look around and discover. That said, good times and discovery have the potential to be a distraction – it’s all about balance. Especially in Spain, where the clubs are open until sunrise, one can get caught in a loop of long nights and days recovering on the beach. The first night we went out as a team, I was amazed by exactly that. After that first big win in Barcelona, we rested on the bus ride home. But once we were back, it was time to go out. I still hadn’t slept much. Still, I sluggishly agreed and we were off. For the rest of the night I hung out with my new team mates, getting to know them better and thinking about dancing (though none of us made it on to the dance floor). On the cab ride home, the sun was breaking over the Mediterranean and the dark silhouettes of palm trees made the whole scene like it was pulled from a movie. It wasn’t. This was my life. And though it could have been a nightly practice, there were other things more important to me and my team.

“Good” behavior can be tricky, especially in your early twenties. Distinctions between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can be difficult to make. Which is why I believe that in many cases, you can only be ‘wrong’ relative to your definition of ‘right’ – to navigate that idea, I had to set goals for myself. My goal was to have fun while providing as much value to my team as possible. I also wanted a ring. I didn’t fly across the ocean for second place. This required a consistent degree of focus. In fact, at the end of those four months, I was probably in the best shape of my life. My room mates and I would cook fresh food, workout 1-2 times every day, and practice otherwise healthy lifestyles. We got into routines. Healthy eating, daily reading, and lots of walking around the city. We practiced hard and with intention. We were focused on optimizing our potential.

Two months and a long winning streak into the season, I got an email from back home. I had dated a girl on and off for five years. We had recently split, and I will never forget the day she emailed me to ask how things were going, and to tell me that she had a new boyfriend. Before the season she had talked about coming out to Spain to visit. “This is going to hurt,” her email began. She was right. It was difficult. But I had my team, I had goals, and I had to stay focused.

Finish Strong

We entered the playoffs on a seven game winning streak against Spanish teams (we also played non-league games against the New Yorker Lions from Braunschweig, Germany, and Italy’s Bolzano Giants). We were battled tested. We were training hard. We were healthy and determined. We were also hoping that our rival, the Pioners, would be on the other side of the bracket. It didn’t match up that way. We had a first round bye, won our second game versus the Bufals, and were facing the Pioners in the Semifinal – the winner would be heading to the National Championship. Once again, we took the long drive to their place. Part of me couldn’t help but consider the full circle idea that this is where my experience in Spain began, and could be where it ended.

It was an intense game from the start. The Pioners had not lost since they last played our team, and it was clear that they were hoping for revenge. Their big LB from Nebraska was making tackles all over the field. He was talking trash, something he didn’t do in our first matchup. I missed a tackle on their QB as he scrambled from the pocket for first down. We struggled getting things going on offense. They came ready to play, and late in the game, we were behind.

It would be our final chance. Our final drive on offense. Our quarterback, Stuart, was moving us down field, but we were running out of time. Third and ten on our side of the fifty yard line, Stu dropped back and completed a pass for a first down… but there was a flag on the play. Holding. The penalty lost us yards and a down – we were now facing forth and long with fourteen seconds left on the clock. I’ll never forget this moment. One of our lineman looked discouraged. I grabbed him and looked him in the eye, then looked at everyone in the huddle and reminded them, with intensity and language that cannot be repeated here, that we were fine. We were going to finish. We don’t stop. We finish. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve done all year. The situation didn’t matter, we were going to line up and smash whoever lined up across from us. We trained for this. We finish. That’s it.

And we did. Stu got great protection from the line, then stuck a perfectly timed pass into EZ’s hook route. As the defense swarmed on EZ, he pitched the ball to Lalo, who was coming across the middle on a drag. We had practiced this play, a version of hook and ladder, for exactly this sort of situation. The Pioners started fast, but they didn’t stay focused or finish strong, and Lalo took off down the sideline for the game winning score.

The Firebats stormed the field. Right when I thought I would have a chance to catch my breath and fully take in what had just happened, my teammates snuck up behind me and I got my first Gatorade bath. It was one of the highlights of my athletic career.

We went on to win the Spanish National Championship, which was televised across Spain. We finished strong. The whole season seemed like a dream.

Final thoughts – paying it forward

I have always believed that good needs to be paid forward. A lot of good people and good team mates made my experience what it was. I will always be grateful to the coaches and players on that team. Now, as a coach, it’s time to share what works. Regarding performance, everything we do in our coaching comes back to those three lessons: Start Fast, Stay Focused, and Finish Strong.

They will appear in different ways through the course of a season or offseason, but they are the anchored absolutes of our approach. We use those terms so often that our athletes repeat it in their own self-reflection. They use it as a guide. We hear things like, “Coach, I came out fast, but I didn’t stay focused on my man” – once they are able to identify the opportunity, we can work on assignment recognition and composure.

“Finish Strong” has not only become a mantra for many of our athletes, but it can be seen on posters in the stands during big games. Purposeful pursuit and high achievement needs to have guidelines. The lessons I learned in Spain solidified my commitment to these three. And it’s catching on. At a recent State Championship meet, one of the teams we work with had t-shirts made for the event, with Finish Strong printed boldly across the chest. There’s really no other way

Jim Davis EdM, MA, USAW, is a former NCAA and Arena football player who also played in Ireland and in Spain, and it changed his life! After football, he picked up Master's degrees from Northwestern University and Harvard University. His