Today, we would like to share some excerpts from another book we think is helpful, ‘The Greatest’ by Matthew Syed. In the book, Matthew explores the mental side to sport by looking at how loyalty, risk, motivation, and fear influence the game, and provides insights into the mindsets of some of the world’s most talented sportspeople. He also, probes difficult subjects including corruption, hooliganism, and racism in sport. ‘The Greatest’ uncovers what it takes to maximise our potential, as teams and as organisations. Below are some excerpts from the book that relate to football which, we believe, could help any beginner on their journey of learning how to play football as an adult.
Nurture vs nature
According to the cognitive scientist K. Anders Ericsson, what looks like talent is, in fact, the consequence of years of practice. Hence, the idea that 10,000 hours is what it takes to attain expertise, in other words that nurture can be stronger than nature. However, becoming an expert does not necessarily make you an elite sportsman or woman.
What most professional football players possess is not superior reactions but superior anticipation. They are able to ‘read’ the movement of their opponent (the torso, the lower part of the leg, the orientation of the knee) and thus move into position earlier than non-elite players. In fact, they are able to infer where the ball is going a full tenth of a second before it has been hit. This is a complex skill encoded in the brain through years of practice, not an inherited trait.
Quality of practice
One of the reasons why practice is so important is because it transforms the neural architecture of the brain. To take one simple example, the area of the brain involved in spatial navigation – the posterior hippocampus – is much bigger in London cab drivers than the rest of us. But, crucially, they were not born with this; it grew in direct proportion to years on the job. So what is talent? Complex skills to perform well in a sport are not hardwired like height, and neither is the disposition to learn. Many of the differences in the world today, when it comes to sporting prowess, are determined not by genetic differences but by differences in the quality of practice. Brazil once had the top team in football because of highly efficient training techniques. Instead of learning from them, European coaches, obsessed with talent, reckoned that Brazilians were born with superlative skill. The consequence was that we didn’t teach technical competence to young people in this country. Our 11-year olds continued to play on full-size pitches, hoofing the ball up to the front man, and touching the ball infrequently.
The key point is that game intelligence is coachable. The brain is highly adaptable, and it develops ever more powerful and intricate connections when placed in the right context. Some will say, rightly, that coaching in this country has already moved in this direction, but the crucial point is that we need far more testing and trialling of different methods to see what works and what doesn’t. It should be about developing players to become adept with their minds, not just their body.
The time paradox
Watching Messi playing for Barcelona, there are countless moments when he is all but surrounded by defenders, each determined to take the ball, all adamant that he would not go past them. As each attempted to tackle him, their feet hit thin air. The ball was on string, each movement small and precise, their boots missing the ball by millimetres. Messi knew their minds, he could read their intentions. It was football as clairvoyance. Psychologists talk about the time paradox. This is the well-versed observation that the greatest of performers seem to play at a different tempo to everyone else. This paradox has been well studied by cognitive psychologists and there is nothing mystical about it. It emerges from a highly sophisticated form of perceptual awareness. Great sports-people are able to ‘read’ the subtle cues of their opponents, extracting information about their intentions through early-warning signals such as postural orientation, tiny alterations in body language, etc. When you know what an opponent is going to do before he actually does it, you have all the time in the world. Messi has displayed this capacity many times. He takes the ball, and literally stops. He stands there, like a mongoose facing a snake, daring his opponent to take a bite. These are fascinating moments in the game because they demonstrate that almost all the important action is going on not in the feet, but in the brain. The ball is stationary, the players are stationary, Messi’s eyes are scanning and rescanning, picking up on clues that nobody in world football is able to see. It is beautiful and revelatory. He demonstrates the incalculable power of refined anticipation. He is football clairvoyant.
The quiet eye
There is a well-established phenomenon in elite sport called the ‘quiet eye’. This describes the finding that the very best sportsmen keep a perfectly still gaze for a fraction longer than their less illustrious counterparts, fixing on a part of the pitch and thus extracting more information before they execute. Evidence suggests that when people are under pressure, or panicking, the eyes become ‘noisy’, flitting around without focusing sufficiently. Great players do not just have a quiet eye, but a quiet mind. Amid the tumult of a modern football match, he can take a step back and calmly discern the threads, anticipate the problems, and decode the mysteries. Skill is not merely about what you are doing with your feet, but what is going on in your brain. The final product is often delivered by a team-mate, but a great player is an indispensable part of the accumulation of pressure that unlocks the defence.
The state of flow
Serenity is the hallmark of the zone. The sense that everything is happening automatically, almost effortlessly. This is not to say that the mind is doing nothing at all, that would be to confuse the zone with Zen. Rather, it is that the vast subconscious machinery has everything covered - reading one’s opponent, gearing up for the next shot, integrating the movement of the foot with the trajectory of the ball - leaving the conscious mind a bit like the surface of a ripple less pond. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist, talks about the state of ‘flow’. The emotions are not just contained and channelled, but positive, energised, and aligned with the task at hand. Let’s call it the state of oneness between an artist and his art. But there is another kind of zone that is more revelatory and, to my mind, even more beautiful. It is the state of flow acquired not by an individual, but by a team. Let us call it ‘the collective zone’. This is where a player is anticipating the pass of a team-space. It is where the individuals are not just co-ordinating actions, but harmonising them. It is noteworthy that teamwork of winning teams has the property of being recursive. None of the actions of the individual make sense without each of the actions of the whole. The run into space must be timed to coincide not just with the pass of one team-mate, now blocking the incursion of an opponent, and a third and fourth team-mate, creating yet more responsibilities. In short, this is not a set of sequential actions, but a unified and intricate web of human interaction.
There is a seductive idea that teams invariably add up to more than the sum of the individual parts, however they do no such thing in many contexts. Instead, people slack. They make it look as if they are trying, but they are going through the motions, allowing others to take the burden. It is called ‘social loafing’ and you see it in many organisations, teams and sections of society. You see it in sport, too. The egregious examples of defenders failing to cover, or of forwards failing to track back, are rare these days, although not unheard of. Instead, social loafing is more subtle. It is about the forward who tracks back, but without busting a gut, the defender who goes for a tackle but with 95 commitment, the winger who spots danger when possession is lost but convinces himself that it won’t materialise, thus sparing himself a 40-metre dash to help a team-mate. These may seem like small things but, over time, they compound. If you are loafing, you are giving your time but not your soul. This was particularly obvious when watching Leicester City beating teams like Manchester City to become title favourites back in 2016. They competed with skill, discipline and tactical coherence, but the most thrilling aspect of their play is the collective commitment. They run for each other, applaud one another, celebrate together, protect each other and, in a Platonic sense, appear to love each other. This was the best example of a team exceeding the sum of its parts, social loafing was not just minimal, it was non-existent.