How can play impact performance? PDP Lead Researcher & International Futsal player, James Vaughan examines how important play is when it comes to finding solutions in a high performance setting.

Last month New Zealand played against the Solomon Islands in the FIFA Futsal World Cup qualifiers in Fiji. Tied at the top of the table this game was the tournament decider, the game that determined Oceania’s representative for the upcoming World Cup in Colombia. Four years of preparation and sacrifice on the line during 40 minutes of play.

The Solomon Islanders are often called the ‘Brazilians of Oceania’. Flamboyant and extravagant, what their play lacks in tactical structure it makes up for in speed and skill. However, it wasn’t their physical or technical abilities that made the Solomons so dangerous last month, it was their mental strengths –  more specifically their mentality.

The current group of Solomon Island futsal players are clinical in the final third: Fearless in one v. ones, decisive on the counter attack, composed making the final pass and most importantly ruthless in front of goal. This article makes the argument that ‘time’ spent in certain development environments nurtures these mental attributes and creates a fearless mentality that simultaneously fosters the diversification, development and performance of skill.

In contrast, environments that isolate technical development and focus on mistakes (traditional coaching sessions) foster a mentality that fails to transfer technique into skill, especially under pressure. In high pressure moments techniques developed in these environments can break down, leading players play safe and avoid mistakes at all costs.

A players mentality is influenced by many things, but in this article we’ll consider how two aspects of the environment influence mindset/motivation. Firstly we’ll consider an example of players’ current environment at the World Cup qualifiers and then we’ll take a cultural look players’ development history and how this is influencing performance.

A High Performance example

Most aspects of the environment (at the Futsal World Cup qualifiers) in Fiji were similar for players from all team; we ate the same food, stayed in the same accommodation, had the same recovery time and used similar equipment etc. Basically non of these variables created a competitive advantage. However one aspect of the environment can always create a competitive advantage – each teams motivational climate** (the ‘why’ behind their performance).

A teams motivational climate can vary massively depending on the type of organisational values, team culture and coaching behaviours displayed. It can be more controlling (often associated with an outcome focus) or more autonomy-supportive – often more process / task mastery orientated.

But heres the kicker and the key to this article: Each players’ individual perception of the motivational climate – controlling or autonomy supportive – is dependent on their development history: the environments they spent crucial development years immersed in. Therefore it is the relationship between a players development history and the current motivational climate that can create the perception of a high pressure outcome focus or a low pressure process / task mastery orientation.

Knowing your players’ development history, understanding the types of environments they have developed in and appreciating the mental/motivational consequences is critical for shaping the current motivational climate: the variable that often determines whether performance is clinical or comical in the final third.

**The motivational climate can be experienced (by the players) as controlling or autonomy supportive. There is a lot of research supporting autonomy-supportive coaching, however it’s practical application is often more complex than modelling autonomy-supportive behaviours: asking questions, providing choice or giving a rationale as examples. Autonomy is not simply freedom of choice; it is expression of self and requires that the player feels competent to make the choice provided, the irony being that this often requires structure or guidance, often provided by coaches as a playing model/style.

So while the Solomons excelled in the final third we (New Zealand) stuttered. As our play moved towards the goal it broke down; clean crisp passes started to bobble, simple back post tap-ins became complex movement patterns. The closer we got to goal the more pressure we felt, the more our technique broke down and the closer we came to choking.

Moving through the thirds our play became less decisive – a pattern in all our games. This becomes glaringly obvious reflecting on the quality and quantity of our shooting.

The Solomons were the opposite. In tight areas, areas that require and reward skill and creativity they excelled, when the shot was on, they took it. Despite dominating possession against the Solomons we lost 4–1, we lost to four clinical counter attacks. Weak shots were caught by the Solomon’s GK, distributed at speed and clinically, fearlessly, finished – Game over.

High Profile Examples

Obsessing over the differences between the two teams in the aftermath of our defeat I remembered Arsène Wenger’s comments about South America and the world’s best attacking players.

“If you look across Europe and the world of football, then South America is the only continent to develop strikers today… where are the strikers from? You will see that many of them – at least 80 per cent – come from South America.”

While Wenger obviously hasn’t been to the Solomon Islands and 80% may be a little high his general point (or line of questioning) is bang on. There seems to be something mysterious about South American type cultures (of which I’m including the Solomon Islands) compared with European type cultures that develop more creative/clinical attacking players – as a high profile example just think about FC Barcelona.

FC Barcelona are quite rightly recognised as the most successful club at developing professional football players for both their own first team and other clubs around the world (see below).



However, while Barca continually develop world-class midfield players they still have three South Americans leading the line and doing the business in the final third. Why?

(Note: Yes Messi was ‘developed’ at Barcelona only from 13, spending arguably the most important years for creative development in South America – this is up for debate.)

Another way of phrasing the question is…What is it about South America type cultures that develop players who are creative in the final third and clinical in front of goal?

Re-reading Wenger’s interview I found this insight:

“If you look at the 60s, 70s in England, even when I arrived in 1996, in every club you had strikers and I mean strikers… Maybe in our history street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, win impossible balls.”

When Wenger highlights street football he is really highlighting the importance of play – when I say play, I mean ‘playing’ with others and a ball. Not organised games, practise or training – I mean spontaneous play in the back yard, at school, the living room, wherever. And when he talks about being shrewd (i.e. cunning or street smart) and fighting to win impossible balls he is highlighting the mentality/motivation that playing football (street football) develops.

Wenger’s comments reminded me of an academic article I’d read a while ago. The paper looked at the research on time spent in play vs. time spent in practise environments and the influence on creative play.

In the paper Play and practice in the development of sport-specific creativity in team ball sports the authors explain their study:

“Our study analyzed whether time spent in play and/or practice was beneficial for becoming a creative player in team ball sports. More specifically, the practice conditions of highly creative and less creative team sport athletes were contrasted. Our data show that deliberate practice (Ericsson et al., 1993) and unstructured play-like involvement both have crucial roles for the development of creative behavior in basketball, handball, field hockey, and soccer.” (Memmert, Baker, & Bertsch, 2010, p. 9)

However, and most importantly:

“A significant difference between the groups was found for total time spent in play in their main sport (F(1,71)=2.07, p<.05) indicating that the highly creative athletes spent more time in play.” (Memmert et al., 2010, p. 8)

Is this the mysterious difference between South American type and European type cultures? More time spent playing their main sport, more time spent in street football at crucial ages?

The benefits of play, highlighted by current research (particularly in terms of cognition, mindset and motivation) certainly point to this conclusion.

According to the research in this area, “Creativity is learned and stored early in life (see, for a review, Milgram, 1990). Research from neuroscience confirms this view, indicating a distinct time window for the development of cognitive functions. Young children are particularly suitable for training creativity (Chugani, Phelps, & Mazziotta, 1987; Huttenlocher, 1990), since this age group (from birth to eight years) exhibits the greatest absolute number and density of synapses in the primary visual cortex.” (Memmert et al., 2010, p. 12) This supports the idea that Messi’s creative development may have been well under way before reaching Barcelona.

According to this research creative football players will have spent more time playing (street) football. The question then becomes do kids in South America/Solomon islands play more (street) football than Europe/New Zealand? The answer seems obvious.

However, while the impact of culture is critical to assess general trends there are always exceptions. Reporting on Raheem Sterling’s rise and recent performance in the European Champions League, the Telegraph made the following observations:

“For Sterling there was no formal junior football, no turning up on a Sunday morning from the age of five to organised matches, corralled by adults, shouty dads lining the touchline and a self-selected bloke in a tracksuit with his initials embroidered on the front bawling out instruction. He just played with his mates, learning the game by trial and error.”

Talking about Sterling, his first coach at Queen’s Park Rangers suggests:

“He is a street footballer – someone who until he was signed up by the club’s academy at the age of 11, played solely in unstructured kickabouts in Stonebridge, the west London estate into which he arrived as a small boy from Jamaica.”

Jim White continues the article questioning the value of organised junior football / sport.

“In the week that the chairman of the Surrey Youth Football League sent out a letter to his associate clubs warning that the behaviour of parents on the touchline had become so intolerable he feared murder might ensue, this is the biggest irony: the most expensive English international in history never played formal junior football.

The fact is, Sterling had no adult involvement in his game until he reached the age of 11. And, as was demonstrated by his performance in Kiev, he has not exactly been held back by that. But then, nor were George Best, Bobby Moore or Paul Gascoigne deprived by the fact they never turned out in the Surrey Youth Football League or its geographical equivalent.”

Jim white concludes:

“But what none of us involved ever did was ask this fundamental question: were we, in the attempt to structure our children’s lives, in fact wasting their time? If we really wanted them to become great players, or even simply to grow up with a lifelong love of the game, would we not have been better off letting them get on with it in their own informal kickarounds instead of imposing adult structure on them?”

In his interview Wenger also questioned the structured environments of modern day academies:

“So we have to question ourselves: what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again? When it is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude less.”

This is a key observation. In formal, overly organised environments the temptation is to break down, disconnect and isolate skills. We separate the skill from the fighting spirit and cunning street smart needed to execute it. We focus players on the outcome to the point whereby it becomes paralysing. This is a fundamental mistake within education world-wide, not just football or sport.

When people (especially players and coaches) feel evaluated, compared and controlled (by outcomes or incentives) they will not experience the untainted motivation that promotes play and opens the door to creativity – they will not develop the mindset or long-term motivation required to reach their potential as players or human beings.

Research suggests:

“Self- determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and Vallerand’s hierarchical model of motivation (Vallerand, 2001) in sport support the notion that early unstructured play activities will have positive effects on intrinsic motivation over time.” (Memmert et al., 2010, p. 13)

The more likely a player is to experience self-determined or intrinsic forms of motivation the more likely they are to have a wide breadth of attention, which the studies have shown facilitates creative performance (Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2003; Friedman, Fishbach, Förster, & Werth, 2003; Healey & Rucklidge, 2005).

When Wenger asks: “what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again?” is the answer a movement back towards street football?

The stories, research and opinions highlighted in this article suggest the following trends:

– Time spent in play is key to developing a mentality and skill set – playing style – that not only develops high performing players but also crucially allows them to perform at their best in critical (pressure) moments.

– European type cultures are overly organised and often obsessed with evaluative forms of education and learning, stigmatising mistakes as failure.

– A mentality focused on avoiding mistakes and a fear of failure creates a sliding scale of consequences ranging from: drop out, burn out, unfulfilled potential, to underperformance or choking at crucial moments.

– Coaches can design and construct a motivational climate for their team; however too often socio-cultural factors are left unchecked and negatively dictate the development of players’ mindset and motivation.

– South American type cultures have less structure and adult involvement, creating space for play; promoting the self-determination, autonomy and self-organisation that leads to a creative determination in players.

– Individual player development journeys do not need to follow the cultural patterns, there are always exceptions to the rule.

– Individual player development journeys do not need to follow the cultural patterns, there are always exceptions to the rule. If we know the key socio-cultural constraints we can manipulate them to enhance player development.


Cover Image: Kids play football in the street. London, April 1950.  Photo: Haywood Magee / Stringer

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