Using Barcelona’s dynamic attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar as the example, PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan examines the impact of a positive organisational culture. How do we create value driven organisations that allow creativity and a shared understanding to thrive, both on and off the field?


Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr and Luis Suarez are the attacking trident spearheading FC Barcelona’s charge towards a 2015 treble. They looked unstoppable in their Champions League demolitions of Manchester City, PSG and Bayern Munich. Tormenting defenders, each member of the terrible trio appears to be reading from a playbook the opposition cannot decipher. They see patterns, assess options and imagine possibilities at a speed beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. This ‘holy trinity’ is worshipped around the world, but is it their South American origins that hold the key to their unearthly perceptual skill? Our earliest experiences are crucial for developing our mindset.

For Messi, Neymar and Suarez their mindsets were shaped on the fertile soils of South America. Constantly engaged in play, their minds have been primed to interpret information that remains hidden to most: subtle shifts in body weight; knee and hip angles; spatial patterns; the trajectory, spin, roll and the speed of the ball and much more. Combine all this perceptual information with imaginative thought processes and the stage is set for the creative decision-making and unique combinations of skill that delight the masses and keep Messi, Suarez and Neymar several steps ahead.

This article explores the role mindset plays in shaping a collective, creative understanding. We explore why a collective understanding is essential for developing creativity and we investigate what this means, both on and off the football pitch. Off the pitch we consider the role our cultural conditioning plays in our development. Particularly how dominant values create the expectations that can control us and shape our mindset. Finally we discover how a mindset shaped off the pitch influences the playing styles we see on the pitch. Specifically how early development environments shape the perceptual landscape and the ‘cognitive battle’ between players. This article aims to show that expectations reinforced in the boardroom infiltrate the boot room and transition onto the pitch.

Suarez, Messi and Neymar (L-R) discuss free-kick options. Barcelona vs Ajax, Champions League group stage, November 2014. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Suarez, Messi and Neymar (L-R) discuss free-kick options. Barcelona vs Ajax, Champions League group stage, November 2014. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos

The South American Holy Trinity

Cultural conditioning determines many of the factors that influence long-term player development. Everything from a player’s perceptual skill and decision- making, to the motivation driving their long-term player development. Cultural conditioning also creates the club motives that define key relationships and influence coach behaviours.

We know that certain cultural expectations can control players’ thinking on the pitch and we are starting to understand how this happens. It happens when expectations narrow a players perception – think of perception as vision. Controlling expectations can create tunnel vision. It is like a horse wearing blinkers – the blinkers restrict what the horse can see – in this case, the player’s idea of what is possible is also limited. As an example, many young players may not see the opportunity to dribble 1 v 1 because they are just expected to pass.

But not all expectations are negative. Expectations also create a shared understanding, a foundation for co- operation and collaboration. Tactics, playing models, team vision and values are all designed to create a shared understanding – what some call a football philosophy. Creativity expert and world renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creativity will flourish in a “community of people who share ways of thinking and acting.” In essence, a community with a shared philosophy. In a football context, this could be the secret to the ‘holy trinity’s’ success. Do South American communities enable a unique football philosophy to flourish – creating a shared mindset more suited to developing world-class creative players?

A philosophy, like any culture, is based on basic beliefs and values, but not all beliefs and values are created equal. Cultures and organisations – including football clubs – are often controlled by values that lead them to operate within an incentive-based corporate model. When money is perceived as the primary motivation, we unknowingly reinforce societal values in social status and power, which can lead to tradition and conformity. These values create controlling motivational climates that kill creativity. So how do we avoid this damaging focus and allow creativity to flourish?

“The target is not to win titles, the target is to achieve a certain style of play, if we do this winning titles will be the most likely outcome.” – Pep Guardiola, during his time in charge of FC Barcelona.

Changing Focus: Engaging Education

Positive organisational psychology in sports (POPS) highlights how small changes in positive meanings, positive emotions and positive relationships can have huge impacts through an entire organisation (1). POPS shows the focus in the boardroom, will influence performance on the pitch. Motivational theories (2) suggest that the ideal environments for developing fulfilled, creative people will in some way promote three key feelings: autonomy (expression of self), competence (feelings of success) and relatedness (belonging) (3). The extent to which these three key feelings are present can have a profound effect on the motivation of staff, coaches and players.

Messi (centre) for Barcelona in their recent Champions League semi- final victory over Bayern Munich where he scored 2 goals. Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

Messi (centre) for Barcelona in their recent Champions League semi- final victory over Bayern Munich where he scored 2 goals. Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

The research suggests that when the guiding values of a culture or organisation create positive meanings, emotions and relationships they set the foundation for world-class player development. Elements of the player development environments found in South America, at La Masia and within the German DFB development pathways will – in their own unique ways – develop feeling of autonomy, competence and relatedness in their players.

The power of guiding values in football was best illustrated by FC Barcelona’s domination between 2008–12. In his first speech to his players, Pep Guardiola re-focused the group’s motivation with this simple statement: “The target is not to win titles, the target is to achieve a certain style of play, if we do this winning titles will be the most likely outcome.”

For Guardiola and his players, the focus became developing a unique playing style – winning was only a consequence. Aligning with the focus at La Masia, Pep focused on engaging, empowering and educating his players. Four years and 14 trophies later, winning had become a habit  but never became the focus. Perhaps clubs, organisations, businesses and society in general should recognise that to reach our potential we need to focus on processes and organisational structures that engage, empower and educate. Rather than processes and organisational structures that reinforce an unhealthy, controlling and conformist focus on financial reward. Perhaps being able to engage, empower and educate is the real holy trinity.

The Cognitive Battle

Taking the focus out of the boardroom and onto the pitch lets us delve into the cognitive processes (thought processes) of our players. We aim to understand how a mindset shaped by cultural conditioning and organisational structures can influence the development of creativity. To help illustrate this in a realistic setting, let’s imagine the football pitch as a battlefield; every battlefield contains rules of engagement. What we are staring to appreciate is that these rules are determined by the expectations that shape our mindset.

…many young players may not see the opportunity to dribble 1 v 1 because they are just expected to pass.

Each player brings a complex set of ideas and expectations to the ‘cognitive battlefield’. These expectations and ideas are shaped by their earliest footballing experiences. Engaging experiences on the playgrounds of South America develop a different mindset compared to those shaped by overly organised – ‘adultified’ – competition. Environments that highlight the score line often create expectations that stigmatise mistakes and develop a fear of failure in our players. The expectation ‘not to make a mistake’ becomes controlling, narrowing our focus and limiting the information we use to make our in- game decisions.

Player development systems model.

However, having a shared understanding of what is expected in certain in-game situations provides the fundamental guidelines for creative behaviour.

The Playgrounds of South America

Lets wind the clock back and imagine a young Suarez dribbling towards a young David Luiz. Suarez is in possession, dribbling towards goal. Running off him are a young Neymar and a young Messi. He’s assessing his options and gathering lots of information – shifts in David Luiz’ body weight, his knee and hip angles, the spatial patterns and movements created by the young Neymar and Messi, all in relation to the other defenders. Suarez instantly processes this information to imagine possibilities and inform his decisions. As he approaches David Luiz, Suarez sees an ‘obvious’ pass to Messi – a pass any defender should be aware of and would be aiming to intercept. In this moment the cognitive battlefield is established – it is presumed Luiz is also aware of this pass.

Suarez, thinking one step ahead, wants to use this pass to deceive Luiz. He plans to fake the pass, making Luiz commit to the intercept. He knows the defender should step towards the pass and open his legs, at which point Suarez will attempt a nutmeg. He opens his hip and turns his shoulders towards the pass, lifting his leg – his body shape is ‘screaming’ pass and everyone expects the wide pass to Messi. Everyone except the young David Luiz. He either isn’t engaged or perceptually skilled enough to read the information from Suarez’s body shape. Luiz doesn’t have the perceptual ability to see the pass, or understand that his role as a defender requires that he attempt to intercept it, therefore the rules of engagement are broken. In this moment the creative movement executed by Suarez doesn’t work, Luiz doesn’t move and he doesn’t open his legs. Ignorance is bliss and Luiz comes away with the ball – in this moment the young Suarez has his creative behaviour limited by Luiz’ poor understanding of the situation and his limited perceptual ability.

neymar_classico_2013_Marc Puig i Perez

Neymar (left) for Barcelona. Classico, 2013. Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

Yet on the playgrounds of South America Suarez is free to experiment and learn from his mistakes. There are no parents, coaches or outside influences limiting his decision-making. He will make this mistake over and over as he refines his perceptual skill. He will learn to see even more subtle shifts in a defender’s weight, learning the tell-tale signs that the defender is moving to intercept the pass. He’ll refine his technique, allowing him to make millisecond changes to his decisions. He will go on to perfect the art of the nutmeg because there is no pressure, no fear of failure, only his natural drive to engage in play, develop and master his playing style. Such is the environement he’s surrounded by.

Too many organisational structures and dominant cultural values create pressure that radiates from the boardroom to the boot room and onto the pitch. This pressure to perform hijacks young players’ motivation, controls their decision- making and limits the perceptual skills they develop. It can be stifling. This pressure enhances the likelihood that coaches will display controlling behaviours. Football clubs and organisations can remove this crushing pressure but it often requires cultural change. It requires everyone to value engagement, empowerment and education over and above the result and any financial reward. Creativity will flourish in a community with a shared philosophy founded on engagement, empowerment and education.


1: Fredrickson, B. L., & Dutton, J. E. (2008). Editorial: Unpacking positive organizing: organizations as sites of individual and collective flourishing. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 1-3.

2: Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, C., & Soenens, B. (2010). The Decade Ahead: Theoretical Perspectives on Motivation and Achievement Advances in Motivation and Achievement. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

3: Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

4: Hristovski, R., Davids, K,. Araujo, D., & Passos, P. (2011). Constrains-induced Emergence of Functional Novelty in Complex Neurobiological Systems: A Basis for Creativity in Sport. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 15, 175-206.

5: Memmert, D., Baker J., & Bertsch,
C. (2010). Play and practice in the development of sport specific creativity in team ball sports. High Ability Studies, 21, 3-18.

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