Euro 2016 provided a fascinating insight into the relationship between football, player development and culture. PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan looks at the importance of culture and how its influences can be traced in different development environments across the world.  

The way we play football is a reflection of culture. Playing styles (team and individual) mirror the social values and cultural practises within socio-cultural contexts. Contexts like the schools, clubs, or groups we’ve belonged to. Growing up in England I tackled hard, avoided making mistakes and played it safe, especially under pressure. Had I grown up elsewhere in the world, within contexts shaped by a different culture, my playing style would have been different.

Culture may be the most important factor shaping environments and influencing player development. Our challenge is to understand it.

Cultures shape the contexts that determine the development environments surrounding football players. These development environments ‘afford’ some actions and limit others. It is this interrelated mash-up of culture and context that we coaches need to be aware of.

To help us understand this nested relationship (imagine Russian dolls), check out this model by Kristoffer Henriksen from the University of Southern Denmark. 

Sports Psychology and Talent Development Environment
Sports Psychology and Talent Development Environment

While many purists (myself included) would love to keep football separate from business, media, education, economics and politics, we can’t. When we recognise that culture and socio-cultural contexts are dynamic and changeable, influencing each other and people’s mindsets, we have to recognise that all aspects of culture can shape our development environments and our coaching.

Your football reflects your culture and your culture shapes your football

“Cultural psychologists view culture and psychological processes as mutually constituted and stress the importance of language, communication, relational perspectives, cultural practises and the meanings, beliefs, and values in human development, learning, and behavior.” (Stambulova & Ryba 2014 p. 2)

For football coaches this means a player’s cultural upbringing and their short- and long-term player development are inseparable. Culture shapes the psychological processes that shape mindsets, and these mindsets create perceptions of the environment that can tend towards creativity / calamity or conformity. Consider the different tendencies of the Germans and the English from this cultural perspective.

Football: the world’s litmus test

Football is the same game all over the world. However, it is culturally expressed in unique ways. Immerse football within a particular culture and you get a unique expression, a playing style that can tell us about the culture. This unique expression gives insight into elements of the culture being expressed, potentially highlighting areas that need further encouragement / expression and areas that need change.

A Litmus test can be defined as:

Litmus test


  1. A critical indication of future success or failure

(from the free dictionary)

If football reflects culture, then is culture shaping football? Do elements of a countries culture provide an indication for success on the football pitch? Yes.

A countries playing style may highlight socio-cultural elements (often called socio-cultural constraints) that need enhancing or dampening in order for player development and footballing success to be more likely. Areas to amplify may include acceptance, open-mindedness, self-direction and creative expression, whereas elements that need dampening include power, status and conformity.

So, recognising how culture shapes football gives insight into the following questions:

  • Why do England players always underperform at major tournaments?
  • How did Iceland do so well at Euro 2016?
  • Why do the Germans consistently excel?
  • How have Belgium and France developed so many world-class players?

While many people – like media pundits – have their own (often simplified) answers to these questions,  from a cultural perspective they are complex. Nevertheless, this complexity is not without its patterns.

How does culture shape football? Some patterns.

Unusual and unexpected events, like sudden immigration and multicultural experiences, can create ‘cognitive disequilibrium’ – essentially meaning ‘unbalanced thought’. Cognitive disequilibrium breaks thought patterns, stimulates adaptation and requires greater mental flexibility: this has been seen to enhance creative thinking (Ritter, Damian, Simonton, Baaren, Van, Strick & Dijksterhuis. 2012) allowing creative exploration. A diverse culture – for example a culture that has witnessed large-scale immigration or some other upheaval – may inspire the disequilibrium that stimulates unusual and unexpected events, new ways of thinking and moving and a general open-mindedness.

Disequilibrium and creativity

Creativity researcher Alfonso Montuori suggested that disequilibrium is a characteristic of ‘open systems’ (2012). He suggested the more open the system, the greater the exposure to experiences of difference, novelty, complexity, and disequilibrium. This means that the more open our athlete-environment/cultural system (pictured as the model at the start) the more opportunity there is for creative stimulation. A view supported within the growing body of literature exploring human perceptual systems, this research cites a ‘wide breadth (openness) of attention’ as facilitative for creative performance (Carson, Peterson & Higgins, 2003; Friedman, Fishbach, Förster & Werth, 2003; Healey & Rucklidge, 2005; Hristovski et al., 2011).

A question for the comments section:

I saw Ozil bobble a through-ball (between defenders) in the game against Poland and I didn’t understand why? For him it seemed a relativly easy pass, no pressure, it almost looked like he did it on purpose?

Then I thought about it and found this video (Thanks to Tim): The video above is an extreme example but lets ‘play’ with this idea: a bobbling pass is harder for defenders to block or intercept right? (It is the same logic of the ball bouncing in front of the GK and heading the ball down into the ground.)

So the question: Is the speed profile (changing speed) of a bobble pass different from pass rolled along the ground. If for example, the bobble causes the pass to slow down quicker towards the end, it would be beneficial for a through-ball? Faster at the start to get past the defenders and slower at the end for the attacker to run onto?

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