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The Blog

FC Barcelona: Dismantling the Language of War

PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan recently  attended a seminar by Joan Vila Bosch – Head of Methodology at FC Barcelona. Speaking in Christchurch, New Zealand – Joan described how and why FC Barcelona are breaking down the coaching language of war surrounding football.

Moving away from what he called ‘the language of war’, Joan’s department is using scientific principles to define FC Barcelona’s game and crucially the language they use. Joan explained:

“As people we are defined by our words”

The language of football transmits the ideas, beliefs and values that shape behaviours on and off the pitch (particularly persuasive language may form cultural memes discussed further here). While Joan talked about dynamic systems, complexity, self organisation and ecological psychology, the concepts underpinning discussions with Mark Upton in this webinar and topics that resonated with the academic in me, the clearest take away (applicable for all coaches and clubs) was around the language FC Barcelona use.

Cassidy and Kidman (2010) suggested that each sporting context (club, academy, organisation) has specific ‘what’ (we do) and ‘how’(we do them) meanings embedded within the dominant language and practices.

While this is recognised by scholars its often neglected by football clubs. However, FC Barcelona (as their club motto suggests) is more than a club and the department of methodology (founded 5 years ago under Guardiola) is using a range of scientific principles to challenge redundant cultural assumptions around football. This post specifically looks at how FC Barcelona are challenging the language, discourse and narrative of war gripping football at all levels.

Joan suggested traditional football language is the language of war:

  • Attack
  • Defend
  • Destroy
  • Win at all costs
  • Aggression
  • Enemy
  • Humiliate
  • Selfishness
  • Improve*


Joan continued by saying “language brings our game to life”. A statement further explained by Coulter et al., (2016) who suggested that underlying cultural assumptions (often hidden in our language) are the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs that determine the group norms (standards and values) that are formed. These group norms then guide members’ perceptions and actions so that when a football problem (in a culture) is solved in the same way over and over, the solution becomes gradually accepted and stored as an shared solution and evident truth by those members: pass, dribble, long ball, brute force or creativity?

Because Joan and FC Barcelona recognised that “Language brings our game to life” FC Barcelona have developed a language that embodies the values on which their style of play is built.


Some of the language of FC Barcelona is below (followed by the ‘language of war’ in brackets).

  • Possession phase (Attack)
  • Recovering the ball (Defend)
  • Create (Destroy)
  • Enjoy, learn compete (win at all costs)
  • Assertivness (Aggression)
  • Opponent (Enemy)
  • Outperform (Humiliate)
  • Empathy (Selfishness)
  • Optimise* (Improve)

The importance Joan and FC Barcelona place on language recognises the that language influences players’ psychological processes – processes that shape motivation, creativity behaviour and decision making. Re-evaluating the language we use is at the heart of positive psychology (discussed with Lara Mossman here) and a key premise when reasoning from first principles something all innovators do.

“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 behaviour.” (Stambulova & Ryba, 2014, p. 2).

From the perspective of my research, players’ creative behaviours, tactical approaches, and technical skill sets are often determined by the sporting discourse or language used. In many cases tactics, feedback, and clichés – language – form the traditional (and often stagnant) viewpoints of coaches, parents, and fans that become socio-cultural constraints – determining how players play the game and why, as coaches, we find it so hard to develop creative players.

Notes: I would like to thank Joan Vila Bosch for providing insight into workings of a club striving to, in his words, unite football and science. I would also like to thank José Manuel Figueira and Auckland City Football Club for organising this fantastic coach development opportunity. 

*this explanation requires another blog but quickly, improving suggest segmental progress while optimising recognises the interconnectedness of systems and that you can’t just improve one segment at a time.

A Conclusion

If language brings our game to life and who we are is how we play, then we should all follow FC Barcelona and change the language of war that grips our game.



Cassidy, T., & Kidman, L. (2010). Initiating a national coaching curriculum: a paradigmatic shift? Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 15(3), 307–322. http://doi.org/10.1080/17408980903409907

Stambulova, N. B., & Ryba, T. V. (2014). A critical review of career research and assistance through the cultural lens: towards cultural praxis of athletes’ careers. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 1–17. http://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2013.851727

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  1. Todd Beane says:

    Thank you, James. I think we can see that FCB has played good football and has been respectful along the way. (even if you are not a fan of FCB) You can out pace, out play, and outscore your opponent and compete to your best ability while respecting the game and those against whom you play. When the final whistle blows, shirts are exchanged and handshakes abound. Language matters. – Thanks to Joan from FCB as well. Nice to have them as neighbors here in Barcelona.

  2. Interesting article, something that I’ve spoke about for years as I’ve always used a specific vocabulary (game-calls) to describe key moments in the game, linked to our game-style which I developed into my book: Let’s Talk Soccer (2015).

    For me coaches need to be purposeful in the language they use to players and how to enthuse players to use same language with each other to improve communication

  3. Larry Paul says:

    For a deeper read on this topic try Brian Sutton-Smiths Ambiguity of Play. He lists seven different rhetoric’s that provide a framework for how internal and external communication plays a role in our perception and actions. Language does matter. It constrains as well as enables our thinking and actions. I have no financial interest in this book.

    However the idea that Create (Destroy) are synonyms is inaccurate. They are antonyms.

    1. Jack Turner says:

      I was considering that exact point; I struggled to find common ground between the two terms. I also struggled to think of occasions where I’ve heard ‘destroy’ in a footballing context.

    2. James Vaughan says:

      Hi Larry thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check that out. I think certain language may become more of a socio-cultural constraint in certain environments. It is something coaches, clubs, parents and organisations need to be more aware of and can form the very foundation of good/bad learning environments. I did not mean to suggest that the language examples were all synonyms, apologies if it came across that way. As you pointed out a number of the examples clearly have a contrasting meaning.

  4. Language can be both pervasive and powerful. The prevailing lessons, from the emergent discipline of positive psychology and related pseudo scientific areas such as neuro-linguistic programming, dictate that the global language of football can be both positive and negative in its orientation. The real skill relates to the way in which this is imbued within the culture of high performing teams within sport. A look at a range of different football/sport coaches would suggest that there are a variety of ways in which this can be achieved. The really successful ones manage to do this within a context of continual review and sustainability. The honeymoon period then develops into a very successful marriage and strong family ties that endures beyond the short term.

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