On a recent trip to the Indian sub-continent between study, football coach & sports coaching tutor at the Queensland University of Technology, Ben Galloway and his best friend encountered a range of constraints that influenced the games they joined in, teaching them some valuable lessons about coaching.
A wise man once told me that to become the best football coach, you need to work hard to develop three fundamental things: a deep understanding of the sport of football, an in-depth understanding of learning theory, and a broad understanding of the human experience.
While it isn’t quite as obvious as in Europe or Africa, football is still a majority game in the sub-continent. The accessibility of the game allows football to dominate on a global scale – a ball, some space, and some people, and you’ve got yourself a game. On my travels to the sub-continent, for example, I played football in the Dhravi slums, Mumbai, a beach in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and at an altitude of 2600m up in the village of Chame, Annapurna, Nepal. There was limited verbal communication, so instead I resorted to watching and learning from them to find out how they played. Each time I played, I learnt something different.
In Dhravi, I learnt the way that football and sport brings people together. It was the kids who were playing, but everyone else was watching on, laughing and enjoying. It seemed to me that football acted as an escape from the extremely harsh life that this community lived. While we were playing, people stopped construction, stopped working in small nearby businesses to come and watch. It could have helped that there were two white Australians present, but overall it seemed everyone was concentrated on the game that was occurring.
I also learnt that football doesn’t necessarily have to be the game that we see on TV. It can be adapted to fit the culture of the people playing, the environment and the materials available. We played in a small street surrounded living spaces on both sides; apartment buildings and small tin houses dominated the area. We had a 10m wide dirt street to play on and there was close to 30 kids playing. Due to the limited space in Dhravi, running wasn’t an option, so the game was a free kick game where players had to pass the ball past a line. Almost every player had an ability to strike the ball hard, while you didn’t miss your opportunity to kick because it would be a while before it was your turn again.
In Colombo we came across some very talented young footballers on the beach. They had never been coached nor did it seem like they wanted to be coached. The culture they created around the game was different. The boys were from very poor backgrounds and came to the beach every day to play. It was clear they wanted to improve. The goals were made up of two sandals put five metres apart. The first and only rule they told us was that to score a goal the ball had to be along the ground. This was their own culture of how to play football. What developed was an amazing style of play – and a lot of that came back to this rule. What was important to them was tricks and skills, passing and movement. Direct balls where frowned upon and crossing was non-existent. They would celebrate a nutmeg like scoring a goal and they would boo a long ball like conceding one.
If we think about the rule – the ball must be along the ground to score – it is a self-organising constraint that means players steer away from long balls and crosses. The players themselves had come up with a task constraint that led to emergent behaviours, and in turn those emergent behaviours reflected the brand and culture of football that they desired.
In Chame, the game was different again. Passing was the only option – most people who were playing the game had walked up and down the Himalayan range all day just to do simple things like collect wood, water, or tend to livestock. Their socio-cultural constraints impacted how they were afforded to play the game. On top of that, the physiological dangers of running at high altitudes meant that (especially to me) running was not really a good choice. Dribbling was seen as selfish and borderline dangerous, and kicking the ball long distances often meant chasing it, which again meant running which was to be avoided at all costs. Finally, to the left of the playing field there was a cliff face – both environmental and socio-cultural factors were at play here. Passing had to be delicate because the ball could easily slip through the fence and the cost of a new ball was something that was at the top of the mind. I would say that people put themselves in more danger making sure that the ball didn’t go over the cliff than any other part of the game.
What does it all mean for our coaching? Firstly, our players’ socio-cultural constraints need to be thoughtfully pondered when designing our training sessions. It is important to understand the background of our players and have a general understanding on the perspective through which they view the environment. We need to have empathy.
Secondly, I believe that if you truly want to become a better coach you must remember those three key things that the wise man once told me. Understanding learning theory, understanding the game of football and understanding the human experience. No one is bigger than the other: understanding human beings is just as important as knowing a lot about football. What makes people tick? Why do people love football? What is going to make this player keep coming back to my training sessions? These are answers that cannot just be answered by football knowledge.
Lastly, remember that football may not always be the game that you think it is. It is ever changing, it is played differently all around the world. Embrace the fact that certain cultures play football differently, and embrace your own football culture. There is a whole number of constraints that have produced the brand of play that your team, club or national team provide.