Many players battle with the idea of acceptance by those closest to them, and approval from those who can define their next footballing move. But at what cost does this approval come? Many of these young players sacrifice creativity, problem solving skills, and even their own identity, in search of praise which is often misinformed.
The cultural ‘noise’ surrounding player development environments is killing players’ creativity. In football (and other sports) this ‘noise’ – be it comments from the sideline, praise/ criticism from coaches or parents, or constant instruction – limits players’ technical development and controls the development of their playing style. But more importantly this surrounding cultural noise shapes who we are (as people) and how we play (in life).
Sideline behaviour has long been cited as the problem; however, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I remember breaking down on the car ride home talking to Dad about my latest game at primary school. We’d always talk about my games, good and bad, but on this occasion I’d played the perfect match – at nine years old I was already seeking the unobtainable – and I wanted his praise, I craved perfection.
…my self worth had become anchored to my football.
What neither of us appreciated was that my self-worth had become anchored to my football and I had become over-reliant on the praise of others. If someone said my performance was good, it was as if they were saying I was good, validating me as a person. However, if I played badly, made a mistake or did something wrong then I was wrong – I couldn’t separate the two. Football was too big a part of my life, dominating my identity and defining my self-worth.
On this occasion my Dad’s message was simple: “We can always improve, and here’s what you could have done today…” But my nine-year-old mind turned that into “you’re not good enough, you’re never good enough”.
In her latest TED talk ‘Listening to Shame’, sociologist Brenè Brown says “Shame is an epidemic in our culture. The only people who don’t experience shame are people who have no capacity for connection or empathy.
This inescapable barrage of cultural noise is creating another generation of praise junkies, conditioned – like Pavlov’s dog – to scramble for social recognition and pander to the masses.
Which means, yes, I have a little shame; no, I’m a sociopath. Shame drives two big tapes – ‘never good enough’ and, if you can talk it out of that one, ‘who do you think you are?’ For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. For men, shame is do not be perceived as weak; always show emotional control and pursue status.” In my research with youth football players, status was tied to success, which was defined by the cultural noise surrounding them.
Sideline behaviour is only part of the issue – the real problem is feedback in general, whether it comes from the sideline or the driver’s seat. Societal expectations shape this feedback, giving meaning to the cultural chatter on sidelines and directing the conversation in the car on the ride home. Potentially well- meaning support, encouragement and instruction are having negative consequences. It often becomes perceived as controlling rather than supportive, it stifles players’ creativity and often alienates us from the playful expression of self.
This inescapable barrage of noise is creating another generation of praise junkies, conditioned – like Pavlov’s dog – to scramble for social recognition and pander to the masses. Cultural chat (often dripping with clichés) regurgitates traditional thinking, with archaic opinions, beliefs and ‘common sense’ dominating the discussion – but what is common sense in this regard? Uninformed guesswork? Cultural myths?
Culturally created definitions of success, such as external rewards like league titles, trophies and contracts (Roma recently signed a nine-year- old from Belgium), fuel the cultural noise and can shortcut development by tainting players’ motivation. Adult organisations and structures that focus on titles, trophies and contracts override players’ natural tendency to seek enjoyment, self-improvement and engagement. Our motivation becomes so controlled by the desire to please others that we become alienated from our natural growth tendencies, we forget how to ‘just play’ and we forget the joy of being engaged, fully present in the here and now. We also start thinking and behaving from a socially accepted script, defined by cultural norms.
Next time you ask a group of players a question, consider this: are they thinking about their answer, or are they telling you what they think you want to hear? Are they thinking or simply talking from a script? I believe our cultural conditioning can literally disengage players’ brains, so that they don’t think for themselves and they aren’t making decisions. Their behaviours are controlled by the need for praise, and the criteria for praise is often founded in archaic beliefs about the game and player development. How do I know this? I’ve experienced it myself.
Born in 1985, I’m a recovering praise junkie. For most of my life I’ve unconsciously conformed to a script, following cultural norms and seeking praise in order to feel successful. Growing up in the UK, football made success easy – I was the ‘best’ in my year at school so praise came thick and fast. But I became dependent, almost addicted to this feedback. I stopped thinking and started conforming,and the more praise the better I felt. I was a confident kid, but much of this confidence was built on shallow foundations.
At Notts County’s Centre for Excellence I was put in central midfield, where they told me to tackle, pass, receive, pass, tackle. I was quick, agile, read the game well and loved a tackle (because the British love a tackle) and I could play with both feet (thanks to my Dad’s persistence – some outside influences are essential for refining technique).
I had no idea what to do in a 1 v 1 situation – my decision making was stunted, any creative thought was crushed.
At 11-years-old I signed my first contract and started following coaches’ instruction (feedback) to the letter of the law. My development was shaped by the dominant cultural noise surrounding football in the late 1990s. While Xavi was crafting his art at La Masia, I was watching the ball getting pumped over my head into the ‘pockets’ (corners), as was the style in the UK. While Xavi was getting thousands of touches in small-sided games, making decisions, free to learn and make mistakes and express himself, I was hitting long balls and doing whatever I could to get the praise of the coach and the others watching, which meant: tackle, pass and avoid making mistakes at all costs.
Culturally conditioned to play in a certain way, my technical development was limited. I had no idea what to do in a 1 v 1 situation. My decision making stunted, any creative thought crushed.
Research linking motivation and creativity has suggested that people need psychological traits like non-conformity, individuality and unconventional thinking to overcome the social conditioning of dominant cultural scripts. Researchers believe that only once we have overcome our social conditioning can we fulfil our creative potential. Are players like Suarez and Gazza examples of this? Do they conform? Is there a subtle balance between ‘fitting in’ and blindly following the crowd? If we need belonging, how do we avoid conformity?
Consider the creative maverick Mario Balotelli. Did he fit in growing up in Italy? Think about the definition of a maverick: ‘Someone who refuses to play by the rules. He/she isn’t scared to cross the line of conformity, but their unorthodox tactics get results.’
As others grew, I didn’t, and as the praise started to dry up, I conformed even more. I was a robot. I needed the coach’s approval in order to sign my next contract. I was controlled by this reward, and I suffered the consequences: burn-out, disinterest, poor-performance, rejection, self- doubt and internal conflict.
Football, and the praise on offer, defined me for the first 15 years of my life and when football rejected me, I felt like a reject. While sport can develop character and teach important values, it can also monopolise lives and identities, it can define our success, our self-confidence and shape who we are. This is a slippery slope and it’s no surprise so many top athletes battle with identity issues and even depression throughout their careers. This is perfectly illustrated in Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’, a must-read for anyone involved in athlete development.
Agassi often battled with the following concept: when we are good at sport, we are good people; when we are bad at sport, are we bad people?
This sounds extreme, but our reasoning doesn’t occur on a conscious level; it’s the emotions we feel that trigger this confusion, self- doubt and worry. Emotional labour research (Hochschild’s ‘The Managed Heart’) suggests that emotions are messages from the self. The self can be thought of as our natural default setting, the part of us that encourages play, creativity and craves engagement in the here and now. So when we find ourselves in environments that lead us to behave in ways that stifle our playful selves, we feel emotions that signal this conflict. Doubt, confusion and anxiety eat away at us and we distance ourselves from what we are doing, we disengage.
Cultural noise, in whatever form, is the feedback our players use to feel successful. This feedback can direct and control technical development, awareness and creative decision- making. Research in psychology, sociology, pedagogy, biomechanics and skill acquisition all agrees that cultural noise can breed conformity and limit athlete development.
Recent skill acquisition research states that social conditioning creates conformity towards a socially approved performance model or playing style, which is detrimental to the discovery of individual performance solutions. We stop choosing, exploring and discovering how to solve in game problems and simply play from a script.
While cultural noise creates a conformity that has drawbacks within in the technical and tactical corners of player development, it is the psychological corner where the most damage is done. Social conformity can kill our motivation, cause internal conflict and lead to burn out, self-doubt and even depression. By shaping who we are and how we play, cultural noise is inhibiting a fundamental human right, the freedom to choose. The freedom to choose has long been cited as one of humanity’s greatest gifts and yet we are inadvertently denying future generations this right.
Consider the creative geniuses who turned to rebellion, drug and alcohol abuse: Maradona, Best, Gascoigne, etc. Is this because they lived in a world that controlled and stifled their expression of self? The Player Development Project is designed to overcome this cultural noise, helping players choose their playing style and track their progress towards this dream goal. We aim to remove the emphasis from controlling success criteria and focus players on self-referenced improvement.
If I’d known then, what I know now, I would never have signed for Notts County’s Center of Excellence.
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