Welcome to
Player Development Project.
Already a PDP Member?
Keen to join the community? About Membership

Self-Organization Processes in Field-Invasion Team Sports

Pedro Passos, Duarte Araújo, Keith Davids

The Big Idea

Since these investigators brought it up in their abstract’s first sentence, let’s briefly talk about ant colonies as a bridge to the subject of self-organization in field-invasion team sports.

Imagine this.  There is a flood threatening a colony of ants.  What do they do?  No problem or panic: they simply build an ant raft.  These pancake-like rafts are composed of the ants themselves—sometimes as many as 100,000—who instinctively connect themselves perpendicular to each other—always heads up—and weave a buoyant ant craft, “sometimes as large as a dinner plate (that) can float for weeks, enabling the colony to survive and find a new home,” says biologist David Hu from the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Hu goes on to say that what is happening at the big scale is the product of lots of local interactions at the small scale.

Now imagine this.  What if we look at the organization process of field-invasion sports as sort of like the behavior of ant colonies?  As the authors of this article say up front, they see field-invasion team sports as a complex social system where spontaneous self-organizing coordination can be used to engender interpersonal interactions between players and teams.  Or, more simply put, the organizational process of team-invasion sports is somewhat like the inherent improvisation of creating ant rafts. 


  • Field-invasion sports can be modeled as complex social systems.
  • These systems are defined by their inherent self-organizing coordination tendencies.
  • These tendencies can be exploited to underpin interpersonal interactions between performers.
  • What happens in these systems at the local level determines what these systems become at the larger level.
  • It is the continuous interaction and co-adapting of players in close proximity that makes players the components of a self-organizing system.
  • Because of this continuous co-adapting of the players it is possible for spontaneous, non-linear pattern-forming dynamics to occur.
  • Within the task and environmental constraints of field-invasion sports, there are times when the context of play is in equilibrium between the attacking and defending players.
  • In these periods of balance, a certain distance between the players is maintained.
  • As the distances close between the players, the play is unbalanced when near critical states of performance emerge.
  • In these critical situations players typically rely on tactical instructions learned in training.
  • But these tactics often become constraints themselves in need of overcoming.
  • Pre-planned rules of engagement are replaced by continuous interactions between the players which in turn become self-organizing and pattern-forming possibilities.
  • In the midst of emerging critical play, ordinary coaching tactics of “if this, then that” rarely abides.
  • When players are on the edge in this way, opportunities arise for unplanned and unpredicted moments of human creativity.

The Research

Local interactions justify self-organization

In all complex social and biological systems, self-organization is the living inherent mechanism of survival and development, whether ant or human.  And what creates and preserves the large-scale organization is what goes on at the local level.  In human terms, these authors point to such self-organizing situations as how car drivers continuously co-adjust their spacing and speed as the local rule to avoid a traffic jam.

The overall pattern of such collective behavior of producing the free flow of automobile traffic only emerges when individuals at the local level interact.  In field-invasion games it is the continuous interactions of attackers and defenders who are bound by the task constraints, such as game rules, goals, or equipment.  It is the continuous co-adapting of players in close proximity that makes players themselves components of a self-organizing system.  Their behavior is not externally controlled, and they are linked by visual and other fields of information (such as acoustics).  Thus, in the process of co-adaptation between the players in invasion team games, it is possible for spontaneous, non-linear pattern-forming dynamics to occur.

What about the context of self-organization?

At the local level, interactions between players and opponents are defined by the performance task rules which stabilize the behaviors.  But these rules are also context dependent.  The primary context dependency is the interpersonal distance between system players.

Researchers have found that there are times when in field-invasion sports teams there are periods of equilibrium between attackers and defenders.  This usually occurs when the players form a dyadic system and maintain a certain distance apart.  But when the players begin to adjust and narrow down their spacing, they often try to rely on the tactical instructions learned during training.  But these tactics then become constraints themselves.  So, in the process of modifying spacing, what was once equilibrium now evolves far and away from this zone of balance.  As the play becomes more critical, immediacy and necessity become context of co-adaptations.  In the un-balancing, pre-planned rules given by a coach are replaced by the necessities of continuous interactions between the players as the game evolves.  During field-invasion games, performance is always evolving towards near critical states.

Leadership and intra-team interactions

The primacy of self-organization explains the emergence of pattern-forming dynamics in the inter-team (attacker-defender) interactions.  Now we need to consider the intra-team interactions under leadership constraints.  In other words, what do we make of the role or impact of the coach leadership.  Players typically receive specific instructions for configurations, patterns of play, and tactical strategies.  Kind of an “if this, then that.”  We need to consider whether this leadership is creative possibility or performance limiting.

The problem with such instructional pre-planning from the get-go is that the sub-phase of team-invasion games is beyond prediction.  Given the constant re-positioning of attacker-defender spacing and proximity, there are continuous adjustments in player positioning.  So, the question is how these ongoing adjustments are influenced by inherent, ant raft-like self-organization mechanisms.

In one study of rugby union play, it was discovered that performers in subunits organized themselves with different mean values of interpersonal distances between themselves before and after crossing an initial defensive line.  In rugby union, the typical attacking subunit is a geometric form similar to a diamond-shaped structure.  Such strategy can be successfully led by coaching or on-field leadership.  But with more convergence and decreasing distances with immediate defenders, the subsystem is disturbed due to the closeness of opposing players.  The result is for the intra-team collective behaviors to self-organize and a new diamond-ish shape forms.  The when, where, and how the reorganization occurs are important.

Coaches could improve their overall practice and training sessions if they incorporated this idea of self-organization.  Coaching using training situations where players are in close proximity to opponents could significantly improve competitive performance.


Here are the conclusions in brief:

  • In field-invasion sports, the co-adaptation process that creates player interactions regarding interpersonal distances can evolve to fluctuations that set up an attacker-defender system for sudden and unpredictable transitions.
  • Equilibrium can be punctuated between stability and variability.
  • Research on attacker-defender systems in field-invasion sports has displayed such features as: non-linearity, system degeneracy, state transitions, and emergence.
  • The takeaway for players is that they need to learn about the adaptive variability necessary for performance of specific leadership roles in lieu of these self-organizing necessities.
  • The challenge for coaches is to develop learning environments where player behavior is strongly influenced by proximity to opponents.
  • These learning environments should help players learn to adjust to environmental constraints like close proximity to opponents rather than solely to instructional constraints.
  • For coaches, they must realize that practice for the critical regions of play in invasion-team sports may not expose players to the demands of competitive performance environments where dependence on context governs their behaviors.
  • In such situations, it is best to nurture the ant raft-building inherency than trying to teach the ants how to build a raft while waters are rising.

It would seem that the ant works its way tentatively, and, observing where it fails, tries another place and succeeds.

-Richard Jefferies