I have quit jobs, moved countries and become – to use my friend’s words – an ‘intellectual hobo’ in search of these seven words. Those seven words have consumed my life for 18 months. They are seven words that I believe hold the key to understanding creativity in football players.


‘Who we are is how we play’


These seven words are the conclusion to my thesis; 35,661 words deftly reinterpreted by my ‘old man’ as:

‘You can take the boy out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the boy.’

I see him smiling at his own particular brand of Scouse humour, and I agree, he’s right; it all starts with this basic assumption about our ‘cultural conditioning’. However, how much ‘Liverpool’ is ‘in’ the boy depends on our individual experiences. The environments we grow up in and our early experiences determine the cultural norms, social rules and wider values that shape our behaviour and influence, among other things, how we play.

The late, great, leadership expert Stephen Covey suggests that we often feel defined by the dominant culture. He explains that our cultural conditioning creates the internal compass we use to direct our lives. However, Covey suggests this conditioning isn’t always beneficial, as the way we see the world and direct our lives may actually limit our development as people and players. Our compass may be set to society’s definition of north, but not our own, innate, true north.

Montevideo, Uruguay. Luis Suarez learned to play in the streets Photo: Marcelo Druck

Montevideo, Uruguay. Luis Suarez learned to play in the streets Photo: Marcelo Druck

Consider the cultural conditioning and early experiences of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez. Is the ‘Liverpool’ in Steven Gerrard different to the ‘Montevideo’ in Luis Suarez? Do these players see the world in a similar way? Do they play football in a similar way? Do they define success in the same way? Can we coach them in the same way?

As coaches we’re never working with a blank canvas. Each player is like an organic, evolving game of join the dots – the picture is always changing. The original picture may be the result of each player’s cultural conditioning and early experiences, but even this picture may be interpreted differently: where the coach may see a potential Phillip Lahm, the player may see a Lionel Messi.

Now consider how the picture might change as players are exposed to other cultural norms, social rules and values as they grow. As players move through new schools, teams and workplaces, these environments may change the picture. The game of join the dots becomes a mess, new dots are added, old ones replaced and others moved until the picture becomes unrecognisable to some. However, as these psychological portraits evolve, coaches and players need to develop a shared understanding, a collective vision – we need to be on the same page. Especially when it comes to understanding feelings of success, choice and belonging, the psychological building blocks of a player’s motivation.

Our early experiences, shaped by people and places, impact not only our Long-Term Player Development, but also the way we live our lives. The question becomes how much do these socialisation processes affect us? Are they positive or negative? Put another way, how much ‘Liverpool is in the boy’ and what does it mean for the individual person? Are they confident? Aggressive? Creative? Again, consider Gerrard and Suarez. You can see these differences in the way they play football?

For the last 18 months I’ve been attempting to understand players’ unique perspectives and the psychological impact on motivation and creativity, and over the course of the next 12 months I hope to share my findings. One of the questions I’ll explore is: can we influence this cultural conditioning?

Our early experiences, shaped by people and places, impact not only our long-term player development, but also the way we live our lives.

If we can understand a player’s cultural conditioning we can begin to understand their mindset, giving insight into how they make choices and why they see the world the way they do – but as coaches we must seek to understand before being understood.

‘It all starts with why’

Think back to your own childhood; what did you play as a kid? Football, basketball, netball? How did you play? Were you competitive, confident, or reserved? And why did you play? To understand players’ perspectives we first have to understand our own. In my case, after months of soul- searching, I found asking ‘why’ more and more confronting.

Luis Suarez for Liverpool Photo: Ameng Gu

Luis Suarez for Liverpool Photo: Ameng Gu

Think about what, how and ‘why’ in terms of football. It’s easy to see what players do: pass, move, shoot. Everyone can comment – and they do. But it’s harder to see how players do what they do: check their shoulder, shift their weight to deceive a defender, take three fast balanced steps instead of one lunge. Some coaches have an excellent eye for this technical detail. However, few people – players or coaches – understand why players do what they do. Why choose to shoot then? Why not dribble? Why didn’t they see that wall pass?

The ‘how’ is massively influenced by the ‘why’. However, our ‘why’ is often so deeply ingrained within our cultural conditioning that most of us can’t explain it. It has become a semiconscious feeling or an instinct that drives our habits, but are these habits good or bad? Do they enhance Long-Term Player Development or inhibit it? Skill acquisition experts suggest that even perceptual abilities (awareness) are shaped by our socialisation as young players. The ‘why’ behind our play – to sign a contract, win a trophy or express ourselves – can either limit our decision-making and constrain our creativity or provide endless possibilities.

To understand player’s perspectives we first have to understand our own.

In his exceptional TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’, Simon Sinek explains that ‘why’ holds the key to behavioural change and leadership. ‘Why’ is shaped by our cultural upbringing and our socialisation within key development environments (such as our home, school, or sports teams). As Sinek explains, most organisations are clear about what they do, some mention how they do it but few, if any, mention why they do it. As coaches we must consider the why when developing our team’s culture.

Listen to Liverpool Football Club head coach Brendan Rodgers and it becomes clear that he is constantly reaffirming the ‘why’ of the club. He talks about a ‘one club mentality’ and the importance of a culture centred around the continual improvement of his players and the constant evolution of their playing style. He embodies this ethos in what he says and does, which inspires trust (this is the subject of Sinek’s most recent talk ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’). However, it is so rare for anybody, let alone a formal leader, to talk about the ‘why’ that Rodgers’ honesty and commitment to his vision was initially misinterpreted and comparisons were drawn with the management speak of David Brent, the famously awkward boss from The Office. But 18 months later Rodgers’ ability to embody his ‘why’ has changed a club and created a culture of development, which can be seen in the progress of his team and, more importantly, his players.

The rise of Raheem Sterling and improvement of Jordan Henderson are prime examples. Talking about Sterling and his role with England (pre-World Cup) Rodgers said:

Raheem Sterling Photo: Steve Kingsman

Raheem Sterling Photo: Steve Kingsman

‘If he is given the opportunity to play how he can play – in whatever position, whether at the point of a diamond or on the sides – he could be one of the stars of the World Cup for me. […] The success we have here at Liverpool is because we are a team and we are very much focused on a real belief [the why] in a way of working and a way of playing. That is about culture and environment. If you take those players out [of their club environment] and play them in their positions and play similar players around who understand the philosophy and have the mentality then of course they could do very well, but it is certainly not as easy as taking the players out [of their club environment] because it is about an attitude to the game [the why] which is important. There are a lot of reasons why they [club environment and national environment] wouldn’t be the same.’

The environment, culture, or ‘why’ that Rodgers speaks of forms the ‘who we are’ in – who we are is how we play. The environment holds the cultural values that shape ‘who we are’, and who we are energises our motivation and determines our behaviour. As Rodgers suggests, there are lots of reasons why club environments would be different to national team set ups, but often it comes down to a shared understanding of the ‘why’. The ‘why’ of any team, club or organisational sporting body affects players’ ability to play with freedom (autonomy), feel a sense of belonging (relatedness) and define their success (competence).

By appreciating the ‘why’…we can develop players with motivational profiles that will help them reach their potential as people and players.

These motivational foundations – autonomy, competence and relatedness – shape short-term performance and Long-Term Player Development. By re-evaluating the ‘why’ we can create environments and cultures that promote these feelings and develop motivational profiles that allow individuals to reach their potential as people and players. As coaches we must understand why we coach – and in many cases we must help players rediscover why they play.

Cover Image:

Boys play football in Giza Photo: © Guernica | Dreamstime.com

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