In the first part of this, I explained why we’re moving past one-team models like the four-phase model and replacing them with two-team or system models. I’ll build on that here, so if you haven’t read that yet now is the time.
My claim in the last piece is, essentially, in explaining sport, we will always be left with a surplus which is outside of sport itself. This is because the sport can not prescribe the engagement we bring to it. It can only constrain that engagement in such a way that leads us to engage with it further. The engagement axis is what guides the evolution of the sport. For example, once teams started to pass the ball back to keepers to kill off games, FIFA/IFAB was forced to adapt the rules of the game so it didn’t become stale. If they did not do this, the engagement axis would suffer.
Here’s where we turn to James Carse and his cult classic Finite and Infinite Games. It’s a very rich book that has influenced my thinking quite deeply and I won’t be able to do it justice here, but I’ll borrow a few of Carse’s key points. For Carse, there are two types of games: finite games which are played to be won, and infinite games in which the only objective is to continue playing. The implicit objective of finite play is to become what he calls a master player. A master player is a player who removes all contingency from the game. They can not be surprised or deceived – they are literally unbeatable. The existence of a master player signals the end of the game, since real competition is no longer possible. (For example most of us have become master players in the childhood game of tic tac toe thus “killing” the game for us though lives on within that developmental niche)
What we glean from this is that, in playing sport, we are not only playing against an opponent, but against the game itself. Sports are constituted by those attempts to play against them. It’s worth asking what sports are trying to do – assigning them a type of agency or teleology as a thought experiment. Here we begin to see deeply evolutionary principles emerge. Because it can not pre-state the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 1993), the sport has no absolutely stable solution to guarantee its survival. As in evolution, this leads to diversification or degeneracy. A sport which has numerous variations or mini-games is better positioned to adapt to changes in the culture around it. While variations are typically viewed as training for the “real” sport, the relationship is in fact reciprocal. Since the sport is all those attempts to play against it, it is also partly composed of the activities used to train for it.
The outcome of this paradoxical nature is that sports migrate (self-organise) towards equilibrium points in the landscape. The principles of self-organised criticality (Bak, Tang & Wiesenfeld, 1988) tell us that there will be catastrophic events which change this landscape, and that those events can be described by a power-law. In plain english, there will be many small changes to the system, and fewer big changes. What’s interesting is that this is scale-free, or it looks the same whether you zoom in or out. At a micro level of a game we see many small events such as a player making a slight adjustment to their body position as they receive the ball, fewer deceptive action that opens up space, and even fewer fully catastrophic events such as goals. Zooming out reveals that this is true at the level of the whole sport as well. There are many small events such as the in-game adjustments made by teams, fewer major innovations, and even fewer massive events such as rule changes.
So with this in mind we turn our attention to an idea which has been gaining momentum in football lately. The idea can be stated many ways, but it is essentially an “end of history” (in Fukuyama’s sense of the term) proclamation. In other words, all the major breakthroughs have been made, all the possible formations have been tried, and most importantly, some unchangeable human limit is being reached. Arsene Wenger summarizes this position succinctly in a Guardian interview, saying,
“The next game-changer is neuroscience. Why? Because we are at the end of the improvement of physical speed. The next step will be to improve the speed of decision-making. The speed of execution, the speed of coordination and that’s where neuroscience will come in. In the last 10 years, the power and speed of individual players has improved, but now you have sprinters everywhere. The next step certainly will be to improve the speed of our brains.”
These statements contain an element of truth. It’s reasonable to say that human bodies are limited in aspects such as speed and strength. It’s also true that the returns from fields like nutrition or strength and conditioning may reach a point of diminishing returns. Just as Descarte foresaw the encroachment of deterministic science and tried to preserve human freedom by pushing it back into the mental realm, the neuroscience-as-last-frontier crowd project all their hopes (and therefore fears) onto that mysterious lump of goo between our ears. If the physical realm becomes totally optimised, we can still look for improvement and innovation in the mental (brain).
So what do Descarte and Wenger fail to see? How can the sport continue to evolve even if the aforementioned domains reach a point of diminishing returns? In the twentieth century, scientists such as Ilya Prigogine began to investigate the behaviour of systems far from equilibrium. Rather than continually increasing in entropy and approaching equilibrium, these systems exhibited violent re-organisations called phase transitions which resulted in a decrease in entropy (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1977). What this means for us is that (considered as such a system) a sport can appear to be reaching such an impasse only to undergo a phase transition which totally reorganises its structure.
In other words, we may exhaust the possibility for improvement – and here is the important bit – but only within a given paradigm. This is hard to see because the current paradigm is the water to the fish. It is, by definition, everything we take for granted. Dinosaurs may rule supreme for thousands of years only for a catastrophic event to open the door for mammals. Similarly, players may approach the peak of human athleticism, but after a phase transition a totally new breed of player may be most adaptive. We saw this, for example, when Spain temporarily dominated the game with tiki-taka played by what would have traditionally been considered physically unimpressive players. Of course, some inevitably made the same mistake of absolutising that paradigm. As the next phase transition showed, there was nothing inherently special about smaller players either.
In response to this, we must do what anyone who has listened to Maradona or Pele speak has long contemplated. We must make the ultimate Hegelian move of transposing the gap into the thing itself. As Zizek says, “the secrets of the ancient Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves—which means that to resolve them is not to reveal some deep insight but just to change the location of the mystery” (Zizek, 2019, p. 22). In other words, the secret of the game is not a positive entity possessed by the greats, but rather only the secret that this secret was unknown also to them.
We can then accept that sport is wrapped around what Lacan calls an ex-timate (as opposed to intimate) core. At its very center is something which is totally foreign and even monstrous to itself. The most successful athletes are paradoxically the most alienated from their own sport. We must try to view the sport from outside to get closer to it. It is outside of itself from the very start. And since the sport extends into its sociocultural context, a great innovation in sport is likely a “comment” about something we took for granted, not only about the game, but about life itself. In watching Ronaldinho we catch a glimpse of the parallax view – to infer what we are by observing how an alien interacts with us.
Next we’ll open a dialogue between Czsiksentmihalyi and Lacan and figure out if constitutive lack might tell us something new about flow.
Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The origins of order: Self-organization and selection in evolution. Oxford University Press, USA.
Bak, P., Tang, C., & Wiesenfeld, K. (1988). Self-organized criticality. Physical review A, 38(1), 364.
Nicolis, G., & Prigogine, I. (1977). Self-organization in nonequilibrium systems: From dissipative structures to order through fluctuations. New York: Wiley.
Žižek, S. (2019). Sex and the Failed Absolute. Bloomsbury Academic.
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