Deception gives sport an aesthetic quality that can take our breath away at times. While we’re starting to learn more about the science of deception in sport, I’m going to focus on the phenomenology (examining something as it’s experienced) of deception.

First, a story. In ancient Greece there were two painters who stood out above the rest: Zeuxis and Parrhasios. It was decided that there should be a contest to who was the greatest of all. Zeuxis was known for his stunning realism and attention to detail. He pulled back the curtain to reveal a bowl of fruit so convincing that birds are said to have flown down to try to eat it. The judges were amazed, and everyone thought Zeuxis had it in the bag. Then the judges asked Parrhasios to reveal his painting. To the judges confusion, he stated that he couldn’t do so. See, Parrhasios’ painting was of a curtain that everyone assumed was covering the painting. At this point, even Zeuxis declared Parrhasius to be the winner.

I think this is the perfect metaphor for the magical type of deception that great players employ. Simple deception remains within the frame that the defender assumes but is convincing enough to do the trick (pun intended). For example, in a 1v1 the attacker may feint left and then dribble right. Even if the attacker succeeds in going past the defender, the defender is still only fooled in the way he expected to be fooled – like the judges with Zeuxis’ realistic fruit.

The type of deception that takes our breath away is something very different. True deception moves us because it exposes assumptions that we didn’t know we held. By transcending the framework that is taken for granted, deception expands our awareness. I would argue that this expansive type of creativity is central to human cognition. The beautiful game presents us with dynamic, emergent environments that call for this type of innovation. These flashes of brilliance are short-lived, however, as they can not be separated from the unique constraints the situation placed on the performer. Attempts to re-create them lack the quality that makes them what they are. They are necessarily spontaneous improvisations that shock the performer as much as anyone else.

Can this type of ability be taught? By its very definition it resists any traditional pedagogy. These creative solutions also seem to express something unique about the individual who performs them. In the same way that the ancients spoke of the muses providing an external source of inspiration, great creative deception seems to require a “letting go” of conscious control or pre-planning. My guess is that this ability stems from a deeper source than on-field training. It requires a type of bravery and vulnerability that must be developed in the person, not only the athlete.

Since these momentary masterpieces can’t be predicted, prescribed, or repeated, the best bet for coaches is to provide an ideal environment for them to emerge. First, players must be in interesting environmental contexts. If we give adjust the constraints such that players have a realistic (naturally emerging) problem to solve, then the solutions remain broad and the ground is fertile for creativity. Second, I believe this type of creativity thrives in environments that push the athlete to the edge of their abilities. If we can succeed using old habits then we don’t need to innovate. Giving players these challenges that stretch them and also making it safe for them to experiment is key.

Ronaldinho probably embodies this concept better than any other player I can think of, so it’s fitting to end with a clip of him executing one those divine improvisations. (Check out my full analysis of his creative genius here)

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