By the time I was a teenager I had my heart set on “going pro” – that lofty aspiration shared by more than a few young athletes. The next decade of my life could have been condensed into one of those Rocky training montages without missing much of import. Despite spending most of my formative years in football-sparse environments and never having played for a non-volunteer/professional coach, I scrapped my way onto a successful NCAA division 2 team. 

The level proved to be a difficult adjustment for a player who was still more comfortable playing barefoot in the backyard and I was relegated to a bench role. Still, my presence in a team composed mainly of European and South American players, many of whom had left home for academies to play with or against players I’d watched on TV, seemed to score a point for team “hard work pays off”. Over time I adapted somewhat to the speed and intensity of the game, but cracks in my narrative began to emerge. 

Long before coaching, writing, or studying skill acquisition I had been obsessed with the idea of talent. The debate, it seemed to me at the time, was between the nativists, who believed that talent was innate, and those mainly following Anders Ericsson’s model of deliberate practice. I sided strongly with the “practice makes perfect” camp and detested the myth of innate talent, but these positions aren’t as opposite as they may seem at first glance. What my frantic training regimen (obligatory glory days anecdote – I could run five miles in less than a half hour) betrayed was my deep-seated fear that I had been passed over when it came to this innate talent which I so totally didn’t believe in. 

While the team ethic was generally strong, I knew several of the best players were lukewarm in their attitude towards the game I loved so intensely. Some would use minor injuries to shirk training or simply fulfil the minimum requirement. In short, the relationship between commitment and ability seemed more tenuous than I had previously imagined it. I bristled at absurd maxims like “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” which offered a pathetic consolation for those not bequeathed with some magical gift, but I also knew it couldn’t just be a function of training hours. 

Fast forward to the present and Anders Ericsson is now the Rene Descarte of skill acquisition in that trouncing his infamous 10,000 hour rule has become something of a rite of passage. His successors weren’t of the nativist (innate talent) variety, however. As Michael Polanyi, Bruno Latour, Thomas Kuhn, and many other philosophers of science have remarked, research does not occur in a vacuum of cultural and historical interests. Benoit Mandelbrot makes this point elegantly in reference to the problem of measuring coastlines. The length of a coastline is simply a function of the unit of measurement. As the unit of measurement approaches zero, the length of the coastline approaches infinity. Ericsson’s (as well as the nativists) unit of measurement – the Cartesian individual – had begun to fall out of favor in modern research, even if it prevailed in culture at large. 

Ericsson, along with decades of mainstream psychology were guilty of a sin called organismic asymmetry – that seductive tendency to stuff the whole world into the subject’s head by means of internal representations. Both deliberate practice and natural talent failed to see the organism-environment system with its multitude of interacting levels and time-scales. Like most debates, neither side ever won because the debate itself was based on faulty premises. Once the contextually embedded nature of skills became clearer, the idea that they resided solely “inside” an individual became implausible. (I should clarify that there are still many researchers working through a Cartesian paradigm, but the writing is on the wall.) 

As the dust begins to settle and the lights flicker on, it becomes clear that an assumption that has gone unnoticed for centuries of research must be rooted in the most stubborn of ideologies. Resting on the foundation of the Cartesian individual, the structure of modern striving – the milieu in which skill acquisition happens – starts to become transparent . As Max Weber famously pointed out, the protestant work ethic consisted of a sort of paranoid paradox in which one worked in order to realize the success they hoped had already been granted by divine destiny. This tendency became so deeply entrenched in the culture that neither religious commitments or conscious knowledge of it were necessary for its continuation. 

The neuroticism of modernity inevitably bears some resemblance to the formula “I don’t know what I am, and if I’m not everything then I’m nothing.” Our frenzied work serves not to create a reality, but to retroactively prove what already was. Our heroes, naturally, were born under a star. Students no longer go to school to learn, but to prove that they are one of the intelligent ones and throw off that dreaded curse of nothingness. Everything and nothing, as has often been pointed out, are but two sides of the same coin. The whole weight of an identity rides uncomfortably on minuscule fluctuations in performance.

The “race to the bottom” and the talent identification model can now be explained quite easily. The watchful eyes of a big club’s U8 coach stand in for the blessing of god in the original formulation. Those shaky sideline videos might someday show that, yes, little Johnny or Suzy was one of the chosen ones all along. Coaches keen to shine their own star are all too willing to comply. “She was always different from the other children”, they recall decades later. Players begin to drop out of the sport around the time they realize they aren’t among the chosen ones. Other avenues such as social or academic success now provide a more plausible route to the stardom they and their parents hope has been destined for them.

Our society is awakening to this predicament in stages. The phenomenon of path dependence (good explanation here) means that atomistic individuality and linear thinking will be prevalent in both sport and society for quite some time to come. A revolution is already underway, though. Ecological dynamics has laid a foundation for a nonlinear pedagogy in sport. Thinkers like Zachary Stein are helping us rethink the whole process of education. So it is to those sympathetic to this movement that I speak for the remainder of this piece. 

As would-be reformers, we would do well to remember that the protestant work ethic and its attendant issues were birthed in THE reformation. As we begin to study the socio-cultural constraints on sport, we run the risk of reactive moralistic thinking, it becomes easy to envision hegemonic sport practices as an immortal foe, justifying an all-out holy war. Positioning oneself outside of history (as revolutionaries are wont to do) typically ensures that history will look back with the accusation of misguided naivety. 

Sport can become co-opted into a culture war. Critical theorists who don’t write it off entirely look on it with a suspicious gaze. Those burned by the toxicity of modernism detest the hierarchy in sport. Sport too easily lends itself to evils such as heroism and masculinity, they fear. For sport to be acceptable it must be explicitly used as a weapon against the oppressive powers that be. Ironically, children unwittingly enlisted into such a fight are still being commodified. 

Faultfinders of “neoliberalism” who decry the commodification of the beautiful game typically fall into a trap described brilliantly by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Lacan, desire is constituted by a lack. This hole in being, which he calls objet petit a (description here), is not an object itself, but a sort of remainder that we can never get our hands on. It is what emerges, paradoxically, through its own impossibility. We can answer The Office’s Andy Bernard when he says “I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them” by pointing out that only through the act of leaving “the good old days” behind can we perceive them as such. 

Utopian visions for sport can easily make use of the current world system as such a handy impediment. We know we have succumbed to this if our hopes must necessarily reference that which renders them impossible. Nostalgic images of noble Rousseauian savages playing pure football untarnished by capitalism and adults begin to emerge where they may have never existed. Lacan would say that it is the presence of our frustrations that allows us to glimpse the unattainable paradise shimmering beyond them. 

Football, as long as it is played by humans, seems unlikely to stray very far from the shortcomings of the culture it is played within. I’m tempted to quote that eternal pessimist Slavoj Žižek when he says “the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact the headlight of a train approaching us from the opposite direction” but I don’t think that tells the whole story. Though we may not be able to stand outside of history because, as Hegel says, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”, the acceptance of this limitation is not a death sentence for the beautiful game. 

As I look back at my younger self’s aspiration within the game, I doubt that what I needed was a pure and perfect football. As easy as it is to pick apart my neurotic motivations, football itself was still an irreplaceable symbol of transformation to me (and I suspect many others) despite my limitations. It spoke to me where I was while also offering me a pathway to something more. Stadiums inspire awe in us because their gaze allows us to see both our weaknesses and our potential simultaneously – a total reversal of that narcissistic situation. In watching a magician like Ronaldinho I was forced to contrast my rigidity and stiffness with his liberated samba – humbling, yet inspirational. 

Those who wish to take total control of the game in order to sanitize it will be disappointed to find this goal unattainable. The consolation, though, is that neither may it be owned by anyone else. Just as tactics and styles rise to prominence for a time before they are inevitably absorbed by the game, forces of culture will also fade. The magic of football, to me, is that though we must all interact with it through the lens of our time and culture, it is also irreducible to them as evidenced by its tremendous popularity across time and culture. The sport, it seems, reserves the right to forgive these limitations. Intimately connected to us with our struggles and weaknesses, but also always pointing beyond them.

Several decades into (and only just beginning) my relationship with football, all I can say is that it always has, and I expect always will, transcend my conception of it. The best I can do at this point in time, I think, is to quote C. S. Lewis’ classic Narnia 

Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

Myself, Jamie Hamilton, and Alex Newby have begun a project called Beautiful Game Theory in which we will try to get deeper into the ontology of the game by speaking to thinkers from a variety of domains both inside and outside sport. 

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