This piece is a follow-up to The Emperor’s New Clothes: Evidence for Evidence based training where I explained how many common coaching practices are shockingly ineffective when put under the microscope of empirical research. Not only does this research show us what is ineffective, it gives us a solid start towards designing programs that are effective. The question is what lies beyond skill acquisition. Why bother in the first place? I’ve made no secret of my affinity for Self Determination Theory – the research-based theory that relatedness, competency, and autonomy are the three universal needs of all learners, but today I’d like to go beyond even that framework. What I’d like to explore is the potential of sport – what I think it can be.

Although Ericsson’s infamous 10,000 hour rule has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy, he wasn’t wrong in pointing out that a lot of time is involved in acquiring skill. At a fundamental level, sport is a platform we invest in. The health of a sport in a culture or time can be gauged by the way players are able to invest in it. Sport plays a different role in every life, but in a healthy situation it should be a space that players can invest in if they choose.

Some time ago, I was guest-coaching a U13 boys team. It was the second team within the club, but they still trained three times a week and played in a decent league (in which they weren’t faring very well). The usual coach had informed me that they weren’t great trainers and that I should “run them” if they messed around. He wasn’t wrong about their attitude. After about twenty minutes I decided to stop the session and have a quick chat.

I decided to approach the situation with curiosity rather than frustration. “Okay, are all of you here on your own free will?”, I asked first. They assured me that they were indeed all there because they chose to be. “So you guys train three days a week and play games on weekends, and you choose to do all of this, right?” I asked. They affirmed this, and also that they had mostly all been doing this since the age of seven or eight. “That seems like a lot of time to invest in something” I observed. I then pointed out the somewhat comical conflict between the apathy that they were trying so hard to display and the amount of time they chose to put into the sport.

As adults, we might characterize this type of behavior as immature, but it’s fascinating to note that this intentional distancing and hesitancy of investment is almost never seen in the play of very young children. The very young tend to be totally engrossed in their play. There is no separation between the doer and the be-er. It’s no surprise that this total investment of the self coincides with the period of greatest learning in life.

So what do we blame the lack of investment on? As mentioned above, investment is the default position of young children, so it’s worth asking what changes. We can also make the observation that anywhere kids organize their own pick-up games, investment is the norm. What both of these situations have in common is a platform that is transparent, or clear of hidden meanings. It is usually when the platform to be invested in is disguised as one thing (a sport) but is another (a way to make mommy and daddy or coach proud etc.) that investment tapers off. Cliche as it is, it’s that old intrinsic motivation thing again. The closer the sport is to being its own end, the freer its participants are to dive into it.  

If this is true, then there are only two things a coach needs to do. The first is to clear a space for the game to just be the game. The second is to invest yourself. It’s easy to write off the team above as insecure teenagers, but how many coaches quickly distance themselves from poor teams? In my experience, most coaches are waiting around for their chance to coach a star-studded team while all but ignoring the mediocre one they currently have. In confronting whatever feelings arise at the thought of truly caring about the team that will never make you look good, you will understand what the players are going through as well.

So what is sport once these obstacles have been cleared and players have made this type of investment into it? I believe that when all the nonsense is put aside, sport has the potential to be an encounter with the profound. The complete commitment to something that is infinitely bigger than you and inherently uncertain is a feat of courage that opens a door to these encounters. This is a deeply personal phenomenon that resists being defined or boxed in, but we seem to be able to perceive it directly in others. In short, it’s what inspires us.     

It’s almost impossible to imagine one of these players saying they didn’t care after the game. It’s equally difficult to imagine this commitment being the result of anything a coach or anyone else did. It goes without saying that this is a personal investment.

Is this a recipe for success? No. It guarantees nothing, which is precisely why it can give so powerfully. Parents and coaches who emphasize that young players are unlikely to be the next Messi or Ronaldo forget that even those players are not insulated from failure. A spectacle like the World Cup would still dwarf a player with twice the ability of Messi or Ronaldo, and that’s why it moves us so deeply. If you consider the sport as a network of interactions that has absorbed the investments of millions of lives, I’d make the case you could think of it as a living thing.

The only way of approaching something this immense is with deep humility and the courage to experience the unfolding of the unknowable. Players are often ridiculed for displaying emotion on the field, but a distinction needs to be between the entitled displays of emotion shown by those who believe themselves to be above the game, and the emotion that comes from total surrender to the game.

In the first case, an unwillingness to face any outcome leads players to act as if they knew what was going to happen in celebration, and as if they can not accept what has happened in defeat. This is not true of all emotion in sport, though. When the vitality of the game is high, as is usually the case in the World Cup, the emotions of the players are much different. The reaction to defeat has the look of existential agony, but has an undertone of serenity in its lack of contempt. No one would want to play a game that couldn’t make its greatest players cry.

Celebrations, in their most pure form, are reactions of awe to the wonder of interacting with something so powerful. In the 2014 World Cup, US defender John Brooks (a player who hardly would have expected to score on that occasion) not only scored, but dreamt of it two nights before. His reaction upon scoring illustrates the type of encounter we are talking about. The ego has been completely overwhelmed by the interaction and temporarily melted into the fabric of the game. What really happens in that moment is beyond the scope of logical inquiry.

I’d like to be careful to emphasize that this is not only powerful stuff, but deeply personal. As I mentioned with the All Blacks, this is not something that can be externally imposed onto anyone. It is a personal journey. This is not something that coaches should “expect” from players, or DOC’s from coaches. The role of leaders is simply to create a space for this by clearing away the garbage that gets in the way – largely their own.

The post Beyond Mere Skill: Sport as an Encounter with the Profound appeared first on Big Picture Soccer .

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