Every four years the world stops for a month to witness the greatest spectacle of modern sports – the world cup. Tens of thousands of loyal fans travel across the globe to support their nation’s chosen twenty-three. Flags wave and banners unfurl. Emotional anthems pry tears from the eyes of grown men. The songs, chants, and dances of the faithful surrounding the field create a sea of pulsating energy. Many sports are played in an international format, but none as prominently as the beautiful game.
Let’s do a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re watching a world cup game, but you can’t identify the players and you don’t know which teams are playing. Their faces, names, and jerseys are all blurred out so all you see is the movements. Do you think you could guess which teams were playing? My guess is that we’d still be able to recognize the great teams and players. The flair and samba of the Brazilians. The iconic “tiki taka” of the Spaniards, the surgical precision and structure of the Germans, the grace and elegance of the French, the pragmatic but technical Brits. Even at the level of individual players we’d undoubtedly recognize the magical shimmy of Messi streaking past defenders or Ronaldo’s upright posture and bounding gazelle strides.
So what is it that we recognize? No situation happens exactly the same way twice. No movement is ever exactly replicated. What we recognize is a type of pattern. Something that stays the same even if it’s expressed a little bit differently in each of the thousands of unique situations players find themselves in. I’m not talking about a specific favorite skill or even a tactical game-plan here. These patterns that let us recognize players are more abstract than that, but somehow we can recognize them easily. The better a team or player is, the more easily we recognize this mysterious signature.
The answer I propose comes from the legendary developmental psychologist Daniel Stern. Stern’s research has fascinating implications for understanding these patterns we recognize but struggle to describe. Ok here’s the skinny. Stern conducted a series of brilliantly designed experiments that proved babies can do this really cool thing called cross-modal transfer from the moment they’re born. Cross modal transfer is a fancy way of saying you can recognize something that stays the same across different senses like sight, hearing, or touch. For example if there is a light that grows gradually brighter, flickers, and then fades this could be translated into a tone that grows louder, beeps, and then fades.
Because infants recognize these patterns from birth, it’s theorized that this isn’t a learned ability. “Infants thus appear to have an innate general capacity, which can be called amodal perception, to take information received in one sensory modality and somehow translate it into another sensory modality. We do not know how they accomplish this task. The information is probably not experienced as belonging to any one particular sensory mode. More likely it transcends mode or channel and exists in some unknown supra-modal form” (Stern, 1985). It’s this supra-modal form we’re interested in. Stern goes on to call these patterns “forms of vitality”.
What are these mysterious forms of vitality? Technically they are forces and volumes moving in time and space, but what does that mean? Here’s a way of thinking about it. How do you know what dance should go with a certain song? If we put on a song and asked ten different people to dance to it you’d get ten different dances, but there would still be something common across all of them. That common thing is a form of vitality. We recognize it best in open platforms like dance and music. If you see someone dance, you understand something about them that are distinctly outside of language. Some people would call it a vibe or energy. It looks like we can recognize these forms of vitality before we have language or learn about emotions. The evidence seems to point towards an innate recognition of these underlying patterns that can be expressed across different modalities.
These patterns are the root of expression and communication. Language is built on top of the platform of these primary metaphors. Underneath that we have rhythm, song, dance, and yes, the beautiful game. As Groucho Marx once said, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Beneath the measurements and descriptions there are these irreducible patterns of being that can be expressed and understood, but only in that gut-level intuitive way.
The great players are the ones that have been able to express these deepest patterns of being. In the play of creative geniuses like Ronaldinho the game is only being used as a platform to express these forms of vitality. This is why he uses the metaphor of “hearing the music” to describe how he plays, and dances the samba as a celebration. It all expresses an underlying form of vitality. When asked about his mental process, Einstein said he thought neither in pictures or words, but in forces and volumes moving in time and space. To him, the mathematical equations were only a later translation of these patterns that he’d intuited as forms of vitality. Forms of vitality need not be full of flair like the Brazilians. The staunch defending of the Italians expresses a very different form of vitality.
So why do players and teams who are able to express these forms of vitality tend to have greater success on the field? The short answer is that we don’t really know yet. We know someone like Pirlo belongs with the great artists, but at this point there is neither an objective measurement for this genius or a blueprint to reach it. My hunch is that there is a shift in the temporal dynamics of subjective experience of the performer in these states, but what we don’t know about this could probably fill several libraries. For now, it’s still magic, which is why we’ll pay so much to watch it, or sacrifice everything just to feel it for a minute on the field.
Stern, D. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Basic Books.