Google+ Blueprint for Football: September 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Perception is in the Eye of the Beholder

Within instances of the ball arriving at his feet, Xavi Hernandez looks around him, takes in what runs his team-mates are making and then moves the ball on.  It is a simple process yet, within a team of the ball playing ability of Barcelona, it is also a devastating one; capable of ripping to shreds the best laid plans of most teams.

Few players embody Barcelona’s style of play as much as Xavi.  His ability to pass through bigger and more physically imposing players mirrors his team’s favoured way of winning games.   It is difficult to determine what is more impressive; whether it is the fluidity or the speed at which all of their attacks are created.  No matter how tight opposing teams try marking Xavi – or his teammates, for the matter – they always seem to find a way through.

The main reason for this is that Xavi is a fantastically talented player, one who can see the game in a way few in the world can.

Why is that the case, however?  What is it that makes him so special?

Those are the questions that Geir Jordet has been trying to answer and answer in a very specific method: by looking at players’ faces during games.

One typical study involved using video images from Sky Sport’s split screen – the larger image focusing on the player whilst the smaller image showing the overall play – he analysed 64 games from the Premier League.  Attention was focused on situations where the player had relevant information behind his back that he had to detect.  As for the players’ visual movement, he looked at instances where players’ faces were temporarily and actively directed away from the ball looking for teammates, opponents and scanning the environment.

Such studies have allowed him to develop a number of ground-breaking ideas about what he terms visual exploration.

“Visual exploration is the behaviours that people need to conduct in order to perceive,” he explains.  “So perception, which is actually processing information, is obviously something that a good football player needs to be good at in order to make his decisions on the pitch.” 

“Good perception is active perception.  I think there is a misunderstanding that perception can happen by passively absorbing information.  In my studies it seems that effective perception is active which means that you have to hunt for information, you have to actively go out and obtain information.  This leads to the whole concept of visual exploration which is, very concisely, moving your head and moving your eyes in order to perceive.”

The insight that Geir’s work delivers is that a player’s ability to ‘know’ where others are on the pitch is neither accidental nor solely the function of his skill.  Instead, it is all down to how much he looks at what is happening around him before he gets the ball.

“That is something that every coach and probably every player knows which is that you have to look before you get the ball.  That way you are prepared for when you do get the ball and not start preparing at that late point.” 

“What I've done, which I don't think many people have done, is to actually go in and analyse exactly what happens with some of the best players in the world in the seconds before they get the ball.  And there is so much activity going on.  There is so much looking, there is so much searching and there is so much exploration.  That is why I find the players who explore the most actively in that period before they get the ball they also perform better when they get the ball.  I think that there is a need to focus a bit more on that side of the game then what people usually do.”
It is this ability that distinguishes the great players from the rest. 

“This is the case on multiple levels.  What I find in my studies is that at the simplest level players that look more also perform better.  That seems to be a very consistent finding across situations, across leagues and across levels.”

“I also find that the better players explore more actively, they search more in the seconds before they get the ball.  You can also dig into the nuances of this and the details of it.” 

“I think that the better players adapt more to the situations, they time their explorations to the kind of situation they find themselves in, how much time they have, how important it is to look at the ball versus looking at their surroundings.” 

“Generally I think that players tend to look too much at the ball; you don't really need all the information you get from the ball.  Ideally players should, in my opinion, only look to get the necessary minimum from the ball and spend the rest of the time looking at their surroundings.”

It might be easy to assume that all this applies only to midfield players after all, they are the heartbeat of the team and they are the ones who dictate the rhythm of the game.  But that isn’t the case.

“It is important for all players to have a good vision of what is happening around them during different types of situations and different environments.”

“We've done studies on central defenders in defensive situations, it is the same there.  If I am defending my goal against a cross the side, do I only look at the ball and the opponents crossing the ball?  Or do I have a vision of what is around me?” 

“We have found that the better players are much better able to explore before that cross is hit and are more capable of seeing what there is around them than the inferior players. And we have found that it is the same for midfield players and forward players.”

Looking across the Spanish teams that have dominated world football for the past five years, they are full of players who have this awareness.  It could be that they have been blessed with a generation of supremely talented players but that feels too naïve; too simplistic.  Another, more plausible, explanation is that they are coached in a way that helps them develop this particular skill.

It is a theory that has Geir’s approval.

“Like all skills there is always a combination of something that you bring to the table and the training and the exposure you have to different situations,” he explains.

“I also think that the proportion of the skill that is learned due to the deliberate exposure to the experience is very big.”

“Xavi is a good example.  He doesn't just look, he is one of the most active players out there; he doesn't automatically know what is around him, is constantly searching, constantly looking.  And, of course, that is something that he probably was doing from an early age so he's gotten used to dealing with that information too.”

“This is a function of the repetition and the exposure.  And this is something that people can start to learn from an early age.  I don't know how early we teach kids to look left and right before they cross the street, that's probably when they're three years old.  One can argue that they're not proficient at it when they're three years old because if a balls rolls onto the street then they'll go chasing after it.  But the point is that you can learn this from an early age.”

“When I look at this I find it very interesting to see how much can be learned and how much comes from deliberate exposure and I think that is pretty big.”

The key question, then, is how do you coach this?

“There many ways you can do it.  I find that - both for kids and for adults - an important part is becoming aware of these processes. An effective way to do this is to show video images of some of the biggest players out there to make them see how active perception is, how actively these players explore.”

“Another effective way is to shoot videos of the players themselves so that they get to see how they behave in these situations.  You can then discuss this with them to see whether they are sufficiently prepared and if they sufficiently oriented before they get the ball.”

“And then it is about coaching drills and exercises.  There are many ways to do it from transforming simple passing and receiving exercises making players explore before they get the ball even if there is nothing happening around you so that you get accustomed to receiving the ball without looking at it at every single second.” 

Of late, a lot has been said about statistics and how these can be developed to offer clubs an advantage.  Yet the results of Geir’s work could have a similar impact not only in the development of players but also in the identification of talent and players a club is thinking of signing.

“You can definitely scout this.  The way we have done this research is that we have very precise criteria; we have very specific criteria so we can really quantify the extent to which players are doing this.”

“The two players in all my analysis that score the highest using these criteria over the 150 players that I measured are Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.  These are two players who are very good at this, seeing good passes and sensing where to pass the ball.”

“So you can model scouting on some of these factors.  Of course, you need to get a lot of these details right and it is not a job that you can do without preparing and having the database to check it afterwards.”

For all the insight that it provides, all of this measuring, takes away some of the magic from watching the truly great players.  This comment resonates with a recent experience Geir had. 

“I gave an interview with the Dutch coaching magazine which is called The Football Trainer.  They did an editorial about this research that I have done where they basically said that until this research they were thinking about these huge stars like Pirlo, like Xavi, like Lampard that they had this gift that made them able to see more than others and be more creative than the others.  Then they said ‘thank you Geir for ruining this image for us, now all our delusions are gone!’ ” he laughed 

“I have to say that it does not measure everything, it just measures the pre-condition for great vision but it is a very important pre-condition as you have to direct your eyes toward the relevant information.  What we're not measuring is what you are doing with the information and how you are processing that information.  That is still a skill that is hard to measure.  It gives you a piece of the picture but not the whole picture.”

For The Coaches: Ways of Teaching Perception
“You can build that up, you can have players behind your back that you have to perceive to be successful at the exercise so that you only turn with the ball if the player behind you has given you space to do it but you actually have to check your shoulder to see if you have that space.”

“Then you can take it in game situations.  You can coach players in small sided games.  You can put in conditions where you score a point for your team when you're successfully able to turn with the ball so that you learn to check that you can turn.”

“You can have limitations in terms of the number of touches of the ball.  You can freeze the play and ask players before they have a chance to turn around and see what is behind them "who is behind you and where are they situated?"  You can do that a couple of times and if they are not attentive I can assure you that they will soon be paying attention because they won't want to be humiliated again.  There are tons of things that you can do.  It is about being creative and getting the context right.”

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Foreign Lessons Vital for Coaches' Development

The following was originally published on Blueprint for Football Extra.  Make sure you get your free copy.

Given the nature and controversy surrounding Gus Poyet’s dismissal as manager of Brighton, the announcement of his successor’s name passed by without too many people noticing.  

Yet again, Brighton went for a left-field, adventurous appointment in the form of forty year old Spaniard Oscar Garcia, an unknown in England but someone who, despite his young age, has quite a bit of history behind him.

Last summer, Garcia was appointed as manager at Maccabi Tel Aviv, a job that he got thanks to his former team-mate at Barcelona Jordi Cruyyf, the Israeli side’s director of football, who had been impressed by the job that he had done at Barcelona B.  Justifiably so, as it turned out: in his one and only season in Israel Garcia won the league title ending the club’s ten year wait for a championship.

What’s interesting, however, isn’t how he did in Israel but rather the fact that he took that job.  As the man who had had led Barcelona’s famed B side, Oscar could easily have gotten a job at a high level in Spain but instead he took the risky decision of moving abroad to a league which doesn’t get a lot of attention.

It is undeniably hard for a manager to move abroad and work in a culture that is completely alien to him.    If he wants to properly communicate with his players he’ll have to learn the local language just as he will have to get a better feel of the mentality of his new charges if he wants to drive them to achieve what he wants to achieve.  Neither of those is an easy task

But perhaps the biggest difficulty is the risk that such a move poses.  Unfortunately, once a manager spends some time abroad it is easy for him to be forgotten.  Unless he’s managing at one of the top leagues there’s every possibility that whatever success he manages to achieve gets dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet if you really want to test yourself and maximise how much you learn, such an experience can be vital if you want to get to the top.  Pep Guardiola’s thoughts on coaching were very much influenced by his experience as a player at Brescia whilst Rafa Benitez spent a year touring Europe, watching how the continent’s finest managers coached their teams.  Jose Mourinho got his first experience by being an assistant to Bobby Robson and Luis Van Gaal at Barcelona.

Today it is easier than ever before to see how the finest sides from all over the world play; to analyse the way that they are set up tactically.  And that is a crucial element in the preparation of a coach.

But the real knowledge comes from playing against different teams with different systems.  It comes from experiencing directly how players are developed; what kind of coaching they get.  That kind of immersion in an alien culture can be invaluable in the development of a coach.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Secrets of the Talent Spotters

Each day thousands upon thousands of words are written about football.  A lot of it is fluff; guess work by those who either wrongfully imply they have contacts within the game or else argumentative nothing by people trying to show how clever they are.

There is very little which gives you real insight into how the game works; very little from which you walk away feeling that you’re slightly more capable in discerning what is happening.

The Nowhere Men is one such rarity.  As he journeys into the world of football scouting, talking to an impressive number of people who work in that area, Michael Calvin slowly shows you what goes into scouting a player, bringing down the illusion – for those naïve enough to believe it – that selecting a player to add to a squad is any easy process.

In it – and in this interview – he shows how the best scouts go about forming an opinion on players and why some clubs hold back from signing a player even though there is both the financial ability by the club and talent on the part of the player.

What made you think of writing a book about football scouts?
We live in a world were football is massively over exposed.  We know every last thing that happens in the game, players present a certain image of themselves, clubs work increasingly hard at massaging their image as well.  One area people know very little about is scouting and recruitment. And that's strange because if you look at it scouts are central to the mythology of football.  They are the faceless men who stand on the touchline and spot raw talent.  But no one really knows who they are, were they are, how they operate and why they do what they do.  It is a really disconnected life, a lot of time on the road, eating on the run.  The thing is that they're not really appreciated by the game itself.  That's the one thing that really surprised me in the fifteen months that I spent on the road with these guys.

They were almost disrespected by their game and their clubs, to a degree, and that really did surprise me. 

How long did you spend researching and interviewing people?  And how did you decide who to talk to?
15 months is about what I spent on the road.  

Football is a very big industry but a very small world.  I got the idea through a guy called Jamie Johnson who is Millwall's chief scout.  For a previous book, which is called Family, I spent a year basically embedded at Milwall FC, which is an interesting club; uniquely challenging in many ways but which I found to be really rewarding.  One of the chapters was on the scouting process, dealing with Jamie and a guy called Steve Jones who was there at the time.  

We were talking in the manager’s office after a game and Jamie said "you should do a book about us scouts".  It was interesting because that chapter, in a book that was very well received and was nominated for the sports book of the year, did get a big reaction from the public.  So I said "well, let's have a look". 

In football you use your contacts so I started off with Jamie and Steve and asked "what are their networks like?".  Steve became one of the central characters of The Nowhere Men because over the course of the fifteen months he had seven clubs.  He is someone who I call a mileage man where he doesn't get paid any money but only gets 40p a mile.  

I can vividly remember one night when he was working for Sheffield United.  We did a game at Charlton where he was basically doing opposition report for the next game.  On that night Steve worked for 8 hours, did a 13 page report with about 1,700 words and he had to make sure that it was annotated and computerised.  For all of that he got £4 because he lived close to Charlton and it was just a 10 mile round trip.  That blew my head off, that you could do that much work for that little money.  That's quite a typical story.

The other side was that through Jamie I met his dad Mel.  He was a chief scout at QPR, went as a chief scout at Tottenham under Damien Comolli and helped get Gareth Bale in there which, in hindsight, was a very good piece of business.  And he then moved to Liverpool after a brief spell at Newcastle.  He has been in the game for 27 years and no one had ever asked him his story.  

Mel became a bit like my mentor.  We did a succession of games together and that was really fascinating as he told me what the eternal truth of scouting is.  It was about the second game we did together and it was the England U19s against the Czech Republic. 

Mel was looking at a young goalkeeper that he quite liked for Liverpool who was a young Czech kid who had just moved to Genoa in Italy.  So we started to watch the game and after five minutes Mel said, "look, you're making the mistake of every coach and manager that come to watch a player with me: you're watching the game."  I said "surely, that's what it is all about, watching the game".  He said, "you're like a manager watching the flow of the game, following the ball, looking at the systems...just watch your man."  That really came into focus really well because then it becomes a very intimate and individual process.  We were watching this Czech goalkeeper, the ball was at the other end and you were watching how he communicates with his defence when there was a set piece at the other end, did he maintain his concentration, what was his positioning like.

Basically it became more and more important as time went on.  

Mel and I did a game where we were watching the goalkeeper Jack Butland and Liverpool had been following him for a couple of years. Mel had watched him some nine times in places as far apart as Colombia and Switzerland.  Jack had gone on loan to Cheltenham in League Two, he was playing this Friday night game at Southend and he had a complete and utter nightmare. He was awful, hesitant, didn't come off his line, basically culpable for all four goals in the game.

Watching him intently - I didn't watch any player but him - and that was really fascinating because you got behind his eyes and into his brain.  And that was fascinating because the moment after he had conceded his fourth goal and his defence had pretty much had enough of him, they'd turned their backs to him.  He made a couple of hesitant steps towards the penalty spot and then started to chew the neckband of his shirt.  At that moment I saw the little boy in a man's game.  

It was also interesting to see Mel's reaction because there had been some debate within the club about him.  Quite a few people had gone to watch him and the doubt was about whether he commanded his area enough.  That game probably told me that he didn't.  The bizarre thing was that within four months he was playing for Team GB and within five and a half months he was making his full England debut.

Mel's reaction was very tender "Oh Jack, what have you done!".  On the way home he got a text from Jack's agent asking how it went and he just sent him back a brief text saying "Don't ask". 

Did you find the scouts to be an open group?
They were surprisingly open.  As a journalist and as a writer I'm transparent about what I do and work out of mutual trust and respect.  

The book I did about Milwall helped a lot because there were a number of managers who had read it.  Because I had such access and it was such an authentic picture that people understood what I was about and it was trying to capture a culture and present it in an honest way without shying away from some of the difficulties of the game.  

There was a lot of 'what's Mike like?' but once I got over that they pretty much opened up.  It was in their brain that they had this knowledge and they had this experience and which had been pretty much ignored.  I think that worked in my favour, to be honest.  

Scouts are particular in that they spend their lives together so that it is impossible that friendships don't grow out of it.  Yet they are still rivals.  They had that intimacy but still had that kind of distance.  I found them to be great.  

I really grew to like Mel an awful lot and during the course of the book there was Comolli leaving, followed by Kenny and then Brendan coming in.  At that stage I wondered if he would survive.  He had helped me so much that there was a personal attachment to him.  Thankfully, it has worked out pretty well.  Brendan's people have come in with a slightly different approach - he's brought in some good people in particular Dave Fallows who I think is very, very good - and they've recognised the on-the-road experience of Mel.  

Liverpool now are a very analytical club in terms of Farrow, who is one of the great innovators in the field. He is helped by Michael Edwards and they have an analytical approach.  I think that such a type has to be balanced by the eye of the scout.

In the book, Damian Comolli said "look at the Boston Red Sox."  They have the guru of sabremetrics in Bill James and a very strong sabremetric culture but they've also got a network of 50 scouts.  So I don't think one can exist without the other.  I think that you need both sides and I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate the top of the old school scouts and I would put Mel in that bracket.  I think he's one of the best in his field.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  These guys have a role and they should have a future.

I have always been a great believer in trends and what happens in the States usually manifests itself in the culture over here between 5 to 1 years later.  In baseball, teams are hiring engineers to crunch the numbers and they are making great strides in the area of psycho-analysis of players.  They address one of the key weaknesses of the system.

In the book there is a guy called Scott McLachlan, who is the head of international scouts at Chelsea, who made the point perfectly.  I can go out and buy an office printer which I know will get me 50,000 copies, it prints in colour and in three or four years I will probably have to get another one.

Yet when we spend £50 million pounds on a player - and I think he was probably talking about Fernando Torres - we don't know what we've got until he walks through the door.  What motivates him?  Is it money?  Is it glory? Is it his family? Is it his ego?  We don't know.

In any other business, when you've made that massive investment you would have psycho-metric testing but in football you can't do that because the person you want to test is the property of another club.

I think will be happening at youth level.  I know that Tottenham are testing their young players.  I don't know about Liverpool but I really like Frank McParland and I think that he'll be looking at that.  I see that as a big area of growth, this whole idea of due diligence.

I spoke to Mike Rigg who was at Manchester City before moving to QPR with Mark Hughes.  He showed me a 56 page dossier that they had compiled at Alexis Sanchez trying to get the due diligence done.  Mike and Barry Hunter, who is now at Liverpool, basically followed him around for four days.  They posed as fans and asked for his autograph to see what he was like.  They watched what he was like with waiters, whether he was polite.  They watched what he did when he went out with friends, did he take a coffee or a beer?  That kind of stuff which is pretty much off the cuff.  I foresee a time when it will be common to assess a player to that level before you spend the money.  They were doing what they could and, as it happens, he went to Barcelona instead of Manchester City.  

Liverpool is a club, I think, which were quicker off the mark than most over the potential of analytics.  Jury is out on Damien Comolli, I wasn't convinced to be honest.  In the book, Matthew Benham who is the owner of Brentford was asked discretely by Frank McParland to go up and see Damien at Melwood and he wasn't impressed by him.   Damien's certainty that he was right and Matt Benham is someone who has made millions of pounds from a statistical analysis - he is essentially a professional gambler who employs 17 PhD graduates to come up with his algorithms.  He was amazed by Damien's certainty that his model is correct.  Matt said that if you've got a maths or statistics background you would never say that because it is just not viable.

When you talk to scouts you always get stories about who they spotted.  However, is it ever that clear cut? Surely, a number of people look at a player before they are signed?
There has to be a consensus of opinion and it goes up the chain.  The manager or head coach should see a player.  I don't know if that is always the case but they should do.  

The most impressive set-up that I saw was Everton's under David Moyes which is his recruitment room which distils everything about their recruitments process.

There is almost a David Moyes mind-map.  He envisages his starting eleven for this season and the next three seasons.  That gives him an idea of where the gaps will appear and for the strategic recruitment area.  

David was really collegiate.  Although he was old school autocratic manager - he demands ultimate responsibility and wants to carry the can - he does have great trust in the people around him.  He had half a dozen advisors, chief scout, first team coach, assistants, a guy called James Smith who is the head of technical scouting.  They all had an influence in the process.  David had created what he called his MOT test: basically twelve criteria for each position to be fulfilled.  The optimum was something like 50 detailed reports from at least 10 to 12 guys so that you get that consensus emerging.  You and I could go to a game and see the same team but we might interpret it differently.  

For example, there's a guy who goes to the by-line, beats three players, cuts inside and has a shot; and that's all he does during the game.  Now if I'm a glass half-empty kind of person I might say that he didn't do a lot.  You might be the glass half full guy and say, well he didn't have a great game but there was something when he cut in.  So that's the sort of thing they're trying to neutralise. There was a brilliant simplicity in the system David had at Everton.  As I said, it was probably the most brilliant system that I saw.

Do you think that you're a better judge of a player now?
Yes I do, funnily enough.  Without wanting to big myself up, I think I have.  I've been in the game for 30 years watched thousands of games. However, talking to scouts, I think that's where I learned more about players.  If you are an engineer you are a product of your experience and it is the same with football.  You can only get better by experiencing new things.  

This week I got a phonecall from David Pleat earlier this week and he had been to see Tottenham's development team play against MK Dons.  He told me that MK Dons had this kid who was going to be fantastic and, before he could told me who it was, I said 'I bet you're talking about Dele Alli' because I have seen him play.  That was who he was talking about and he said, 'you've become a scout, haven't you?'  I think that's one of the finest compliments I've ever received.

Today there seems to be the belief that we're in a different age but then you see old-time Arsenal talent spotter Terry Murphy talk about looking for intelligent players and you realise that not that much has changed, has it?
I took about four years out of journalism to set up English Institute of Sport and we did some strategic work supporting Olympic sport.  One of the areas that we looked at was whether there is any correlation between the academic intelligence and sporting performance and couldn't find any.  

What players need above all is good coaching.  That is the area where we are lacking.  The scout can source the player but he has to hand him over to the coach.  If the coach doesn't help them progress then is nothing that the scout can do.  I don't think the coaching structure is good enough.  I spent three months in Australia to see how they managed athletes and we are miles behind. 

Finally, why should people read The Nowhere Men?
This is last great unexplored area in football and it will complete people's knowledge of the game. Seeing what they do, how much they work and how little respect they get will help them realise that football has got its values wrong.  Football should be promoting these people because they are central to this process.

The Nowhere Men (kindle edition here) comes with Blueprint for Football's highest recommendation.  Frankly, we see it as a must read.   Michael Calvin can be followed on twitter here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

NextGen Series Loss is a Big Blow for Clubs

When an e-mail arrived from the organisers of the Next Gen Series – a Champions League style of competition that pitted against each other some of Europe’s football academies – I was expected confirmation of an interview with the tournament’s organisers that I had been trying to set up for some weeks.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.  Instead, it was a notice of a brief press release that the tournament was being suspended for a year because it had been unable to guarantee the funding that it required.  The fact that some months earlier UEFA had announced the setting up of the Youth League, a similar competition involving youth sides of clubs in the Champions League –thereby potentially taking away some of the most attractive names in the competition – might have played a part.

Regardless of the reason, it will be greatly missed.  As Bryan Jones, academy director of reigning champions Aston Villa, said “the competition is one of greatest development tools for young professional players in this country, providing as it does elite competition against some of the best clubs around Europe, and it will be lost to us this season. It's shameful and it's hugely disappointing.”

And well they should be disappointed because suddenly, a competition that was seriously assisting clubs in the development of talent is no longer there.  For English sides, this means that they are left with the increasingly inadequate Under 21's league.  

There is the perception that what was wrong with this league the lack of games played by each team and, to an extent, it is a significant issue.  But it isn’t the main one.

Where the reserves league was and the Under 21 league is failing players is in the overall level.  Kids are playing against other kids which, inevitably, limits the extent to which they can progress.  In his book The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle argues that improvement happens when one stretches for something that is slightly out of reach.  

It is why the NextGen tournament had been so widely appreciated by coaches.  In it they got to play against teams from different countries and with different tactical approaches: it provided a tougher challenge than usual and allowed the players to grow.

In the Under 21's, players might get to face teams that contain slightly better individuals but in truth everyone is at the same level of experience.

Indeed, there is research that seems to back this up such.  Earlier this year, the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology published an article by Lyndell Bruce, Damian Farrow and Annette Raynor titled “Performance Milestones in the Development of Expertise: Are They Critical?”.  This involved looking at the training history of fifty-seven female netball players to examine whether there were certain achievements in their development which might be indicative of the eventual level of expertise.  In other words, they were looking for factors which might be indicative of an athlete’s eventual performance level.

As with any such study a number of results came out.  Interestingly, one of these was that  expert players – those who go on to compete at international level – tend to have competed at an adult level earlier than those who do not reach this level.

To an extent, this is simply down to the fact that those who go on to become experts are those who had more natural talent.  Yet playing at a higher level at an early age allowed them reach developmental milestones earlier.  Their motor skills develop more, they understand how much harder they have to work and they get a better appreciation of the tactics.

That is not to say that this is a conclusive argument in this respect, but it is certainly indicative*.  There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to support this theory.  Is it perhaps coincidental that Spanish and German football is having greater success at developing players given that the B sides of most major teams are allowed to play senior football in professional leagues?

That is why the demise of the Next Gen series will be felt more in England: it gave players at English teams the opportunity to experience a new challenge.  As Daniel Coyle would undoubtedly put it; it gave them an opportunity to stretch to achieve more.

It now remains to be seen what kind of an impact the UEFA organised competition will have.  Given that not every club in the Champions League places the same level of attention to its youth system, it will undoubtedly result in a number of mismatched games.  That much has been acknowledged by UEFA itself, albeit indirectly through its decision allowing teams not to take part if they didn’t want to.

Arguably, UEFA’s competition is a knee-jerk answer to the success of the Next Gen series and is fuelled more by its desire to stop any other organisation from getting a slice of the pie than it is by any particular wish to offer a development opportunity for clubs’ youths.  Which, it goes without saying, is a huge pity.

*In coming months I will be looking through additional papers and studies that might have carried out research in this area to see whether there is a greater academic body of study to support these theories.

This piece originally appeared on Blueprint for Football Extra.  Sign up for your free copy.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

[Cross Cultural Communications Series] The Final Word

This is the final part in a series of six articles by Dr Ian Lawrence and is based on the work he did on his paper The Sport and Cross-Cultural Communication: Applications to and from Professional Soccer in the English Premier League"

With globalization, countries are experiencing increasing diversity in the composition of their population; this is also clearly identified within the multi-cultural composition of most Premiership teams. 

Modern society is bringing together more people who speak different languages, practice different religions, hold different political views, have vastly different amounts of wealth or poverty, practice different sexual orientations, and more. Yet, the fact of the matter is that all individuals that are part of this international system are human, and in order to increase understanding amongst these different peoples, we must pay more attention to our similarities. 

Individual differences will lead to conflict at times, but we can avoid many disputes by understanding other cultures, which then explains different motivations, intentions and perceptual frameworks. Improving cultural relations are not going to solve the world’s problems, but they can certainly aid in better relations between international groups.

It is imperative that we enhance international understanding firstly at a local level, beginning with the individual. Larger units and systems will continue to have difficulties in communicating effectively if the individuals that inhabit these groups are ignorant of cultural differences within the system. Person to person exchanges can be used as excellent channels of improving cross-cultural communication. Every person has distinct cultural values, which are not only based on their nationalities, but also on their race, family heritage, religion, socio-economic background, and political views and financial situation, to name a few. 

All of these components contribute to a person’s culture, none of which is isolated from another. Somehow, all of these factors contribute to one’s perceptions and motivations, and some contribute more heavily than others. Without communicating with people who come from these varying cultural backgrounds, managers cannot expect to understand why their belief systems might differ. For that reason, it is essential that they make use of the most effective channels of cross-cultural communication.

The notion that sport can be used or abused cannot be overemphasized, as a plethora of examples exist to support both arguments. The language of sport that all people can share is relative, considering these variations of cultural values that shape sporting activities. Many aspects of soccer, such as the rules of the game, are standardized all over the world, but as I have shown, there are many cultural values that affect the prominent styles, structures, and forms of sport. It is evident that sport cannot be separated from political, economic, and social realms of society. Depending on the structure and level of sport, participants and spectators can benefit from its values that are generally conceived as inherent traits, such as fair and competitive play, which are beneficial for one’s overall health.

This series of articles has endeavoured to illustrate why it is important for professional managers in soccer to develop an understanding of cultural and ethnic differences in sport participation. The development of skills for effective communication with people from a range of different cultural groups can be seen as core skills for managers.

There is still too little research (especially participant observation accounts) from the perspective of players who are members of non-dominant ethnic groups.

Research from these perspectives is needed to understand the experiences of such players. There is also a need for detailed case studies of successful or effective management styles in sport organisations that include participants from a range of ethnic groups. By mapping the experience of cultural difference in sport, and by identifying best practice for the management of cultural diversity in sport, sport managers will become more effective. In the process, the academic study of sport management may make a distinctive contribution to the burgeoning literature on the methods and challenges of managing across cultures. 

This series calls for professional soccer manages to adopt a synergistic orientation towards their supervision of athletes towards what may be defined as a more ‘cosmopolitan’ orientation, displaying effective intercultural communication and negotiation skills. This may help to facilitate a worldview that focuses more on listening to the athlete’s concerns and allows the athlete to find his or her own way.  

The incorporation of a multicultural worldview would allow the manager and support team to consider the cultural context of the athlete. A multicultural worldview would therefore encompasses group identity (i.e., cultural consciousness), individual identity (i.e., self-concept), beliefs (e.g., spirituality), values (e.g., family), and language. There is evidently room for elite soccer coaches to examine their own perceptions (and in some cases, misperceptions!) regarding player cultures before attempting to understand or work with individuals from such cultures.

New innovative and reflective manager training courses are clearly required to allow individuals to manage their responsibilities as effectively as possible and facilitate critical interventions. One such initiative in Britain is the training program available to all football managers at Warwick Business School in the UK (certificate in Applied Management) (Russell, 2005). This new qualification is unique in European football and contains training in marketing, media relations, sports psychology, branding, and influencing skills. 

In England, up until the creation of the UEFA professional license in 2002, the main qualification for football management seems to have been being a former player. In Germany, in contrast, aspiring managers have to undergo a mandatory apprenticeship of two years in the lower leagues. The challenge to develop a management education course is to allow prospective candidates to learn effectively from their experience. 

Cognitive skills grow from experience and a course which allows individuals to reflect on their skills will inevitably enhance their effectiveness in a dynamic, diverse and complex activity.

Dr. Ian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Business Management and Marketing at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

Friday, September 6, 2013

[Cross Cultural Communications Series] Good to Talk

This is the fifth part in a series of six articles by Dr Ian Lawrence and is based on the work he did on his paper "The Sport and Cross-Cultural Communication: Applications to and from Professional Soccer in the English Premier League"

I have discussed the importance of intercultural communication, as well as its benefits in cross-cultural situations. Moreover, the human aspect of communication is very significant, and in order to learn about another culture, I would suggest that it is a component that cannot be ignored. 

Communication between players and staff within a club can only improve by starting at the individual level. All communication originates at this individual, and in order to improve understanding at a higher level within the club environment, we must start with individuals, then proceed to sub-units, units, sub-systems, and finally, end with larger systems. 

Again, the most fundamental concept of the system is that there are many parts that make it whole, and each of those parts contributes to the overall success or failure of effective communication at higher levels.

Within professional soccer, social and political stature is very important. Also, responsibility is hierarchical within the system, so soccer managers, for example, are ultimately held responsible for any player related troubles on and off the field of play. These aspects are in direct opposition with the low-context characteristics of wider English culture. Before acting on their beliefs or cultural norms, managers must take such characteristics into account. 

The Manager / Player Relationship
Although no scientific studies have examined the relationship between association football managers and players, recent research has developed a clearer understanding of important features of successful coach-athlete relationships.   Jowett and colleagues explored the reciprocal nature of such relationships, giving particular emphasis to affective, behavioral and cognitive factors. This research focused on how coaches and athletes influence each other and the interdependency that is evident. 

Initially, Jowett and others highlighted the importance of the three C’s of closeness, commitment and complementarity to coach-athlete relations.

Closeness refers to feelings and perceptions that appear to be a function of interpersonal factors such as liking, trust, and respect. Open channels of communication, voicing of needs, effective problem-solving, acceptance and appreciation characterize closeness. Importantly, such qualities as trust and respect have been associated with successful coaching, while their absence is linked to less harmony and less support.

Commitment appears to reflect oneness of thought between coach and athlete, and is defined as an intention to maintain and optimize relations.  When performances fall below expectations, commitment can guard against retaliation by promoting accommodation, and this is characterized by flexibility when change is necessary.  A lack of commitment has been shown to be linked to criticism, communication breakdown and a lack of common goals.

Complementarity, the third C, reflects a positive working environment where coach and athlete work together to attempt to improve performance.  It has been suggested that complementarily has been found to relate to both high levels of performance and greater satisfaction with the relationship. More recently, a fourth factor has been proposed, co-orientation, which still requires further investigation, but reflects coach and athlete perceptions of how the other perceives them. Extending this research to incorporate manager and player relationships would certainly help to extend knowledge of interpersonal relations within football. 

Dr. Ian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Business Management and Marketing at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

[Cross Cultural Communications Series] Managing Culture, and Ethnicity

This is the fourth part in a series of six articles by Dr Ian Lawrence and is based on the work he did on his paper "The Sport and Cross-Cultural Communication: Applications to and from Professional Soccer in the English Premier League"

There are a number of areas involving ethnic or cultural issues in soccer where managers can play a crucial role in fostering positive outcomes. The policies and practices adopted by managers will often determine whether the longer-term outcomes for their sport code are successful or clouded by controversy or conflict. Some examples are racism and discrimination in sport, initiatives for ethnic and cultural pluralism in sport, recruitment and turnover, and motivation and involvement.

Racism and Discrimination
Racism has been evident towards members of non-dominant ethnic groups in many sport settings around the world. Recent literature and media coverage has highlighted concerns about racism in many sporting codes in the UK. Non-white players have been harassed and discriminated against by white players within the same team, players from opposing teams, and by racist spectators. The relative lack of opportunities for players not of Anglo-Celtic origins has led to the development of teams composed primarily of one or more (non-white) ethnic groups. The formation of these teams is likely to have been, in some cases, a result of the ethnic barriers maintained by white sport managers. 

Soccer codes of conduct have lacked rules and penalties relating to racist abuse by players. Managers on occasions have allowed players perpetrating racist abuse to escape without penalty. Racist abuse, along with bullying and other forms of harassment has undoubtedly prevented many ethnic minorities and other non-white players from entering a number of sporting arenas, or prevented them from being promoted into senior management.

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings ... A Global Perspective
Cross-cultural communication is one of the most important, yet neglected aspects of intra-organisational relations, and therefore, deserves closer analysis. Contrary to what many assume, an increase in interaction between people of different cultures does not usually expand cross-cultural understanding, but instead, reinforces our awareness of our own culture, which actually heightens the probability that conflict will ensue.

Therefore, managers must recognize the values that they share with people of other cultures in order to understand the values of those cultures that differ from their own. If they cannot relate on an individual level, units cannot connect at higher levels of international systems. Buzan and Little  state that, “interaction is fundamental to any conception of a system. Without interaction, the parts or units are disconnected and free-standing”.

If cultural interaction can have substantial effects on any given formal system it would benefit the system to increase cross-cultural understanding so that this type of interaction does not result in conflict. Transmitting ideas can occur at the individual level, and does not necessarily require the intervention of larger units, such as states. Yet, every individual exists within a larger unit within the system. Therefore, we cannot undermine the significance of improving relations between individuals, as this influences the level of understanding that permeates the entire club. 

To best facilitate cross-cultural communication between various actors within the any system it is clear that person-to-person communication between people of different cultures must be improved before we can ameliorate cultural communication problems between groups both on and off the soccer field. 

In other words, I would argue that this process must first take place at an individual level. I also defend the notion that conflict in general most often begins due to misperceptions of another’s intentions and/or motives. By gaining an understanding of perceptions and perspectives of individuals of cultures other than our own, we decrease the chances of misinterpreting others’ actions, which then reduces the chances of creating conflict.

I would suggest that it is the language of sport that can be shared cross-culturally, and it is those aspects that allow us to understand others’ intentions and motives. While we may not be capable of understanding every spoken language that exists within the current professional soccer club, we can utilize those languages that can be understood by anyone, as they reveal the internal characteristics of a culture. These characteristics can only be revealed through shared cultural experiences, and soccer can provide a channel for cross-cultural communication. 

However when misunderstandings do occur it is necessary to have awareness that another’s motives for initiation of conflict can be the root to managing the conflict. The ‘levels of interpersonal conflict model’ (LICM) recognizes the need to assess the motivation and behaviour of the actors involved at five levels of interpersonal conflict: (1) problems, (2) disagreements, (3) contests, (4) fights, and ultimately, (5) war. 

This model, while not a theory of behaviour, can help answer questions about personality and structural factors that influence change, beneficial approaches to given conflicts that will create a desirable outcome and dynamics reflected by specific interpersonal conflicts, to name a few. This model can be very useful for those people studying international relations (and the microcosm of a professional soccer club), considering the distinct theories that exist, regarding how international relations operate.

The type or structure of the club that employs activities in cultural relations is less important than the actual method used by the club management to generate understanding of others’ perceptual frames of reference

Belief Systems
Understanding another culture involves understanding another’s belief system, and not just another’s spoken language. Research that has addressed the question of the impact of belief systems in international relations, argue that a belief system is like “a set of lenses through which information concerning the physical and social environment is received. It orients the individual to his environment . . . [It also] has the function of the establishment of goals and the ordering of preferences”. 

Therefore, returning to the LICM model, which is based on the theory that understanding the motivation of another’s initiation of conflict is essential for conflict prevention, it is clear why knowledge of others’ belief systems is so important within any multicultural organisation such as a soccer club. In essence, in order to understand one’s intentions, one must understand another’s beliefs. 

The creation of a multi faith prayer room for the players and staff of Bolton Wanderers F.C is evidence of a growing acknowledgement by synergistic managers that an appreciation and sensitivity towards a player’s spiritual orientation may be key in facilitating their development both on and off the field.

One’s beliefs cannot be considered right or wrong, but rather, cultural values inform its
members as to what can be considered as such.  Normative values, or those which express themselves within a culture by prescribing behaviours that members of the culture are expected to perform combined with beliefs, help shape attitudes. It is logical to argue that all three – beliefs, attitudes and values – are formed not only through the direct experiences of an individual, but also through vicarious and shared cultural experiences and perceptions. It is clear, then, that beliefs, attitudes and values are intertwined, and in order to understand one’s motives, we must look to not just one’s attitude, but an entire belief system.

In order to improve understanding between individuals at clubs, managers must pay attention to both verbal, as well as non-verbal forms of interaction.   Hence, it is imperative to understand that the code, context and the meaning are linked to one single occurrence. When spoken words are taken out of context, for example, individuals do not learn what was actually meant by the specific utterance, and the entire meaning is lost. 

While it may very well be impossible to have face to face contact with every individual that staff communicates with, improving their relations at a personal level can help to increase cultural understanding of the groups or units that these individuals represent. While images of a team could never be entirely representative of reality, professional clubs comprised of individuals who have interacted cross-culturally with others will be more likely to develop perceptions or images of others that are closer to reality.

Any aspect of intercultural relations will include language, which can be shared by people of all cultures. Nonetheless, language can be thought of as a form of cultural expression as well. Typically, most teams within the Premiership encourage their non-English speaking players to enrol on intensive language courses at the first opportunity. 

While language can be shared, it cannot fully express one’s thoughts, nor can it be considered a universal medium. Rather, language is part of a particular culture that can be learned and also shared by people of various cultural backgrounds. The ability to share language, however, does not negate the need to understand the internal culture of those individuals who communicate with one another.

It is important to understand that while speaking the language of the individuals with whom managers communicate can facilitate the exchange of symbols, it does not necessarily facilitate the exchange of meaning. Individuals, then, may use language to convey their thoughts, but can never escape the notion, as coined by McLuhan in 1964, that “the medium is the message.” In other words, the spoken message rarely reflects what one entirely means, and therefore, intercultural communication consists of more than sending and receiving spoken messages between two people of different cultures. 

Moreover the exchange of persons adds significant value to intercultural relations. We cannot ignore the silent languages of cultures, because it is this language that reveals the internal characteristics of a culture.

In today’s modern society, it can be difficult to recognize the importance face-to- face communication, as technology provides a plethora of communication channels that allow for the exchange of words. English culture especially has developed many low-context forms of communication. 

In other words, English culture utilizes low-context systems out of necessity, as it is more conducive to fast and efficient transfer of information. When large volumes of information must be transferred, it is difficult to use high-context communication because the coded, transmitted part of the message contains a very small part of the actual information. 

The problem with low- context communication, however, is its reliance on the explicit code. In intercultural communication, the receiver of messages does not always hear what the sender intended to say. With email or telephone conversation, for example, while it is possible to interpret a message based on the tone or style of writing, the lack of face-to-face contact prevents the two communicators from seeing the physical context, which may entail valuable information. 

Dr. Ian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Business Management and Marketing at the Leeds Metropolitan University.