In his own inimitable (and, occasionally, slightly obnoxious) way, the Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen likes to label coaches who have not adopted more modern ways of training as dinosaurs; creatures from a bygone era where the physical demands on players were less taxing and whose coaching has not evolved to handle a game that requires a more enlightened approach.
It is very much a blunt statement that is at least in part made to generate publicity and get people talking about his own theories for the physical conditioning of players. Yet, undeniably, there is also an element of truth to it.
Football is a highly conservative game – just look at the continued resistance to the introduction of video technology to aid referees - and so it is hardly surprising that those who work in it tend to be conservative as well. None more so than experienced managers who hold on to ingrained opinions on how to achieve success and who refuse to look at ideas that challenge those opinions.
It is for this reason that there are managers who still do not fully trust the benefits of a healthy nutrition regime, of proper training or of the use of statistics to help shape tactics. They believe only in what has worked for them in the past and only obvious success elsewhere can get them to consider anything that differs from that.
There is little doubt that the majority of these managers possess a huge wealth of knowledge about the game of football. Most of them have spent their whole adult life working within the game and in all probability know little else apart from football.
And therein lies the problem; there is a point at which the laser focus on the game at the exclusion of everything else hinders rather than helps. Their lack of curiosity about anything other than football leaves them with a poor frame of reference with which to look at any new idea that they come across. Or, to put it another way, they aren’t equipped to absorb and learn new ideas.
“As we grow older we tend to become less active explorers of our mental environment, relying on what we’ve learned so far to see us through the rest of the journey.” So writes Ian Leslie in Curious, a book that deals about curiosity and the role this plays in our lives.
“If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential.”
Sound familiar? It should especially if you’ve heard ‘traditional’ managers talk dismissively about the value of statistics in football or negatively on the notion of rotation in managing the squad’s fitness levels.
Curious for Curiousity’s Sake?
That is not to argue that coaches should be curious for curiosity’s sake. Indeed that kind of curiosity – diversive curiosity – often results in wasted effort. What people should be trying to foster is what Leslie terms as epistemic curiosity, which is a more structured and deeper form of curiosity that can ignite the desire to learn and attempt to do things that one would not normally consider.
For coaches, such curiosity is vital if they want to grow and innovate.
Yet identifying what they should be curious about is a bit difficult. The truth is that we never know what knowledge might come in useful in the future; what might help one make connections that others aren’t able to see.
Whilst I’m not overly fond of examples that are based on Steve Jobs – there is a great deal of revisionism whenever he is put forward as a test case - this point is best explained by one element of his success at Apple.
Despite having dropped out of Reed College, Jobs still took a class in calligraphy which had nothing to do with what he had been studying or was planning to work at: he undertook those lessons because it was a subject that intrigued him. Undoubtedly for many that would be considered a frivolous waste of time that should have been spent working on something that might have directly impacted his future.
Yet, years later, when he was part of the team developing the first Mac those apparently frivolous lessons kicked in to help him come up with the idea of having different typefaces and fonts. It was a minor innovation but it revolutionised the world of personal computing and beyond.
As Leslie puts it, “the more we know, the better we are at thinking”.
Does this mean that football coaches should be taking random courses in the hope that something that they come across there might come in useful in the future? Of course not.
Yet there is much that coaches can learn by being curious at what is happening in other sport, to come up with one obvious example. There is much to admire and think about if you spend some time looking at the ideas that underpin the success of the All Black rugby side, for instance. Or by examining the path that Sir Clive Woodward took to leading England to winning the World Cup.
And that is only rugby. The same can be said of other team sports like basketball or hockey. Even individual sports like cycling and rowing have a richness of information and ideas. Seeing what these do probably won’t provide immediate answers by they act as a fertiliser for the brain so that when you come across a challenge it will be primed to look beyond the boundaries of football for possible solutions.
Will all that can be found in such examinations be immediately useful for coaches? Probably not, but they will sow seeds that will blossom when their time comes.
Steve Johnson, author of “Where Ideas Come From” calls this the slow hunch. “Rather than coming out of the blue, we believe that the best ideas are the result of hours, days, sometimes even years, of digging into a subject and pursuing the hunches that slowly emerge as a result,” he says.
“Instead of focusing on the creation of ideas and trying to force them into being, one is better off focusing on understanding the relevant phenomenon in depth. Then it simply becomes a matter of being open to the ideas when they show up – be it in casual conversation, intense data crunching or, as sometimes in Mozart’s case, on a sleepless night.”
The great thing, of course, is that today it is easier than ever before to get such information.
Thanks to the internet there is a treasure trove of information that is easily accessible and available to everyone. It doesn’t beat actually talking to individuals and learning from them or seeing them execute their strategies, but it is undoubtedly a great start.
And, indeed, if you want to make those individual connections the internet facilitates matters more than ever before.
Twitter, for instance, can be powerful tool for football coaches. Through it they can make connections like never before and talk to fellow coaches who have different experiences to them.
This is a kind of curiosity that Leslie identified in Leondardo da Vinci, one of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind, who was a very social person talking to other experts to learn off them. “People who are deeply curious are more likely to be good at collaboration,” Leslie writes. “They seek new acquaintances and allies in the process of building their stock of cultural knowledge.”
But it isn’t just renaissance Italian thinkers who acted in this manner. Look at most of the top managers in the history of the game – particularly over the past three decades – and you will find that they spent some time travelling to see how top teams prepare. Many will tell you that this was a valuable part of their education, as it provided them with insights and ideas that they would eventually use to develop their own philosophy.
The willingness to make such trips – or at least a determined and sustained desire to see what is happening elsewhere - is vital. When we think of great people, those who have made the biggest breakthroughs in science, we immediately assumed that what made them different is their intelligence. That, however, is partly correct. Because, whilst intelligence does play a vital role it is not an exclusive factor.
Indeed, there have undoubtedly been more intelligent people who haven’t managed to make such contributions. A hungry mind, one which eagerly looks for information, is vital. This was determined by Sophie von Stumm, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmitshs University, who through a series of studies, proved that intellectual curiosity – “the tendency to seek out, engage in and pursue opportunities for effortful cognitive activity” – is as important as intelligence.
And if Pep Guardiola felt that he needed to see how Marcelo Bielsa worked before launching his own project at Barcelona, why should anyone else hold back from fostering and expressing such curiosity?
This article was largely inspired by Ian Leslie’s book ‘Curious’ and by discussions with the author himself who kindly agreed to be a beta-reader. A second part of this article will focus on the need for coaches to foster curiosity among their players.
For full disclosure purposes it is noted that a copy of Curious was provided by the books’ publisher. Also, a small fraction of any book purchased by following the links in this piece make their way back to Blueprint for Football.