Thoughts on Trip to Spain

I recently returned from a two-week trip to Spain with family and friends. Before I went, I was telling people about it, and they all said “Wow, Spain, awesome!!”

And then their expression would shift a little, and they would ask whether I was taking my two young kids.

I would say yes, and then they would say something like “Ohhhhh." As in "Ohhh that sounds horrible." And then something like: "Wow all the way to Europe, huh? I’m sure it will go great.”

One of my neighbors was more honest and said: “Why don’t you just take $5,000 and burn it?”

Thanks buddy.

Well, I’m happy to report the trip was much better than burning $5,000 (but probably more expensive.) And it gave me several ideas for blog posts. Here’s one.


The Emergence of Soccer Style

In Barcelona, we went to a gorgeous park on top of a small mountain. (That's it in the pic above.) There was a playground area where eight young boys were playing soccer. The space was limited, the ground was pavement, and there were plenty of obstacles like benches.

In this context, many basic soccer strategies would not work. You couldn't play a long pass to someone running into open space - there was no space to run into. In fact, it was pretty tough to move the ball forward at all - the only open avenues for passing were left, right and backwards.

So every time the kids received the ball, they needed very tight control to prevent a nearby defender from stealing it. And they needed to make a lot of small passes sideways and back. This would suck the defense forward until they were out of position. Only then would the offense move the ball forward with clever triangles and footwork. It was a very patient and thoughtful style of soccer. I do NOT see this style very often in the U.S.! Even with kids of similar age and skill level.

These Spanish kids were basically playing the "tiki-taka" style of soccer made famous by FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. This involves long possessions of the ball with many short passes and skillful footwork in small spaces. It is unlike the American or English style of soccer which is based more on size, athleticism, and sprinting into wide open spaces to receive long passes.

The problem with my soccer team

The soccer team that I play on is particularly afflicted with this boring American style of soccer, and we often lament our inability to possess the ball, or play the beautiful game. Sometimes when we watch another team play possession-style soccer, we decide we should make an effort to do the same. But for some reason it never works out.

I think that’s because these different soccer styles are not something you just decide to use in a top-down manner, like a conscious strategy. Instead, they evolve slowly as a consequence of playing within a particular context. The tiki-taka style of soccer emerges naturally in a small space - any other style is quickly punished, and through a simple motivation to succeed at the task, you will be pushed in the direction of adopting a possession style strategy.

The American style of soccer – the ball always going forward, long passes, a lack of flair - emerges in the large spaces where I grew up playing soccer. Huge fields of green grass with tiny little kids standing in the middle of them (and soccer-ignorant parents yelling at the kids to score a touchdown.) Why do Americans kick and run? Because in a big field it works (for a while). And that’s how we grew up.

Constraints create changes

I think the best corrective for my team would not be to watch more FC Barcelona games, or to get a coach to scream at us to pass the ball more. The solution would be to spend some time playing in small spaces like those kids at the park. At some point the possession style of soccer would become second nature.

We can use similar ideas to understand how to learn better movement. Motor learning is slow and ineffective when we tell our athletes or clients exactly how to move to get a particular job done. This type of top-down conscious strategy is unnatural and leads to paralysis by analysis. The better teaching method is to ask the athlete to perform a task they are motivated to get done well, and create a context that encourages use of the best movement strategies.