Play’s the Thing…

I used to say to my students, “Find the overlap between our English coursework and, say, Trigonometry, or the link from persuasive writing to PhysEd. Where does Hamlet end and organic chemistry begin? Find that one out… there’s genius in that.” The courses my Department offered were called “English” and, helmed by some teachers, they were more traditional, as one might expect. The most common feedback I received from students, though, was how unlike English our coursework seemed to them. I took those remarks as a measure of success: my aim was to prepare young people, soon enough entering the world as older people, to be responsible… to families, communities, careers, and so forth. For me, that’s the purpose of school and its teachers.

What’s prompted me to reflect was reading Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat – specifically, such remarks as “the appropriate relationship between thought and experience… [in which] creative new perceptions take place when needed” (p. 49). That distinction between thought and experience reminded me of another distinction, this between dialogue and conversation. And again I was prompted to recall my English courses – what we had, I’d say, were definitely conversations, scratching new surfaces and digging into things with fluid spontaneity, as compared to the “my turn / your turn” protocol of dialogue, which might dig one trench but deeper and deeper. Where dialogue strikes me as instrumental, a means to an end, conversation is an end in itself, without start or finish but continual – that is, until the bell rings. We notoriously lived beyond the rigour of scheduling in some of my courses.

Those conversations were hard to let go. And what exactly were we after? “The creative person does not strictly know what he or she is looking for,” say Bohm and Peat. “The whole activity [is] play itself,” and no better description of teaching (at least, my teaching) have I ever read. Who knew I was so creative? Not me although I did have fun. So who knew teaching was just so much play? “The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of–” well, anybody, really. I should clarify that I respected my colleagues and our Departmental philosophy as well as my professional obligation to Ministry curricula. At the same time, I relied on my own interests and concerns to guide our coursework, by day and by year. The result was a mixture of reading, discussion, writing, and presenting about topics as disparate as literature, film, fine art, civics, politics, economics, philosophy, etymology, all manner of topics – yes, even science and math – all bundled together in a process of classical rhetoric. Eventually, I developed a suitably disparate canon of texts, too, that flowed meaningfully from English 9 through 12. And I relied on students’ differences to alter and adjust the flavour however they might. I loved teaching for how creative it allowed me to be, and for how much creativity it provoked in my students. “Let come what comes,” Laertes tells Claudius – brazen, even foolhardy. Genius, perhaps?

Bohm and Peat seem to suggest that genius is not creativity per se so much as the effect of having challenged some assumptions, and maybe that’s mere semantic distinction. Either way, I like the notion. Later, reading Allen Repko, I found myself nodding likewise at what he calls “boundary crossing” (p. 22). There it was, this discovery of common threads in disparate disciplines, this crossing of amorphous boundaries, what my students have heard me call “genius” although I might now redefine that trait as “ingenuity.” Accompanying “boundary crossing” is a reaching across disciplines, with intent, what Repko calls “bridge building.” This, I think, I would call visionary. Discovery and vision, both what I would forever consider, as a teacher, to be meaningful developments of the learning process.

Repko also points out the origin of the word, “discipline,” deriving from the Romans and their need to “relate education to specific economic, political, and ecclesiastical ends” (p. 32). How delightfully Roman! I thought, reading that. Such instrumentalism, “the logic of utility.”[1] Finis at its finest: How long, O Lord! Will their legacy never end? But I trust in teaching and my unfailing students.

I enjoyed sixteen years teaching Secondary English to brilliant students. In that time, we developed a philosophy, addressed the BIG Questions, and fed our curiosity. But my planning process was seldom more than make-it-up-as-we-go. “We could never get away with this in Math,” I used to say to them, “although if you do find a way, I’d love to hear about it.”


[1] Phelan, A. (2009). A new thing in an old world? Instrumentalism, teacher education, and responsibility. In Riches, Caroline & Benson, Fiona J. (Eds.) Engaging in Conversation about Ideas in Teacher Education, (105-114). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Development and Learning: Part II – Youth Football

In the previous post, I proposed that development and learning co-exist alongside winning and that contriving debate to place them at odds actually misconstrues their concerted relationship. I add, here, that development and learning are characteristic of people, and winning and losing is inherent to the Game of Football and to sport in general. In other words, development & learning and winning & losing are not at odds; they arise in concert as people compete with one another by participating as opponents when they play a game.

I also suggest in that post that all sorts of people have fun playing the Game of Football for all sorts of reasons and that competition and fun, like development and winning, are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

Another facet to this topic, based on the inherent nature of winning & losing to sport, is that any and all attempts to win are justifiable. This discussion becomes especially heated in the context of youth sport because such a purist approach can be detrimental to the players as they learn how to play and be members of a team. In that light, what I discuss below is development & learning in youth sport – specifically, in youth football (soccer).

To those who say that the Game is purely about winning & losing: saying so is a red herring. We must account for the fact that youth football has been distinguished from the adult game, and this distinction is for good reason.

Although at first it might seem contradictory, I already grant that the objective of the Game of Football is to win. I have clearly claimed that every team plays to win. Nobody plays to lose – in sport, or cards, or board games, or any game. Youth modifications don’t change that. Yes, as in any game, the objective in the Game of Football is to win.

Old Trafford
Theatre of Dreams

But the objective lies apart from learning how to play and training to play to win. The modifications to Youth Football have come about on account of younger peoples’ traits and abilities. By analogy, it’s like when cars are modified for those learning to drive: two steering wheels, wider mirrors, or driving on quieter out-of-the-way roads, or using VR simulators. There’s a gradual learning process by which new drivers grow accustomed to the road.

Reversing that analogy, U9s play 7 a-side on a smaller field with a smaller ball and various rule alterations – the very existence of such modifications is evidence that the Youth Game differs from the Adult Game on account of youth differing from adults.

If someone is coaching a Youth team in accordance with the modifications, they tacitly acknowledge the difference. Therefore, to see nothing wrong with a purist viewpoint – that winning is utterly and always justifiable, even in the context of youth football – strikes me as insincere, perhaps in denial that young people differ from adults, or that priorities are skewed to place the self-security of winning above all else, or that someone is ignorant or uninterested in child growth & development , or some combination of these.

To simply say the Game is about winning… yes, it’s correct as far as the pure Game is understood, as a concept, but it reduces your margin for error. On that basis, we’d better be flawless now, and play with mastery, or else we amount to nothing more than a loser and a failure. I suspect none of our teams is flawless, as much as a purist belief might require them to be.

One youth team I coached (Ass’t Coach) years ago was successful enough that, during our U11 year, we were able to play versus three professional F.A. Academy sides. The results were 0-15, 0-5, 0-9. We had no illusions, and our players were shattered by the reality that same-age teams could have such quality and be so dominant, just as we were back home – that’s how we were accepted to play these Academies in the first place. In any event, there it was: a level of mastery relative to us that we were obliged to respect.

Match #4 vs Aston Villa Academy

So, given a belief in the purist objective of winning… unless you take on similar opponents, who can challenge your team, then purist winning reflects poorly upon you, making you look ignorant, if not cowardly. If the Game is simply to be played to its purest, then nothing short of mastery will do. And if that playing field is to be a level one, then the best example of mastery we have, in reality, is the pro game. To purists, I say this: if you test your youth team at that level, as I’ve done, you may well discover that…

(a) your challenge may not even be accepted but, if it is, then

(b) you may have a rude awakening.

In fact, that may be exactly what a purist needs. On the other hand, if it comes at your players’ expense, it’s not worth the cost. As I say, our team was shattered, and we had a great deal of respect for youth training and development, being professional educators and researchers as we (still) are.

Birmingham City FC Training Ground
A Visit to Birmingham City FC

Things are always much easier when all’s well and we’re winning. Real humility is found when we aren’t winning. To those who take a purist approach to sport, enjoy the ride at the top while it lasts because, someday, you may discover that you’ve not learned how to cope, yourselves.

Development vs Winning: Actually, There Is No Such Thing

Also read the follow-up article to this post.

Outside of corruption, throwing the game, which has no place in this discussion, I submit that nobody deliberately plays to lose.

Specifically, I’m talking about football, less commonly known as soccer, and perhaps this discussion even applies to many different sports. But, as a player and coach, football is the beautiful game that I know best, so here goes.

Playing football, we would anticipate the team that makes the fewest mistakes ought to win – as in, the fewest mistakes both in and out of possession, from the kick-off until full-time. If so, then consistent quality performances are key because these should result in more opportunities to earn a win and prevent a loss. What’s more, as the reward for winning grows more lucrative, and the stakes are raised, players must all-the-more learn to develop that “consistent quality performance” on demand, under whatever pressure: effective decisions, executed at the proper moments, skillfully, every time, or at least as frequently as possible. Developing this “quality performance” consistency also demands that opponents earn victories rather than handing them the result, unimpeded, because now they’re challenged to execute just as consistently, if not just as flawlessly. As I say, no one competes to lose.

So, what of development and winning in light of all this? Too often, for me, these two ideas are falsely conflated into sides of what is truly a non-existent – or, at least, a very ill-conceived – debate. As ends-in-themselves, development and winning are typically deemed incompatible. Further, winning is then often vilified since winners produce losers while development is commended for being inclusive. At that point, I find the debate often sidetracks into competition versus fun, another false dichotomy, but in any case, the parameters are so muddled as to render all a meaningless waste of breath. For the sake of dispensing with the issue, I simply ask: why would we not reasonably expect to see fun in conjunction with competition? These are not oil and water, nor do they need to be, nor should they be deemed to be.

Football, the Game, can be played for fun, exhilaration, fitness, camaraderie, focus, perseverance, discipline, teamwork, all manner of virtues and benefits, yet all these on account of the very nature of the Game as a contest of opposition. And where one person finds things fun and enjoyable, another does not necessarily agree, yet who’s to say who is correct, if the Game has enabled all? All sorts of people find all sorts of fun in all sorts of things – who’s to say that finding competition to be fun is wrong, if only because it makes you squeamish? Just the same, if someone’s threshold for intense competitive drive is lower than another’s, can each still not enjoy playing with like-minded peers? In fact, just for instance, this is exactly why various youth and adult leagues categorize levels of play into (for ease of this discussion) gold, silver, and bronze tiers. Everyone must learn to play, and development (to whatever degree) will occur as they go. That implicates teammates, the quality of coaching, and other factors relating to a team or league’s motives for playing in the first place (i.e. gold vs silver vs bronze). Motive, however, does not change the nature of the Game, itself, or the nature of effective learning, development, coaching, and teaching.

As I see it, the issue is not Development for its Own Sake versus Winning for its Own Sake or even Development for its Own Sake versus Development in order to Win. The issue is Development and Learning as a concept, altogether, period, because how else could you learn to play? And the more you play, the more you develop. Whether that development is good or poor is down to context, and a separate issue.

And when the arguments start, what’s really being debated, it seems to me, is how any one person simply wants to be “right” and demand that everyone else agree with what constitutes “successful” participation in the Game. Ironically, it’s a territorial argument over ideology. But to win an egotistical war suggests to me that we might better spend our efforts re-evaluating our culture and how we wish to treat other people.

Fair enough, people want to be “right.” We all have egos. But can we at least offer some basis from which to claim what the word “successful” can mean? So here goes.

Since losing a match always remains a possibility, no matter how consistent our quality performance might be, we ought to measure “success” as the degree to which a player or team has developed that consistent quality of performance (process) over time, at their corresponding level and motive for play, regardless of winning (product).

**I’ll specify, as I did above, that where wins are lucrative – such as in professional play – the stakes grow higher, and different debates will ensue about what “success” means. Yet that’s a commercial issue, relating to development and learning on the basis of peoples’ patience and tolerance for financial pleasure or pain: in other words, the two issues are not inherently related but coincidental: a crowd of supporters or sponsors are willing to pay to back the team for a season.**

For the Game, itself, we must let winning take care of itself because players control what they are able to control, under conditions that also include the pitch, the ball, the referee, the weather, health, fitness, and so forth. So what can we measure? Measurements ought to fall under player and team control, e.g. shots at goal, completed passes, tackles won, saves made, etc. Far from counteracting the importance of winning, such consistent measurements of quality performance provide feedback, i.e. if our pass completion is 90% successful around the penalty box, then maybe we don’t score because our shooting is infrequent or inaccurate. One might even argue that the statistical measurements we gather are less important than the ones we’ve overlooked.

In any case, successful players and successful teams identify strong and weak areas by regularly measuring consistent quality across a range of performance details, and they develop each area for consistency – which we anticipate will translate into more wins – because consistent quality performances usually translate into what can be measured as an “ongoing success.” Success now defines a degree of purposeful, committed, consistent hard work, which makes for more focused, more effective training. Developmentally, the more successful you are, the more often you can theoretically win – but if your opponents also train and measure, and respond better than you do, then guess what? That’s called competition.

Development and winning not only can but already do co-exist. And they always have. It’s people who separate them, falsely, perhaps because they want to win more than they want to earn wins – or, worse, perhaps because they merely want to win a territorial argument about development vs winning that never existed before someone’s ego dreamt it up.

Beyond on-field training and competing, development and learning should cover a range of areas that affect yet lie beyond the Game, e.g. health, fitness, nutrition, goal setting, mental preparation, personal responsibility. Coaches ought to take players beyond the Game, teaching them how to train, how to contribute to a team, how to compete at higher levels of skill and intensity, how to manage the dynamics and emotions of competition, and how to conduct themselves with personal integrity in all respects. Of course, the Game is included within the scope of these matters because that’s why we’re a team in the first place. And the range of these inclusions will comprise a more holistic football program. We implement and evaluate that program as we go, or we ought to.

Effective programs inevitably reveal the crux of commitment, either thanks to peoples’ dedication or on account of their inconsistency. Effective programs encourage trust and a shared pursuit of common goals. Where trust and commitment are maintained consistently and respectfully, a team and its members learn to measure quality and respond consistently, i.e. successfully. Such programs require time, discipline, and patience to learn, but the degree to which participants buy into the philosophy is met with concomitant developmental consistency, and again, one can expect winning to result more often than not, relative to the quality of the opposition. Likewise, individual people can take credit for this-or-that achievement only relative to their teammates, who are also active participants in the program.

Active participation should find team members applying complementary strengths by filling key roles on the path to team success. Individual contributions accumulate, and if these have been consistently defined by common goals and measured for consistent quality, “success” is more likely because people can envision it more clearly and pursue it more meaningfully.

Opponents, especially of equal or slightly higher abilities, likewise play a key role in a team’s pursuit of success since measuring consistent quality performances against them is, in one sense, what the Game – and what sport – is all about. Active involvement in a program unites a team, preparing everyone for more advanced challenges. Occasionally, a teammate might advance to more elite programs, and when a team member grows beyond the scope of the program, that is a team success that all of us can share.