Milton Ceita Da Costa
Thiago Motta - Coverciano Thesis 2019/2020
With renewed interest in the famed Italian coaching academy in Coverciano (Centro Tecnico Federale di Coverciano) due to Andrea Pirlo's thesis recently being released, we have decided to take a look at some of those theses*.
This does not include an analysis of the thesis but instead just our interpretation. Our own explanations or interpretations are in blue.
We've observed the theses of Massimiliano Allegri, Andrea Pirlo, and now Thiago Motta (who received the highest score in his class, just above second-placed Pirlo).
*With all these theses, the translations are far from perfect but we tried to ensure the coach's meaning was kept while making it readily accessible and understandable.
The Value of the Ball The Tool of the Trade at the Heart of the Game
Thiago Motta 2019/2020 Thesis
My relationship with the ball started, like with almost all children, when I received it as a “birthday present” from my father.
So immediately, thanks to the personal sentimental and emotional element of this parental gesture in a familial setting, I formed a symbiotic and natural connection with the ball.
The ball became my most precious of possessions. It allowed me to express myself through football whether it was in the house, on the street, alone or with friends, all with the dream of becoming a great player and the desire to have fun and beat my opponent whoever it was.
This relationship was further consolidated when I transitioned from recreational football to my first structured experiences of football and five-a-side.
The ball, in this transitory phase, through infancy and adolescence, went from simple recreational “object” to a team game “instrument”, of a more complex nature within the collective game.
Thanks to the ball, the game’s horizon widened from the circle of family and friends to the one of my new family, my footballing family.
And the game, from recreational expression consistently grew into a more competitive environment, as a projection not solely as an idea of individual and collective movement, but also one with the personal satisfaction of belonging to a group, a family, of football devotees.
Although acquiring more accurate knowledge linked to the different types of football (11-a-side and 5-a-side), the emotional component was always present : both the ever-present personal attachment to the “birthday present” and the collective attachment to the team’s “instrument” of expression.
The ball, in both cases, as a personal recreational tool or as a collective one, proved to be the most precious of assets, the supreme element in the game.
Losing it — in whatever game situation — meant not just losing the object of personal affectation (the gift from day) but also losing the indispensable instrument of belonging to the group-team, and the family-team.
Losing the ball then became a sort of footballing “crime”, individual and collective, that needed to be rectified in the most decisive way possible, both on the street with friends relying individual effort, but especially on the field, in a competitive environment, through teamwork.
After my transfer to Barcelona, in Spain, all of these foundational elements were amplified, deepened and perfected, reinforcing the awareness of the ball’s centrality and of its management, individually and collectively, as an expression of the game of football.
In any case, it was a natural evolution, the ball playing the role of both “personal object of affection” and “collective instrument”, but with a cultural development aimed at improving ball control skills during match phases, both from a personal point of view (“the ball is mine”) to a collective one (“the ball is ours”).
The idea of losing the ball was no longer simply a footballing “crime” but also a stimulus of reflection, not just to elaborate the best strategy for possession, but also of loss prevention, and naturally, ball recovery.
To summarize, the ball and its management became the fulcrum of a more structured interpretation of a personal and collective game philosophy that would lay the winning foundations for Barcelona in LaLiga and in Europe.
My arrival in Italy allowed me to enrich and my technical and tactical ability, but through different types of football philosophies. And it was not necessarily the through focusing on the object/instrument, but instead focusing on the alternating spatial occupation and our consequent positioning on the field in relation to the opponent and the respective doctrines of football expression.
Serie A’s diverse culture, due to the multiplicity of contrasting notions and approaches, is dear to me. It has allowed me to further nourish my thoughts on the centrality of the ball in the expression of both individual play and collective, expanding convictions and principles and also, the application of opposing football basics.
Basics that, in fact, elevated and tested the universal mechanisms through the universal and natural prism of the ball object/instrument.
In this sense, the intellectual disparity between the “maestri” (managers) like Gianpiero Gasperini at Genoa and José Mourinho at Inter, can be summarized in a comparison of experiences : at halftime of the Milan derby of August 29, 2009; in the management of the rossoblù’s offensive organization.
Whereas both managers, demanded control of the game through vertical play in the offensive phase, the methods to achieve this were diametrically opposed.
At Inter, Mourinho prioritized verticalization between the lines, as was evident to me at the end of the first half of the first 2009-2010 derby. After the first 45 minutes, we were 3-0 up against Milan. A scoreline which was obtained through game criteria and ball management with which I felt the most in-sync. At the exit of the changing rooms, in the tunnel, however, Mourinho told me to play the rest of the matching focusing no longer solely on control, but on exploiting vertical openings behind the Rossoneri defensive lines. In the second half, we scored just one more goal, for a definitive scoreline of 4-0, but that year we still won the “Triplete” (treble).
At Genoa, Gasperini required a more elaborate form of verticalization. Not only through direct passes behind the lines, but prioritizing an organized passing structure. Often, in my “regista” (director/deep playmaker) role, I had the job of playing directly into the number 9, Milito, through direct vertical play. On the other hand, for Gasperini, it was better to play vertically by exploiting the use of intermediary players around the “trequartista”. In this system, the play not only developed vertically, but it also allowed me to proactively participate and position myself in and around the opposition’s penalty area and thus multiply the resources to attack the goal. With direct passing play to the forward — as Gasperini pointed out to me one day — we can put Milito in a shooting position but I automatically exclude myself from the zone and consequently I reduce the team’s creative options to go to goal.
Finally, in France, my formative and intellectual path took me to a concept of the game that went from the technical to the practical and pedagogical.
And not only with Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG, but in particular with the management of Laurent Blanc, through an overwhelming dominance in the league using technical and tactical edicts that were, in general, the opposite of this approach.
A contrast that only served to further lift the superiority of a philosophy initially applied on the pitch as a player, translating the synthesized experience of individual game management to the service of the team, technically and tactically ; “and subsequently, as coach of PSG’s Under-19, with the role of transmitting to the youth the foundational principles for a global and stratified vision of football, but based on the primordial and natural element of football : the ball.”
Hence, the proposal of this thesis is to interpret football through the centrality of the ball as a “oggetto affettivo/strumento di lavoro” (“personal objective/work instrument”), also in its psychological significance (First Part), understood as team and individual mastery, cultivated by specifically technical exercises, to guarantee the largest range of construction and evolution of the team and personal game, illustrated by a practical case of action which includes its various aspects addressed here (Second Part).
During my carrer as a footballer, I often observed how my teammates limited themselves technically during training and matches, reducing the tactical production of team team and the individual
High level football is a sport in which the responsibility of performance is shared but it is predominantly the pure technical element of the singular players that will determine the capacity to control and manage the ball.
The ball can be defined as a work instrument but through which the abilities of each member of the team are expressed, of the team itself, united the principal objective of scoring and thus, winning.
An objective that can be achieved through a variety of game approaches and schemes and interpretations, based on the characteristics of the players, the opposition and the strategies put in place; however, it still starts from the base element : ball mastery which has a primordial value from a technical point of view, with implications on game situations, from a mental point of view as a tool to progressing through the various psychological stages that contribute to the global development of the individual, but also affective/emotional to alludes to — as mentioned in the introduction — to the embryonic value of the object, the football.
Hence the importance of mastering the player’s work instrument, that is, the ball which in its central peculiarity within the game of football, becomes a conducting thread in a series of reflections on the mental approach of the individual and the practical consequences on the result and the team’s expression, understood as a network of personalities that may or may not synchronize to achieve the common objective.
Returning to the observation, of those teammates who limited themselves in expressing their technical ability, thus emerged the importance of control of professional competence that would transform the ball from work tool to a tool of personality of the individual player, and subsequently, that of the team to which he belongs.
From a simple object of play/work, the ball becomes in this manner an instrument for improving the psychological-mental capacity to face the challenges, objectives and difficulties that derive from its professional use, but that benefits the collective, according to a virtuous cycle that allows everyone to express themselves and contribute — according to their own cultivated and developed means — to the success of the team.
It is therefore necessary to first define the personality of the player/individual, shaped by genetic predispositions and by his first fundamental childhood experiences, specifically in the social and cultural environment in which he could express himself.
A definition that is linked to the fundamental evolution of his relationship with the ball — as stated in the introduction — to the player’s childhood in his emotional and affective relationship with the ball object.
On the other hand, according to some studies supported in the youth department, up to the age of 11, the affiliative dimension of playing with friends, of meeting new friends and being able to have fun are still predominant and then broaden in the search for the excitement of competition and the enthusiasm that sprouts from it up un til the age of 14; finally, to develop and maintain not just an adequate physical shape but also and especially a sporting level that allows one to impose oneself, to make a difference as an individual in the collective, and so to contribute to the achievement of the shared objective within the group/family represented by the team.
Consequently, without delving into the Freudian meanderings on the definition and the development of personality, it is necessary however to understand the concept of an internal drive towards the outside, characterized by an origin, a goal and therefore an object.
Personality, according to the philosopher Umberto Galimberti, represents the set of an individual’s psychic characteristics and behavioral elements through which their integration constitutes the irreducible nucleus, even in the multiplicity and diversity of the situations in which it expresses itself.
Personality allows one to integrate and organize physical and mental elements in order to facilitate the individual’s adaptation to their environment.
In fact, the individual/player finds himself to be an actor in a complex context and expressing himself on several levels, from training through to the match, in a specific place - the stadium -, exposed to the pressure of thousands of fans and media, both in a punctual manner (the match), and in a daily sense, through the newspapers, television and last but not least, social media.
There, the importance of a player calmly expressing his abilities becomes fundamental not only to the individual expression of the individual/player, but also to for the his relationship with the work/family/team group and with the external environment.
Each one of these levels of expression presents potential difficulties that will contribute to the player’s self-inhibition, through a limited or conditioned use of the ball— once again — not only as a basic work instrument, but as a multiplicative revealer of the psychological-mental potential on which to intervene in order to ultimately facilitate the creation of a virtuoso team spirit that would allow them to reach their objectives.
The accomplishment of an objective should be approached as a thrilling challenge, inevitably accompanied by a dose of intense stress but as a vital element in the individual’s adaptation and survival mechanism.
Stress and its management become almost an initial indicator of the individual/player’s personality and their ability to keep within a supportable limit so that it won’t interfere with decision-making, emotional, cognitive and behavioral processes.
In a football player, the first element of stress derives from ball mastery through which he aspires to integrate a team, carving out a relational technical space with his teammates, with the primordial intent to not only express himself, but also to experiment in the creative aspect of the game, potentially committing mistakes that are not subject to excessive criticism and as always with the intent to completing the path that leads to victory.
In this context, the stress linked to a technical inability to master the ball, comes from a sensation of limitation perceived as threatening, due to an environmental demand and registered as excessive compared to the perception of one’s own abilities to cope with it.
In practical terms, the mechanism is revealed, for example, in isolating a player in training or — with more devastating consequences — in game.
Not only through the player’s, who does not display the necessary personality (mental and technical) in relation to the team, lack of involvement with the team and to its ultimate goal of victory; but also in the act of “hiding” denying the teammate’s availability in areas of the field and in phases of the game that generate greater situations of difficulty and thus stress.
In this sense, it is interesting to note, during a broadcast on social media with former champion Didier Drogba, his experience at Chelsea where he found himself compared to teammates who were less technically gifted and therefore — in his anecdote — considered inferior but above all, unreliable, as well as being the target of veiled mockery when in their presence, but more direct and ferocious in mini-group chats with teammates.
Thus returning to the need to identify the solution to the problem, it would be ambivalent to consider, for example, the theory of the sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, who found that stressful events are faced on the one hand by characteristic resources of personality and on the other, by specific environmental elements such as the network of supportive social relationships.
The bonds between teammates are therefore extensive for it is with them that difficult moments are confronted.
Coming back to the indispensable ability to manage stress, induced by internal and external stimuli, it is necessary to reinforce the principles of coping and resilience.
The first principle, coping, is considered, in psychology, as a process that brings to the forefront, individual resources through actions and emotions known to essentially reduce the risk of harmful consequences that could result from a stressful situation, and contain negative emotional reactions, as evidenced by Francesco Riccardo in Educazione allo Sviluppo del Potenzialle Personale (in Education in Personal Potential Development) (and Calzetti Mariucci).
On the other hand, resilience, according to the terms used by psychologist Edith Grotberg, is the human capacity to face life’s challenges, overcome them and to emerge strengthened and transformed.
To summarize, resilience also includes the ability to use experience borne from difficult situations to build the future.
However, this intrinsic capacity must be brought out, cultivated and developed in the player through the fundamental instrument of work, the ball, creating habits, reinforcing its natural and spontaneous use for the purposes of personal and collective improvement, until training, thus allowing the development of mutual trust between the individual and the group, promoting shared harmony and respect for choices and objectives, reducing the possibility of conflicts arising that could compromise the team bond, the performance and therefore, the result.
In this sense, over the course of experiences as a footballer, I have found that in Spain, for example, there is not intrinsically more quality among the players but instead a working objective to instill more confidence in players with the ball, as a primordial expression of their football profession.
Going back to my time in Brazil, I can confirm that the footballer’s job, in training, could not be separated from the ball, as this is considered a natural method of expression for the player.
As opposed to preparatory situations linked to an exasperated use of the tactical component that could have beneficial effects on the squad’s predispositions in occupying space in relation to the different phases of the game, but with the risk of depriving the player of the personal relational habits with the ball, potentially “only touched” a few times during an entire session.
Instead, the ball comes into play as a means to develop the emotional intelligence of the player, who is at the center of the relationship that constitute the essence of team spirit, through the diversity of the individuals.
In fact, emotional intelligence favors communicative exchanges, the ability to resolve problems, stimulating the individual and collective constructer process.
It is true that only once one is aware of their own personal competences, are they able to master the social aspect, understood to be the capacity to manage relationships with others, through empathy and the social skills that foster collaborative links, forming around the basis of consent and support.
Also in this thought by Riccardo, the parallel with the indispensability of serene ball use emerges from arrogance, given that the main purpose of emotional intelligence is to help make optional decisions, completely conscious of the rational and emotional level, to positively incorporate others in a achievement of a shared objective.
Yet again Riccardo underlines how within groups, each member should be aware of themselves, because awareness is the starting point of any change.
Self-awareness also cultivates the team scope when the coach, in order to meet the players’ need for satisfaction, according to studies by Tammy Horne and Albert Carron, organizes behavior and exercises allowing the players to improve their individual abilities and involves the commitment of all the players.
In a work group, collective satisfaction is obtained when individuals manage to find and impose their own technical identity within the group. Therefore personal motivation, social cohesion and inter-group collaboration, thinking in terming of “We”, limiting the issues of rivalry, detrimental for morale and results.
Through the tactical knowledge connected to it, the ball as a tool becomes principal expression of competence by a single player, where competence means the ability linked to knowledge and experience acquired in a specific field of activity : i.e. knowledge and know-how.
Therefore in professional fields, the ability to provide effective services (or performances) is the best expression of competence which we can also understand as the dexterity and skill in using one's knowledge in an intentional and effective manner in the production and problem-solving areas.
Thus the ball becomes, in my opinion, the expression of a team’s competence in the play they produce, depending on the chosen tactical values but also on the opposition.
Through the expression of football competence with the ball, we do not limit ourselves to the Mastery of execution, understood to be the technical ability to control the ball. The reasoning is expanded to a certain representation of the structure and criteria of this competence, as a potential element of expression of a global and collective idea of team play/teamwork.
Therefore it becomes an essential pillar linked to the ability to master complex situations that specifically occur in every game.
AWARENESS AND EMPATHY
Without ever losing sight of the need to contribute to the personal development of the player/individual, helping them confront, with confidence and greater certainty, the stressful moment due to an unnatural relationship with the ball that limits their own possibility to express themselves on the field, is a matter of self-awareness.
A concept that allows us to predict how to confront, with greater preparation, the various situations that life/the game holds, adopting behaviors and attitudes useful for their objectives and also exhibiting skills and abilities that produce behavioral flexibility and versatility, individually and collectively.
Higher emotional control is achieved through self-awareness, taking it from a detrimental intensity to a stable level, thus transforming it into something pleasant that facilitates a state of serenity, indispensable to mastery of self, the tool of expression represented by the ball, and the player’s role within the community to which they belong, the team.
Awareness therefore also leads to an easier stress management, which has been attributed to the player’s lack of mastery of the expressive tool, the ball.
Having identified this lack of technical ball mastery as a potential origin of stress, it should, however, be remembered that the solution also involves the possibility of effectively communicating, both verbally and nonverbally, this discomfort.
Therefore we should not underestimate the impact of empathy, understood to be the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes, thus perceiving their emotions and thoughts.
The lack of technical ball mastery risks multiplying the obstacles to healthy communication, useful not only to the individual to feel part of the group, but also to avoid creating other forms of censorships.
Censorship in this case as a lack of willingness on the part of the teammates to include the player considered to be less technically-gifted, which then exposes the entire team to more stressful situations through the player’s lack of personality and lack awareness of his ability.
In addition to the threats posed by the opposition’s similar ease in identifying the weak point and putting into practice a strategy to exploit this.
So, in practical terms, the lack of empathy can facilitate the censorship spontaneity of circulation of the ball between players.
As a result, the indispensable glue of team solidarity which makes it possible to face obstacles with a “we” mentality deteriorates, or in any case, denies any possible larger resolution, reducing the number of possible solutions with the exclusion of the teammate considered less adept.
Failure to demonstrate technical ball mastery can induce the player to use the mechanism of empathy, while the rest of the team avoids it, if by empathy we mean the capacity to put oneself in the reality of another to understand their point of view, thoughts, feelings, emotions and pathos.
In practice, the principle of sharing, on which the concept of team solidarity is built, of belonging to the group with all of its tactical but also emotional implications, is blocked.
The consequences can be potentially detrimental because they could directly undermine the balance in the group, provoking a negative spiral in the mutual attitudes of the individuals.
With the more gifted elements not only tending to easily isolate the less gifted, they also limit their own work because by right the more physical roles belong to the less technical players.
It’s the typical case of the highly technical forward who refuses to do any defensive work, considering it to be a task belonging to those teammates who do not have sufficient technical ability and thus must at least compensate by doing the dirty work.
It is an attitude that irredeemably/irreparably contributes to the unraveling of the team’s relational fabric, motivating the insecure, less technically gifted players, to renounce themselves not only from the possession phase but also from the more vigorous nature of teamwork, precisely because they are rejected by the others or at least because they are no longer willing to be considered a lower rung within the hierarchy of the team.
This initiates a process of deterioration of the individual and collective options, limiting the identification of opponents’ flaws and the prospects of the game, with an additional risk of being further destabilized by the opposition’s attitude if they are able to grasp and exploit the weakening of the team’s collective strength.
CRITICAL THINKING AND CREATIVE THINKING
Hence the importance of the concept of critical thinking, according to Galimberti’s definition, understood as the ability to examine a situation and assume a personal position on the subject, which explains how this capacity constitutes the foundation of a responsible attitude towards experiences and an autonomous respect towards environmental conditioning.
It thus becomes even more essential this need to insist on the willingness to attribute technical mastery of the ball to the player, to facilitate the freedom attributable not only to critical thinking, but also to the ability to find solutions through creative thinking.
By creative thinking we mean the ability present since childhood to think of alternative solutions to difficult situations, by “blowing up” behavioral patterns that act as a brake. This is similar to, as stated in this paper, the doubt caused by technical limit, perceived by the player when in possession of the ball.
Creative thinking is linked to the principle of sharing and the exchange of ideas, concepts indispensable to teamwork. As Albert Einstein said, if logic takes you from point A to point B, imagination takes you everywhere.
Therefore combating self-censorship, the personal limitation induced by one’s own technical limitations of the mastery of the work instrument that represents the ball, inexhaustible and infinitely precious psychological-mental resources are guaranteed for the player and the coach who than thus count on individuals capable of making decisions directly on the field, without succumbing to the fear of losing the ball, therefore losing it for the team, and consequently losing credibility in the eyes of teammates and, last but not least, in the eyes of the opponent.
In this regard, if the stress becomes too intense and unmanageable, the probability of the individual/player renouncing the decision making process, or deciding to postpone it from time to time, rises, weakening the fabric of the game. On the pitch this translates precisely into the problem of not making oneself available to teammates during the construction phase of play, censoring oneself, excluding oneself.
The problem of the inability to make a decision arises, according to the terms defined by the psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa, also taken up by Riccardo, when an individual motivated to reach an objective cannot do so automatically or mechanically nor by instinct or learned behavior.
In this sense, training ball mastery develops not just the skills with the goal of resolving problems in preparation for the match and then on the field, but also critical thinking, creative thinking and the management of the emotional aspect in regards to dealing with teammates, the environment and the opponent.
In fact, the focus of technical training induces a phenomena of “debridage”, of unbridling, also typical to the process of brainstorming, which in the training of creative thinking allows the individual to identify a significant number of solutions for each problem.
Knowing that in general when one has only a single possible solution, we feel caged ; conflict emerges when there are two possible alternatives; while with three alternatives we, in fact, feel free.
The same can be true on the pitch, where conditions are not only tactical but also psycho-mental suitable for players to elaborate and face choices with indispensable security, spontaneity and certainty in themselves in regards to the ball and their teammates, with whom they interact and feel protected around and in regards to the adversary on the field and the environment which in turns puts the players under pressure.
This last aspect is a paradigm that can however have a beneficial effect not only on the player who is technically limited but also for those players who are highly technical, who can express their skills with more freedom, putting them to the service of the team for whom they feel supports and protects them. This is also thanks to the fact that the players have given their trust to their less technical teammates, motivating and reinforcing their role in the team, through commitment and growth in technical mastery, nourished by mutual empathy also cultivated in training.
One goes easily from a team with few protagonists to a team with many, according to one’s own attitude and skills put to the service of the collective. Where star players contribute to the strength of team because they receive the advantage of not just playing for the team, but also a personal advantage, that of being able to express their talent and collect deserved awards.
And if for example, even the star players strive to recover the ball, it will automatically reinforce the team’s collective ability to recover the ball. This is still true even when the ball is lost by the less technical players who are surrounded by the comforting collective compensation of their limits.
By reinforcing the subject’s/player’s personality, their creative and communicative capacities increase, because by nurturing their technical mastery of the ball, mental well-being is promoted which in turn increases the motivation for self-care and the care of others.
Through this virtuous process, nourished by a careful maturation of individual technical skills, we have the awareness of self-efficacy, defined by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura as the self belief in one’s ability to organize and perform sequences of action needed to produce certain results. From this comes the confidence to effectively confront every test, feeling up to the task, with specific tasks, bringing motivation, personal resource and action into play.
The parallel between the player’s on-pitch role is clear when considering that if the individual considers that the result of their performance can vary depending on their direct commitment, they will have higher expectations to successfully reach the set goal ; the player will also be convinced that the result can be repeated in the future, consolidating the perseverance in overcoming difficulties that may arise when executing a task.
Without underestimating that— according to the approaches of Schunk and Zimmerman cited by Riccardo— the mastery and presence of models of effective individuals who positively face challenges stimulates the learning of new abilities and strategies in others.
Thus hence the experience of observing technically average teammates, in a virtuous collective context fueled by highly skilled technical elements willing to contribute to a common objective without prejudice, elevated with the passage of months and training the level of ball mastery. This leads to a constantly more essential contribution to the expressive possibility of the team on the pitch.
Therefore the anxious moments become potential challenges, stimulating and positive, helping to acquire more motor and thus technical skills and in summary, reinforcing the collective awareness of the team’s strength.
Ricardo still recalls, in the already cited book, how in sporting environments, the most self-assured athletes, confident in their effectiveness, demonstrate an elevated level of concentration, particularly through the control of intrusive thoughts and an adequate management of stress factors, being more accepting of the risks of competition and showing themselves to be ready to face the inevitable moments of crisis.
Psychologists Jessica Militello and Patrizia Steca underline how the feeling of self-efficacy is essential in both the training phase, promoting a high level of improvement and refinement, and in the competition phase, by optimizing decisions, elevating effort, execution and orchestration in various activities. Without forgetting that the conviction to improve increases the intrinsic satisfaction of a performance, making it interesting.
A further step is taken, again through the use and appropriation of ball mastery, strengthens motivation, understood to be the activating force, directing behavior towards specific goals, supporting the effort required to reach them, acquiring and managing external and environmental stimuli.
This is a motivation understood as intrinsic it allows the individual to perform an activity because it is stimulating, a source of pleasure and it provides satisfaction through feeling more and more competent, independent of the typical external stimuli of extrinsic motivation. Therefore he is able to assume the appropriate behavior without being discouraged by the difficulties of the activity.
Consequently, adversity becomes part of a whole, to be managed— according to the AA.VV.’s 1983 Expectations-Value model— precisely as a component of the a game, waiting for the right moment to display one’s potential and skills. The athlete therefore reaches a point where they give their best in the balanced pursuit of their own limits, finding an incentive to improve and feeding the team’s virtuosity. The player then arrives at a state of adhesion not only to their own ability, but also to the integration into the context in which they express themselves.
In an ideal model, where the global harmony is established at team level, the individual/player can converge towards a state of flow, understood as a mental condition in which athletes find themselves so immersed in their performance that they experience a moment of serenity and concentration, of total absorption. A sort of trance that can translate to physical activity and consciousness, in maximum concentration, an essential ingredient for excellence in performance.
Pelé himself, Riccardo recalls, described his flow as a “calm strain, euphoric with the feeling of being able to run all day without tiring, dribbling anyone, almost physically outmatching the opposing team.”
Without wanting to try to make any player into a potential Pelé, it must however be emphasized that all the components so far described in their psychological significance, in reality, find a common driving thread in their expression of the concept of technical mastery of their professional/affective tool, the ball.
In fact, for each stage, the confirmation of the appropriate and serene use of the ball favors and consolidates the psychological-mental aspects that contribute to the maturing of the football athlete.
Lastly but significantly, it becomes evident that a single footballer’s technical and psychological maturity contributes to the development of the collective intelligence that drives a team, without the natural hierarchies imposed by the personalities and skills of the individuals harming the life (harmony) of the group/family to achieve the common objective, represented as victory.
STRENGTH AND OPPOSITION
This global expression of personality and of the consolidated skills of a team has a direct impact not only on the team’s performance, but also as a sum of reciprocal wholeness of the individuals, obviously orchestrated in prearranged philosophy of game and tactics; but it also impacts the opposition that finds itself facing a collective and united block, ready for a collective sacrifice against the opposition, with a shared and multifaceted paradigm that enhances individual skills brought together in order to achieve the objective for which everyone takes the field.
Consequently, by cultivating the touch of the ball, understood as a basic element, as an initial affectionate gesture of childhood, as a spontaneous sign of sentiment and pleasure, a nature relationship with the ball develops, one that leads to the development and strengthening of mental and technical resources, in order to contribute to the deployment of the expressive capacity of the individual and that of the strength of a team that not only facilitates the resolution of the moment adversity is faced in the game but also will inhibit the opposition team who are forced to face a further hostile variable.
Thanks to the habit of the individual in the natural and serene use of the ball, this contributes to the formation of a dissuasive global team effect in confrontations with the opposition, forced to adapt their game to include an additional risk of danger, not only induced by the difficulty of contending for the objective with the opposition group, but also by each single element that benefits from technical, physical and mental coverage of the rest of the team to which they belong.
This paradigm that I will define as the adversary’s collective inhibition contributes to the transfer of the an additional stress factor to the opposition due to the difficulty of including in their own game a risk of suffering from (imposed by) their opponents, which implies more consumption of precious mental and, indirectly, physical energy.
More concretely, a team that finds itself facing a group that is unified, harmonious and polyvalent in different skills compensated by a mentality of sharing the skills of each, beyond the individual limits and the common goal, will be induced to assume a mentality at lest cautious even in the simple work of pressing and recovering the ball, fearing to expose themselves to the complete and reactive force of the opposition.
A force expressed not only but the more specifically technical individuals but also by those who are less gifted but thanks to daily improvement from specific ball mastery training, contribute to the completion of the group’s potential.
Reinforcing the overall awareness, the capacity to handle stress, to confront the phases of the game with more confidence and courage, thanks to a conscience and a deeper knowledge of one’s own means, individually and collectively, in a positive spirit that frees up, multiplies, the creative resources and the freedom to act on the field, facilitating the conviction of being able to successfully attain the predetermined goal. However, it all begins with the first touch of the ball, the foundational element of the game and the first intimate moment of judgement of the value of a football player.
The concepts expressed the preceding chapter, “a unified, harmonious group with polyvalent skills,” are born from my personal footballing experience but also from observing various tactical phases in the games I studied and observed.
The Leeds United Case
Observing, for example, the style of play Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, I identified elements of “collective technique” trust present in each individual player, participating actively in each phase of play.
To better explain the concept collective “technical confidence” let’s take into consideration an action by Leeds United in the construction phase in the opponent’s half of the field: often we the central defender, Stuart Dallas (sic), horizontally supporting the wide midfielder, Jack Harrison, pulling the opposition pressing towards them in order to obtain advantageous space behind the line of pressing.
Having obtained this effect, or tactical advantage, it is very interesting to note how the central defender remains available to the teammate in possession either by 1) offering an option himself in the created space or 2) requesting the ball, to then replay it on a vertical diagonal, always looking to use the advantage of the created space following the pressing, towards the other midfielder on the opposite side.
I take as an example this typical action, among the multitude of Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical baggage, to demonstrate certain points I find important:
The most evident one in regards to the awareness of all the elements necessary for the team to be useful tactical protagonists in the development of the game, determined by self-confidence in possession of the ball; to be able to create passing lanes or show themselves in open spaces in all elements, in my opinion, is only thanks to a conscious and natural rapport with the game’s instrument, the ball
That possession of the ball should not be confused with a sterile, and thus useless, series of horizontal passes, but instead it should be preparatory to a verticality that is as efficient and quick as possible. It is often confused— it is not my place to say if it is wrong or right— the concept of possession of the ball with a style of playing through across horizontal lines; this example from Bielsa’s game— among the many evoking the Argentine coach— allows the explanation of how the theoretical concept of possession must absolutely precede vertical transition in the shortest possible time.
Emphasizing the speed I mentioned above, it is fundamental to develop to the maximum, together with the development or the improvement of one’s technical skills, even peak physical form, precisely to allow the team to maximize the advantage of the spaces achieved thanks to the possession of the ball.
I also find it interesting to describe the concept of freedom of choice made in this case by central defender Stuart Dallas in the very moment in which he opts for movement, with or without the ball, in the space created behind the lines of the opposition’s pressing, or in remaining in wait offering a specific passing lane. I believe that these mechanisms, that obviously come from tactical indications provided by the coach, achieve their highest effectiveness thanks only to the players’ conscious application and that this derives not only from their knowledge of tactical strategies, but also from their natural and, where necessary, improved relationship with the tool of the game, the ball.
The Germany 2014 Case
In regard to the other phases of the game, specifically in the out-of-possession phases, the movements of the German national team, coached by Joachim Low, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Euros in France are very interesting.
It is evident that in their tactical organization the principle of “thinking of attacking while defending and thinking of defending while attacking.” In fact, at the 2016 Euros in the game against Italy , I was very impressed by the difference between the two teams in ball recoveries in the opposition halve: 5 for the Italian squad, 22 for the German.
The German players, when they lost the ball, positioned themselves at a maximum distance of 5-10 meters from their opponent, ready to press immediately, thus instantly complicating Italy’s out ball.
These are elements that reside in Jurgen Klopp’s tactical philosophy, in the non-possession phase, when he himself says: “Counterpressing is one of the best plays, the best moment to win possession of the ball is when you have just lost it and the opponent is still in the phase of orientating passing lines, forcing them to spend useless energy in trying to keep the ball in vain.”
A concept that translates to high pressing, with the focal point always being the ball, with two players in the center of the pitch to maintain the essential balance.
There were moments in the game where the German defensive line was no more than 10 meters from the Italian penalty area, with the intention of suffocating Italy’s build-up play.
It remains evident that if the counterpoising is not implemented quickly, or the central area of the pitch is not immediately covered, the possible lethality of the opposition’s counter attack is greater, thus making it easier to keep possession of the ball. In the 2014 World Cup, the pressing carried out by Germany was even more obvious, as evidenced in the game against Brazil where the two fullbacks, Howedes and Lahm, and the three central midfielders— Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos— were constantly in the opposition half in support of the pressing implemented by the attacking line of Oil, Klose, Muller.
Also, in this case it is worth noting the constant advanced position of the central midfielders in order to impede Brazil’s easy build-up play but especially to recover the ball as quickly as possible.
Among so many potentially useful examples, I chose the examples of these two teams, Marcelo Biela’s Leeds and Joachim Low’s Germany, to reiterate the following concepts in which I strongly believe:
To play dominant football, one must not be afraid of the ball
To play attacking football, one must want and obtain the possession of the ball
The defensive phase must be oriented towards recovering the ball as quickly as possible
It is evident from the analysis that the ball is always the focal point of my attention, since I believe that the team positions itself coherently and homogeneously in relation to the ball, not only automatically reducing the tactical options of the opposition team but, above all, increasing the tactical and physical effectiveness of the team itself.
Having made it this far, I wanted to highlight the primordial value of the ball, from sentimental and emotional incipit linked to the pure recreational concept of child’s play, from which grows the ambition to make a professional life out of it; therefore deepening the influence of the indispensable mastery, from a mental and psychological point of view, individually and collectively, to allow the transfer of the virtuous effect to the competitive level, as a professional tool; to thus examine the technical exercises that, in my opinion, through daily practice is the best match preparation, understood in its turn as a moment of catharsis because the culmination of the ultimate satisfaction of taking to the field, as a recognized member of a group focused on the conquest of the objective of winning.
Regardless of the type of exercise adopted by each coach, I still would like to highlight how particularly advantageous it is to reproduce potential match situations in training, using an equivalent number of players for each phase of the game: from defensive release to build-up, up to the finishing phase, without neglecting the processes of recovery and relaunching. But in any case and as always, in the presence of the tool of the profession: the ball.
Only in this way is it possible for a player to complete themselves, through the constant presence of the ball, and to feel not only at ease from a technical point of view, but prepared from a tactical point of view, in a collective context that values the personal qualities that they were able to develop during the week, through a constant “dialogue” with their teammates.
A “dialogue” that takes place in the context most similar to the real moment of collective expression, through the shared universal language: the ball.
If we like, the more this common language is practiced and cultivated, the more luxuriant the dialectical exchange becomes, and the final engaging recital, fully exploiting the talent of each component that happens precisely during the “momentum” in the game, intended as a collective expression.
Reproducing the different potential action perspective also allows one to link the different types of exercises in each training session. In my opinion, this variety is also indispensable in order to get out of the routine of daily work which can lead to a plateau in training and could compromise the virtuous balance needed for the centrality of the use of the ball.
Escaping the repetitiveness of everyday workin life contributes to enriching a climate of curiosity and enthusiasm essential not only from an individual point of view, but also for team spirit which is then comforted in turn by the reassuring effect of knowing how to deal with what has been experienced, virtuously and creatively, but still pragmatically, in training.
In the cases where the ball is the central point, precisely to develop and consolidate individual characteristics, while simultaneously facilitating the collective amalgamation.
To summarize, even in training, the ball is transformed into a common thread that has the multiple effect of facilitating the reproduction of the most realistic patterns that will be later applied in-game, acting, in turn, as an intermediary throughout the different phases of the game, but also between the different groups in the team, as well as between individual players.
All this by nurturing an anti-routine approach that allows the de-fusion of the risks linked to the repetitiveness of the action that inevitably leads to drops in concentration and in the quality of the work produced.
Therefore a coach cannot ignore an organic approach, since his team is organic in its complexity, understood as a harmonious complex of individuality that works daily to grow together on the field.
The fact remains that the intrinsic victory of each coach, beyond the result that comes from it, lies in being able to create a context daily work that allows each player to be at ease, while increasing their technical capacity, making them an indispensable element of the group, in turn reassured by the consolidation of the team spirit that compensates for its limits, improving the skills, in order to finally be able to deploy the best elements available.
Such virtuous movement is obtained by choosing to impose the constant presence of the only element that carries an emotional charge that blossoms and flourishes from playful childhood activity, to spread luxuriantly, up to the highest level of competition.
A game instrument that then becomes the career of any professional player.
And this one universal element that— according to the outline I wished to illustrate in this thesis— crosses the temporal dimension, from childhood to adulthood, thus developing the sentimental sphere in multiple psychological and mental effects, organically incentivizing individual and collective technical work, in order to also counteract the daily repetitiveness, is the ball.