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March, 2011

Individual versus Collective: Sporting Edition

The contrasting views of individual versus collective play in sports, including a comparison of European and American approaches.

Arsene Wenger manages Arsenal, one of the top football clubs in the English premier league. His team hasn't performed up to expectations over the last few years and some are blaming the lack of leadership, specfically captain. I thought his response was quite interesting:

In Wenger's homeland, the identity of the national team captain makes far fewer headlines. "There is a big cultural difference," Wenger added. "For the English, sport is a combat. The English can't imagine going into battle without a general. For the French, football is a form of collective expression."

Thinking about American sport I wonder if that's not a simple explanation for our struggles with soccer (both fandom and international play). American sport is almost entirely about individual play, even team sports are hardly about teams (basketball is about the star, football is about the quarterback and in baseball, most obviously, pits batters against pitchers). There is something about the collectivism that I suspect just doesn't make sense to Americans.

As a bit of an aside, this made me think an article from last year on Ajax football academy, which plucks children from around Holland, trains them to become professionals and occasionally sells them for many many millions of dollars. Ajax (and European clubs generally) have a particularly anti-collectivist approach to their player development:

Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat. In a way, it is a reversal of type. Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players. Americans underdevelop the individual, although most of the volunteers who coach at the youngest level would not be cognizant of that.

Maybe more interesting is the conclusion on why the European system works so well:

Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It's not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted. They tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. "As soon as a kid here starts playing, he's got referees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs," John Hackworth, the former coach of the U.S. under-17 national team and now the youth-development coordinator for the Philadelphia franchise in Major League Soccer, told me. "As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It's counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do."
March 20, 2011
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.