or How Habit Influences Football.
By Paul Grech.
This piece is largely inspired by Charles Duhigg’s excellent book ‘The Power of Habit, a truly great book that is recommended reading.
There are very few teams who can do what Barcelona have; keeping the sympathy and support of the neutrals despite dominating Spanish and, to an extent, European football. Few seem to begrudge their success and, if anything, many cheer them on. If someone other than my team has to win, then I’d rather it is Barcelona.
The reason for that lies in the way that they play the game. The verve, creativity and fluidity of their movement is as spellbinding for the audiences as it is to the defenders who are trying to stop them from scoring.
Look closer, however, and you start noticing something strange; that their play seems to follow a very rigid pattern. The six-seconds rule – press in order to try to win back possession for six seconds after losing it and if that doesn’t happen, retreat back to your half of the pitch – is perhaps the most famous such pattern, but there are others.
Their action when they try to get the ball is just as revealing. Barcelona’s players don’t simply move to win the ball, they wait for very specific things to occur. One is waiting for the opposing player to turns towards his own goal. Another is waiting to see if he mis-controls it to the extent that he has to look downwards to verify where the ball is. Barcelona players have been trained to realise that those are the moments when others are at their weakest and that is when they have to make their move.*
Their attacking play also follows a similar set of patterns. Contrary to most teams, upon winning the ball a Barcelona player doesn’t try to move it forward as quickly as possible, but rather moves it on to a team-mate. And when this happens, based on which area of the pitch the ball is, everyone knows what runs to make and what spaces to look for.
Barcelona’s game, then, isn’t a spontaneous expression of genius but rather the perfect execution of a series of deeply ingrained habits.
There have been many sides who have been built on habits, although in football the term often used is ‘mechanical’; a somewhat revealing description that shows the disdain for the lack of creativity that such teams show.
The classic example was Wimbledon in the nineties where, as soon as they got the ball, defenders hoofed it as far forward and into the channels as possible, knowing that there would be a team-mate waiting. Once that happened, the rest of the team knew what they had to do and what runs they had to make. For them, their defenders winning possession of the ball was the trigger that set off a series of well-drilled actions. That was their habit.
In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks of the “habit loop”. This is set off by a cue, the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional behaviour. Finally, there is a reward.
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