Make football, not war

Why do research in football?

Travel to any corner of the planet and throw a round ball to a bunch of kids and they will instinctively know how to play football. It is important to billions of people and plays a significant role in attempting to change the world for the better. Despite the bad press, Football’s governing body FIFA initiates programs in attempts to stamp out racism, terrorism, homophobia, and close the gap on gender equality.

To further illustrate the power of football lets travel back to Christmas Day 1914 to the bloody fields of the Western front during the First World War. A truce between German and English soldiers was called and the opposing troops met in no man’s land to fraternise and celebrate Christmas together. The Germans brought beer and the English plum pudding. It has never been documented but I can assume with some certainty that the men didn’t discuss standard Human Factors and Ergonomics issues, they just played football. They weren’t concerned about injuries, and the match didn’t require a referee to adjudicate, they just played football.

Moments earlier, these same men were killing each other, suddenly they were all equal men without rank, playing the beautiful game in horrific circumstances.


I can just imagine the men post-match back in their respective trenches preparing to resume combat, how they would have analysed their performance introspectively, as every footballer does. They would have probably analysed the percentages and frequencies of passes, tackles, and shots using the kinds of reductionist and deterministic approaches that dominate performance analysis in sports today. The English analysis would have been quite simple as they would probably have launched the ball, as they did their grenades, over the middle ground and into the opposition’s territory. While the Germans would have been organised, efficient and machine-like. The point is, with a reductionist lens, they would not have learned a lot about their performance and how it could be improved.

If only the troops were aware of Human Factors methods, including Cognitive Work Analysis (CWA), the Event Analysis of Systemic Teamwork (EAST) and Social Network Analysis (SNA). If they were, they would have been able to analyse their performance in a novel way using methods brand new to performance analysis in football. Using these methods they could have identified all of the components of their performance and how they interacted with each other. Emergent properties, and the interactions underpinning them, would have been identified. In addition, they would have been able to identify the structure of their passing networks that led to goals, how connected the teams were in terms of passes and communication, who the influential players were, and the zonal areas of no man’s land that were important within the passing networks.

With these analysis tools, they would have discovered that football is a complex system with many interacting parts as well as competing components of performance, and dynamic and emergent properties. Much the same, in fact, as the complex warfare system that they were fighting in.

They would have also identified that reductionist and deterministic approaches to performance analysis cannot cope with this complexity and cannot explain why players, teams, and systems perform the way they do. This is important because understanding the how’s and why’s of performance rather than just describing performance allows coaches to design representative training practices.

For a brief moment in those five dark years, football provided a beautiful shining light, where men of different beliefs and cultures, trained to kill each other, put all these differences aside to just play football.

It was fortunate the Germans had plenty of beer, as they won the match 3-2.

Scott Mclean is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems

Read his article describing a complex systems approach to performance analysis in football here


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