It may sound odd, but I spend a great deal of time helping footballers play in the future. Many may think I am referring to paving player pathways and fulfilling scholarship dreams. I am not. I am working with players on the immediate future within the context of the game. Teaching players to play seconds ahead of their rival.
“Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.” – Johan Cruyff
I have worked with many players and there is one obsession they have that leads them astray. They play in the present. And the present in football is that round orb we call the ball. When a player has it, she works her moves until that prize becomes someone else’s gift. It is not a harmonious chorus, but a collection of individuals singing in a bewildering cacophony.
Visionary: a person of unusually keen foresight.
Nelson Mandela saw well beyond prison walls to a future unfathomable. Gandhi saw a new India. Martin Luther King envisioned a world of opportunity in the midst of despair. In politics Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, JFK. In business, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Bill Gates. In sport, Billy Jean King, Dick Fosbury, Muhammad Ali. The list continues deep into every sector of society. In every moment we call the present, there are those playing in the future.
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela
Imagine being able to see what Cruyff, Zidane, and Xavi could see. They did not play in the present. They were masters of time. These players were one step ahead, one thought beyond.
The present is the ball. The future is space.
The ball is the present. The future is space. The moment a player understands this profoundly is the moment her potential is unleashed. The moment a coach embraces this wholeheartedly is the moment she rethinks and redesigns talent development. Everything changes when you play in the future, even the present.
The ball and its location define the present. But space is malleable, dependent upon the spatial relationships between teammates and the opposition. It is liquid and gels for only an instant before fluidly changing its dimensions. It is perhaps the most marvelous and intriguing element of the game. It is not a singular data point. To understand it is to understand angles, distance, timing, lines and situation. To read it is to see it and then see it again and again. To master it is to be the maestro of the northern lights. A wizard of liquid thought.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Not practical enough?
I know; the poetry of it all seduces me. The manipulation of time and space is that intoxicating. But football is first and foremost poetry and attempts to objectify the subjective lead us astray. The greatest poetry is always by its nature written in the present. But its power and poignancy scream deep into the future where the beauty of words take root.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
If you believe that football is merely a collection of its technical parts, you will teach it that way. If you believe that football is merely a collection of data, you will monitor as such. And if either of these are the schools to which you subscribe, then what do you get at the end of your journey? Kicks and stats.
“The man who has no imagination has no wings.” – Muhammad Ali
But if you believe that football bleeds well beyond periodization and passing data, you will embrace its poetry. You will see its entirety. You will begin to see the potential of your players. And at that moment you envision what might be instead of what is, you will be coaching in the future today. You will see so clearly the talent yet realized. You will grasp the hand of that child and you will want to show her the future and lead her to master it herself. And when she does, she will see the game like never before. She will understand the true power of perception and conception.
“It is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and hopefully we shall overcome.” – Rosa Parks
If our children are to excel on the field, they will tug the future into the present with vision, precision and pace. If our society is to excel, these same visionaries will tug on utopia and show us just a glimpse of what might be.