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Play-off vs. Israel: Is it better to construct or behave your way to victory?

Wednesday, 19th November 2003.

After leading 1-0 from the first leg, Scottish hopes of reaching a major tournament for the first time in 6 years are crushed in emphatic fashion via the world-class boots of 19-year-old Wesley Sneijder (who bagged a goal and two assists in the first half) alongside a classy team comprising Van Nistelrooy and Seedorf. Robben didn't even get off the bench. The bulk of this team would go on to make the World Cup Final seven years later, only narrowly missing out to the best international team of recent times after extra-time, and they had chances to win it too.


No shame in that then is there? Can't we all just be philosophical in defeat? Surely Berti Vogts can keep his job after handing debuts to many who would go on to lead the team for years to come under Smith, Burns and McLeish. Surely we can't start again... again. Can we?

Can we?


Reactionism is strong in football, particularly in the social media age where your attention span is unconsciously fought over and won through the habitual scrolling motion that longs for that content fix; releasing all that dopamine (but never quite enough) as we skim-read whatever article promised to deliver.


Guilty as one such article, but not claiming to deliver, what I mean to say is - the time we have to process is, as the old sayings put it, fleeting and precious. The problem is, we are in such a rush to get through the time allotted to us, that we pay scant regard to what we might be processing along the way.


We can often treat that which is precious as something which is to be filled by 'content', and in doing so, we rarely take the time to process whether this content is good or bad, edifying or harmful, we just kinda let it... 'inject' us.


This is a strange phenomenon because in the cold light of day it is recognised as simply illogical and to our mental detriment, as many studies on the anxiety-inducing toxins of social media attest. It's why one of my best mates recently deleted all his social media, it can sometimes get a bit too much. However, it can, like everything, be used to great effects in supporting peoples' mental health, if used appropriately in moderation.


Such instantaneous reactionism driving footballing discourse also flies in the face of what we know about how people learn, because 'processing time' is a very real thing human beings require to make sense of the world around them, including Twitter users, football fans, players and coaches. It is the term used to describe the turnaround that happens in your brain as it receives, interprets and responds to information. This process is happening all the time, wherever you go and however closely you pay attention to it.

Sage words Ferris... we all need a day off now and again.


Too much information, received too quickly, and you'll encounter another well-known term in cognition discourse - 'overload', something I hope you're not experiencing right now!


In my work life - I support learners who require their processing time to be acknowledged by those around them so as not to experience overload. 10 times out of 10, this requires that the supporting adults change their approach, rather than pointing at the learner and demanding that they do it their way. If you want another word, this is called 'constructivism' - which is a concept in learning theory that essentially describes learning as taking place from the ground up, or from the individual's perspective. As they make sense of the world around them (constructing) - so we too should listen and support the same way, that whatever we might say, teach or coach, might then also make sense (becoming co-constructors). Too many words said in the wrong way, and we'll lose them. As you can imagine, this requires paying close attention to how individuals acquire knowledge - something called epistemology - which, by the way, is the 'Epistles' part of the excellent Scottish Epistles Magazine; 'knowledge' about Scottish Football.


10 times out of 10, this requires that the supporting adults change their approach, rather than pointing at the learner and demanding that they do it their way.

Conversely, behaviourism is the top-down methodology which advocates that the 'teacher' recites information which is up to the learner to catch hold of. You could think of it like a teacher dropping apples of knowledge from a tree in a sequence that makes sense to them, but is random to the learner because it doesn't yet hold any meaning. The learner is then scrambling about on the ground with a wheelbarrow trying to collect as many apples as possible. If they're lucky they'll catch the gist. If not, well...


Such an approach gives rise to the oft-cited remark in staffrooms, 'what do you mean they don't know it? I taught it! They were there!', and the same is true with football coaching and changing rooms. Yes, they were there in body, but they weren't actively learning because they had no idea what their teacher/coach was on about.




In this process, the learner might gain some apples, but they won't necessarily understand what they're doing or why they're doing it, much less see how it relates to the bigger picture or end product. This might change if you showed them cider or apple crumble - or why practising your first touch from a great height is worth it in the event of receiving the ball with your back to goal 40 yards out in the Parc des Princes, because your third touch could be a screamer tickling the top corner ('Pick it out Landreau!!!'). This is called learning 'in situ' or 'in context', and it's pretty powerful.


However, cut adrift from meaning, if the learners don't give up when some of the apples have fallen to the floor, they'll instead do one of two things; throw all the apples out and give up listening to you, or adopt behaviour that means they gain as many apples as possible, and sort out the meaning afterwards, if at all. Like a footballer might try to impress the manager by doing what (s)he says, even if they don't see the need to work on their finishing. This can fall apart if there is no trust built first - see Benitez and Ronaldo.


In other words, in behaviourism, they'll learn the behaviour, without the least idea what they are doing, or why. It's like learning how to do chimney sums to get the right answer without having a clue what tens and units are, and so believing, wrongly, that you're 'rubbish at maths', when in fact, you were only ever taught a strategy, you weren't taught maths. Or like the kid who learned to do step-overs and rabonas without ever being shown how he could use them in a game. 'Maths anxiety' is a very real thing, so then I wonder if 'football anxiety' is too? (It is)


It's about getting the job done, who cares how the apple tastes, much less the individual catching it.



Except, it does matter. We all know that a love of what you do matters.


Can you think of any successful football teams that have solely used a behaviouristic approach? Sure, in 2010, Inter's players would have run through a brick wall for Mourinho, no questions asked, and it won them a treble - but they also broke down in tears next to a brick wall when he left. He could ask them to do something because there was first a relationship there that they could trust. It wasn't isolated behaviourism - it was built upon deep, deep, constructivism. He loved his players and dare I say it, they loved him. The same is true for his first spell at Chelsea, and it looks like Spurs might not be far behind.


Interestingly, back at the apple tree, for students to achieve success, they would be much better placed if they were able to climb the ladder alongside the teacher and pick the apple for themselves, who might, like Mourinho, say - 'look, I've been here before, this is a good one, this is what you do with it.' (although, admittedly, he's better at recognising eggs and making omelettes)



Granted, climbing the ladder might be slower initially, but you don't lose an apple - you don't lose meaning. Better yet, in savouring each apple and gleaning the satisfaction it brings, you can repeat the process with others, and teach them how to get all of the good fruit, one at a time, accessing shared meaning. They might do it in a different order than you, but that's fine, they'll learn what one another's strengths are. All of a sudden, you form a collective organism, a team, which has a unified vision and understanding of what they are doing, how they are doing it and crucially, why they are doing it. This is what is meant by 'pace' and 'depth' of learning being appropriate to the learner, and some argue, this is the only true learning. All those fallen apples? Pfft. Forget it.


'It's great working for someone who has a clear image, and a clear thing in their head that they want you to do. It's good. It's enjoyable.'

- Callum Paterson on Steve Clarke, Oct 2020


All this is to say - football is a philosophical experience. Whether you regard it as such is no matter, but stop to think for a minute; when watching a game, are you bothered about the process that got them there? Do you want to see how it links up? Or, is it about getting the results by adopting whatever behaviour is needed to get the ball in the net?


What if I said there were a third way and a way that I think Mourinho's old assistant, Steve Clarke, and this Scotland team, are on the verge of discovering together... if given enough processing time?



First, here's a wee equation to help us make the seamless link between learning theory and football coaching; let constructivists='man managers', and let behaviourists='disciplinarians'.


From Stein to Smith, Busby to Shankly, Fergie to Graham, Signeul to Kerr... Scotland has had its share of excellent managers over the years (yes, one of them is Swedish, but that only proves that good theory is transnational). Before we do a disservice to all these men and women by lazily attributing their particular strengths to 'growing up in the Govan docks' (and that said as the proud grandson of a foreman in Fairfields), let's consider that they might have developed their intelligence and style over the years and learnt something about when to employ option 1 or 2.... or option 3, which is a blend of both 1 & 2.


For that is what we are; a blend of both. This is the third option that I believe Steve Clarke possesses in abundance. How can we know this? By listening carefully to what he and the players say.


'Yeah, it's been really good for me. He's been so good for me. He came down to watch so many of my games last year. He's called me up every camp and he's always had my back, even when I've not made it easy for him. The gaffer is really good at getting [across] vital information in such a short space of time.'

- Oli McBurnie on Steve Clarke, ibid


None of us - not even the most polarising of characters (Roy Keane, for example) are exclusively constructivist or behaviourist in our teaching and/or learning style. Similarly, no football coach is exclusively a man-manager or disciplinarian, with the best recognising that both exist in tension. Yes, as Barry Ferguson attests, all the Rangers team of 2008 fell silent and sat up when they heard Walter Smith walking along the corridor; and yes, he could lose his temper as Gazza, the superstar genius, has testified to. However, the same man also had Paul Gascoigne, the human, round for Christmas Dinner when he was concerned about him. He was both the disciplinarian and the man-manager, measured appropriately at the right time. That's what makes a great teacher, and that's what makes a great manager. Steve Clarke has his players backs and gets across the vital tactical information, that's solid ground on which to build.


Admittedly, I am much more of a constructivist than a behaviourist. However, in fixing my ageing iMac recently via an online tutorial, in an attempt to save money, you'd better believe that I was ever the behaviourist - concerned purely with the outcome (a working computer!) rather than learning what the difference was between PVRAM and RAM. I didn't have the content knowledge to unpick a problem, I just needed to trust the teacher telling me then join the dots afterwards, if at all. See also: my well-meaning constructivist Dad trying to tell me how the clutch and gears worked, via interlocking fingers, whilst we sat in the S-Reg Fiat Punto, immobile in the driveway, during my first driving lesson. 'Dad, I don't care, just let me drive and I'm sure I'll piece it together when we both taste the burning smell!'



Ah but see, to follow my teenage inclinations here would have been irresponsible of my Dad, so instead, we did what most sons and fathers do, nobly choosing to fall-out amidst the oft-thought but seldom-uttered swear word instead; proving that years of evolution and technological advancement resulting in better cars than said Punto, would nonetheless still result in the emotional intelligence of monosyllabic, passive-aggressive cavemen.



Rather, in order to prevent a burnt clutch or further parent-child disputes, a good coach/teacher needs to recognise where the learners' motivation is at any given time. They need to realise when to tell them to do something that they'll understand later, or whether to go into deeper meaning now so that they can do it better learning alongside them. They need to climb the ladder together. Sometimes going slower through the why? is more relevant than quickly through the how? and this is why we can trust Steve Clarke - he seems to have a sober measure of the players as individuals, and where they are in the process.



Consider John McGinn since Clarke has taken over, something has shifted. Something came together. A fit McGinn has climbed the ladder with his manager. However, if that doesn't convince, then Clarke's coaching track record might. From West Brom's highest ever league finish to the same with Kilmarnock, Steve Clarke is both an excellent man-manager and solid disciplinarian. Listening carefully to both him and the players, you can hear this clearly.


What we're trying to do, is put in (construct) a structure and a way of playing, that no matter who the personnel is, they understand what is expected of them in the context of the team performance... Hopefully, you (the media) saw that in the last couple of games.

- Steve Clarke, speaking ahead of the Cyprus game, November 2019



What has all this to do with Scotland playing Israel in their first play-off for 17 years on Thursday?


Well - it is important to consider that whilst all of us might feel like behaviourists and not care about how we get there, just as long as we do, there is a process behind it we need to trust. The team are learning to play together, whether they win or lose.


We can analyse the performance. There were some good things and some bad things in the performance. We can work on the bad things and improve upon the good things.

- Steve Clarke on Scotland's last game against Israel, pre-match press conference, Sept 2020


They are constructing meaning together, and that takes time. They are in the midst of that unavoidable process that every person/organism encounters. We, therefore - the spectators - are exactly that. We are spectating. We are removed from participation, and even more so when we can't be stood on the North Stand with each other as a collective living organism - as part of the team.



In this odd circumstance, we are observing the footballers reaching for/catching apples, only we're doing it through our televisions, at best with our mates via Zoom. In doing so, we'll perceive that some of the players will have climbed up the ladder alongside the manager. We will see that they get it and are reaching out to take hold of the fruit (see above). For others, it might take a bit of time as they have had less of that precious zone of proximal development in which to learn and change their rhythm appropriately, and there will be spilt apples that they can learn from later (see Liam Cooper or Scott McTominay's defensive responsibilities, or Robertson and Tierney learning to play together down the left).


The answer isn't merely to say, 'let's bin some of our best players', 'let's start again, again' or 'let's pursue more players with tenuous Scottish links', but rather, in understanding the process, a patient balance is required - otherwise, we'll drop the apples, burn out the clutch or break our iMac.


For example, I'd rather Robertson and Tierney learned to play together successfully for 6 years instead of getting through one game, though thankfully, these options are not mutually exclusive. Remember, we're believers in option 3; behaviourism and constructivism can cohabitate - as long as meaning arrives eventually.


Whatever we see on Thursday, this observation of process leads to something else, something which A\M holds salient; that of mindset.



We can choose our mindset as we observe and spectate, and this has much bigger implications than any one of us thinks. This is where, in deciding our mindset, a collective is formed and strength in the collective is established. It's the long-reaching, longitudinal, not-yet, growth-mindset scope of saying - 'that's the destination, so I'll believe in the process', and with this generation of young, talented players, it's what we must aspire towards.


All our objectives are in front of us now

- Scott McTominay, September 2019


This mindset is far more than wishful thinking or talking a good game when 'losing heroically'... again.


For the record, I'm sick of losing. I don't want Scotland to lose. None of us wants Scotland to lose.


So, when spectating then, what do we do to make that positive choice? Surely the beautiful part of the beautiful game is that I'm allowed to feel the whole range of human emotions and better yet, that's to be untamed and liberal in expression, even if it's criticism!? How can I soberly, consciously, philosophically, understand what I'm seeing when Scotland are losing 2-1 with a minute to play? Someone could carry the ball into the net in a split second where VAR is blinded, legs are broken and we score the most immoral goal in history and I wouldn't care! Give me the win!



Fine, have your dirty win - but what if we don't get it? Do we react and kick the manager out? Do we lose sight of the process? Do we start again, again... ad infinitum?


Recognising growth is the answer. It is the success criteria by which we must measure progress, and growth has always taken place, regardless of the result. To illustrate, I could point to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool four years ago, derided for linking hands to acknowledge the fans after an unimpressive 2-2 home draw against lowly West Brom. What was he doing?! How dare he!! Jurgen - that may be fine in Germany, but it's about winning here, this is the Premier League, the 'home of football'. It's all about beating West Brom - instead, you've got us linking hands. Fast forward to three European Finals, a Champions League and an elusive Premier League title; I wonder how many Liverpool fans would rather swap that somewhat awkward forging of mindset with the fans with a victory against West Brom??


I wonder how many Liverpool fans would rather swap that somewhat awkward forging of mindset with the fans with a victory against West Brom??

Remember, the learning process is always going on, even if we're not aware of it, but shared recognition of it has to start somewhere. It has to be brave. Like Klopp before the Kop, you might not instantly understand or appreciate it, but your view on the destination is what matters, and few can argue with where the German has taken the Merseyside club. Belief goes a long, long way.


Regardless of the result on Thursday - and I sincerely hope it is a Scotland victory by whatever means necessary, within the laws of the game. Let's try to hold onto the points for growth. The learning points. Let's try to be mindful of the process. Let's attempt to talk about that rather than jump to knee-jerk reactions like benching our Champions League-winning and world-class captain. Let's be willing to look foolishly optimistic in the pursuit of our destination because no one reached a winning destination by standing still and criticising. Let's form a collective winning machine the only way we know how - by starting with what we've got, acknowledging that the process is always going on somewhere between constructivism, behaviourism and the apple tree.


'It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now!?... Alba Gu Brath!'

- Rage Against the Machine, 'Guerilla Radio' [maybe edited]





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