Soccer and Spatial Reasoning

By Dan Peterson

We’re going to go back to David Winner’s book about Dutch Total Football, Brilliant Orange one more time; it’s just too good. There are so many valuable insights about the nature of expertise and athletic intelligence, specifically with respect to Spatial Reasoning, the ability to visualize and manipulate patterns in space over time. One of the book’s main arguments is that soccer is fundamentally about manipulating space on the pitch to create or exploit openings, and that the Total Football style of the 1970′s Dutch teams revolutionized the way this was done.

Former Manchester United manager Dave Sexton explains:

With their pressing and rotation, the Dutch created space where there wasn’t any before. Everyone else still played in a rigid way, in straight lines and fixed positions. The Dutch approach was quite different. Michels never talked to me about it in theoretical terms, but he didn’t have to because if you were in football, you understood immediately what it meant. Instead of straight lines, his concept was people changing positions. By itself, that freed up huge amounts of space and gave defenders a problem: if the Dutch left-winger moves infield, what should the right-back do? Go with him, or stay put? If he goes, he leaves a hole where immediately the Dutch left-back will pop up. But if he doesn’t go, the winger gets the ball to his feet in the midfield and turns and runs at you through the center.’

And from Player, Barry Hulshoff:

‘We discussed space all the time’, says Barry Hulshoff, ‘Cruyff always talked about where people should run, where they should stand, where they should not be moving. It was all about making space and coming into space. It is a kind of architecture on the filed. It is about movement but still it is about space, about organizing space. You have to know why building up from the right side or from the left side is different movement from when you build up from the center…We always talked about speed of ball, space and time. Where is the most space? Where is the player who has the most time? That is where we have to play the ball. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole’.

These ideas around athletes and spatial reasoning are fascinating. Whether it’s soccer, football, basketball, or really any other ball sport, athletes have to deal with constantly changing, 3-dimensional chaos and make sense of what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen next. With respect to this ability to envision and transform the space and shape of a field of players, a great athlete is like a sculptor who sculpts a constantly changing medium, and a medium that actively tries to work against him. After much searching, though, the scientific literature seems to be silent on studies of athletes’ spatial reasoning skills. If anybody out there reading knows of any, get in touch.

Here is the Dutch national team of 1974 playing their Total Football. The way they see and manipulate space on the pitch is really something special.

(See previous posts about soccer and athletic intelligence here and here.)

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One Response to Soccer and Spatial Reasoning

  1. David says:

    Hi Joaquin,

    Nice post! You might be interested in these papers, describing spatial reasoning enhancement through sports practice:

    o Moreau, D. (2012). The role of motor processes in three-dimensional mental rotation: Shaping cognitive processing via sensorimotor experience. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(3), 354-359.

    o Moreau, D., Clerc, J., Mansy-Dannay, A., & Guerrien, A. (2012). Enhancing spatial ability through sport practice: Evidence for an effect of motor training on mental rotation performance. Journal of Individual Differences, 33(2), 83-88.

    o Moreau, D., Mansy-Dannay, A., Clerc, J., & Guerrien, A. (2011). Spatial ability and motor performance: Assessing mental rotation processes in elite and novice athletes. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 42(6), 525-547.

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