The common denominator across all sports is motion. In football, we are interested in the motion of the players and the ball. However, the language we use to describe this motion has important practical consequences.
There are two main perspectives that someone can take when describing motion in football. You can take the action perspective or the movement perspective. Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is best illustrated by trying to answer the following question:
What is the difference between a wink and a blink?
One is an action. The other is a movement. And, contrary to popular belief, actions are not the same thing as movements.
The difference between an action and a movement lies in the importance of the environment. For actions, the environment is important. For movements, the environment is unimportant. Actions are dependent on their environment. Movements are independent of their environment. For example, pouring yourself a coffee is dependent on interacting with an environment that includes both coffee and a cup. Conversely, stretching your hips is something you can do anywhere, anytime. In other words, the environment is beside the point.
So, what is the difference between a wink and a blink? Winking is an action. Is it even possible to wink without winking at someone? Blinking is a movement. It is simply a description of someone moving their eyelid up and down. Blinking says nothing about the context in which one blinks. Winking, on the other hand, does. Winking begs the question, “who did he wink at?”
When we make actions, the context is not beside the point, it IS the point. You can’t climb a tree without a tree. You can’t hit the brakes without traffic. When we make movements, on the other hand, the context is beside the point. You can bend your knee while lying on your back, or standing up straight.
In football, our starting point for describing motion is the action perspective. The action perspective views human beings as inseparable from their environments. And so, it views football players as inseparable from football.
Football provides players with opportunities to make actions that are not possible in other contexts. You cannot press the opponent inside of your kitchen. You cannot dribble past the defender while sitting in traffic. The ball is for passing and shooting. Your teammates are for passing with and getting open for. The opponent is for marking and tackling. These are actions that only present themselves to players inside of the football context. We call this particular set of actions – football actions. Football actions are dependent on a football context.
Of course, football players interact with the football context in other ways too. Players make thinking actions, speaking actions, and even expressive actions like when a player celebrates a goal or makes a dive. Football players, and people more generally, are rarely making just one action.
For example, I am currently writing a blog. However, I am also typing, sitting in a chair, and drinking coffee. If you were to ask me what I am doing, I would say, “writing a blog.” I wouldn’t say “sitting in a chair” or “typing”. Although I am also “sitting in a chair”, my primary action is writing a blog. Typing and sitting in a chair are deeper descriptions of what I am doing. They are not the most accurate way of describing what I am doing. Typing, sitting, and drinking coffee are what we can call supporting actions. They are actions that support my primary action.
A player that is pressing the opponent is also sprinting, breathing, thinking, and speaking to his teammates. These are supporting actions. The difference between a primary action and a supporting action is that the player is not primarily focused on his supporting actions. The player is focused on his primary action, which is pressing. When you read the newspaper in the morning, you are also sitting. Which action are you primarily concerned with? Sitting? Or, reading the paper?
Sprinting, breathing, thinking. Each of these support the execution of the primary action – pressing. If you were to ask the player, “hey, what are you doing?”, it is doubtful that he would say, “breathing”, unless, of course, he is a wise guy.
Think about all of the different actions you make as a coach. Primarily, you are coaching or maybe speaking to your players, but you are also walking, breathing, and thinking. If your cell phone rang during training and you were forced to answer the person on the other line, and he asked you, “what are you doing?” your answer would be, “I’m coaching.” If somebody described your actions as walking, or breathing, they would be failing to capture exactly how you’re interacting with your environment.
How can we know what someone’s primary actions are? The context gives us clues. If you see someone running in your neighborhood on a Saturday morning, chances are that they are exercising. If you see someone running in the Mall while being chased by two police officers, chances are he is stealing.
The football context is our primary context. Players make football actions. They also breath, walk, run, gesture, and think. These other actions are a “side-dish”, while the football actions are the “main course”.
What is the difference between football actions and these other actions. What role do these other actions play in football?
When players give instructions to a teammate they are making speech actions. When they recall their mark during a set-piece they are making thinking actions. One of the key differences between these actions and football actions is motion.
Football actions are about creating motion of the body, the ball, and even the opponent. You can’t convince the ball to go into the goal. You can’t think about the ball going into the goal. You have to put the ball into the goal. Therefore, the role of non-motion actions like breathing and speaking is a supportive one. They are a necessary “side dish”. But, they are nothing without the “main course”.
We can contrast a sport like football with an activity like chess. Chess is the exact opposite of football. The primary actions in chess are thinking actions that do not require motion. Motion-actions like moving the pieces are supporting actions. They support the primary actions. An elite chess player is not an expert at moving the pieces, but an expert in thinking about where to move the pieces.
In football, motion-actions dominate our interest. The motion-actions that we are primarily concerned with are football actions. Examples of football actions include passing, pressing, getting open, and shooting. While football actions are the most accurate way to describe player motion, they are not the only way to describe player motion.
Describing motion solely in terms of football actions does not mean that everything about football motion has been said. Imagine that we attend a football match. For the sake of experiment, I ask you put a blindfold over your eyes. Now, it is my job to describe the match to you. Primarily, I will describe the match using football action language. This is the best way to ensure you know what is going on.
“Henderson just passed the ball to Mane. Mane is dribbling towards Kyle Walker. Firminho is creating a passing option. Mane uses him to make a wall pass. The return pass is intercepted by Walker. Firminho is pressing Walker who passes backwards to Ederson.”
While this is the best way to describe what the players are doing, even more can be said. We can describe football actions in much more detail. For example, how did Firminho create a passing option? Did he walk? Run? Sprint? Change direction?
In order to make football actions, like creating a passing option, players need to make a specific set of supporting actions. These supporting actions are actions that support the motion, or execution, of the football action. For example, in order to create a passing option, a player might need to sprint, stop, push his defender away, change direction, and sprint again. These actions are part of the football action.
Inside the football context, players are primarily focused on interacting with the football context. In other words, they are primarily focused on interacting with their teammates, the ball, and the opponent by pressing, passing, shooting, or heading the ball.
This is very similar to your coaching actions on the sideline. While you are primarily coaching, you are also walking. The difference between the coaching actions and the walking actions is that walking is part of coaching. Coaching is not part of walking.
In football, sprinting is part of pressing. However, pressing is not part of sprinting. If this were the case, then a 100 meter sprinter could only sprint if there was an opponent in front of him. One way to think about this is that all pressing actions require sprinting, but not all sprinting actions require pressing. This means that sprinting is not a football action. It is not something that requires the football context. People can sprint in a parking lot, on a track, in the woods, or at the beach. However, sprinting is still an action. It requires a context. You cannot sprint while lying on your back. However, you don’t need the football context in order to sprint. This means that sprinting is a non-football context action. It is an action that is described using a general context. This general context is what we can refer to as a basic context.
This means that supporting actions like sprinting, pushing, changing direction, and stopping are all types of basic actions. They are actions which are the building blocks of football actions. In a word, every football action requires the execution of one, or many, basic actions.
Actions like sprinting don’t say anything about the football context. If I told you that a player is sprinting, you would have no idea how that player was impacting the game. Is he Attacking? Defending? Does he have the ball? Not have the ball? This is because sprinting is a basic action. It is not useful for describing the football context. However, this doesn’t mean that sprinting is irrelevant in football, in fact, quite the contrary.
For certain players, the “weak link” in their playing ability can be their basic action ability. For example, a player that makes low quality sprinting actions might be too slow for certain football actions. This means that his basic action is holding him back from achieving a higher level of play. There are other players who make a career out of their basic action ability. These players, who are usually characterized as “athletic”, are capable of very high quality basic actions. They can jump, sprint, stop, and change direction better than most players. For these players, it is their football actions that are usually the “weak link”. When it comes to controlling the ball, passing, or dribbling, they leave something to be desired. Often, coaches wish to merge the two. They want players that can pass, dribble, shoot, and control the ball, but they also want players that can sprint, jump, and change direction. What is important to understand is that these two abilities are not independent from one another. In fact, they are interdependent. Basic actions are part of football actions. As a result, a player with the highest sprinting speed in the world will be useless if he doesn’t understand when to sprint and in which direction to sprint. Both are necessary to develop in order to play football at the highest level.
From the action perspective, we have two ways to describe motion in football: football actions and basic actions. However, these alone do not provide a deep enough description of football motion. Let’s revisit our “blindfold” experiment from the previous section and describe the football actions using basic action language.
“Henderson just kicked the ball to Mane. Mane is running with the ball towards Kyle Walker. Firminho is sprinting and pushing Laporte. Mane is kicking the ball towards him and sprinting. Kyle Walker is stopping the ball. Firminho is sprinting towards Walker who kicks the ball to Ederson.”
Hopefully it is obvious why basic actions are the second best way to describe football. It wasn’t exactly clear how these basic actions were influencing the game. But, that wasn’t the point of this thought experiment, only a useful side note. The point is that while this provides even more detail regarding the actions of the players, it still doesn’t provide an exhaustive description of the players motion. For example, how did Firminho sprint? Did he sprint with a flexed back, or an extended back? Did he sprint with flexed hips, or extended hips? Did he sprint with a rotated pelvis, or a neutral pelvis?
In order to make basic actions like sprinting and stopping, players need to make certain movements. In other words, they need to move their body parts in certain ways. These movements support the motion, or execution, of the basic action. For example, in order to sprint, a player will need to flex one leg while extending the other. He will have to rotate his arms and shoulders. He will have to extend, or flex his spine. These descriptions are part of the basic action. And, they are descriptions from the movement perspective.
Movements don’t say anything about the relationship between a person and the environment. Rather, they say something about a person’s relationship with himself. In other words, the movement perspective is concerned with a particular displacement of limbs and the contraction of muscles. Movements are of great interest to biomechanists and the medical staff.
Movements are a description of motion independent from the context. Moving your pelvis forwards and backwards can be done while lying on your back, or standing up. In other words, moving your pelvis does not require an interaction with your surroundings, only yourself.
For certain players, the “weak link” in their playing ability can be their movement ability. For example, a player that sprints with a flexed back can compromise the health of his muscles and tissues. In order to improve his game, and his health, this player needs to learn to “move” better.
Movements are building blocks for basic actions. If a player cannot bend his knee then he will be unable to sprint or jump. In a way, movements are prerequisites for basic actions, and thus, also for football actions. Anyone that has suffered an injury knows how true this is. One could only imagine trying to sprint the day after a knee surgery. Apparently, bending your knee is an important part of sprinting.
Of course, even this is not a complete description of motion in football. Movements are descriptions of the body parts from the outside. However, there is also important activity occurring on the inside (under the skin).
In order to make a basic action like sprinting, the body will make a variety of movements. As coaches, we only see the movements from the outside. We can observe the trunk and tell if it’s upright or flexed. However, we don’t have a clue what is happening on the inside. At least not in the moment. Fortunately, the scientific disciplines of biomechanics, muscle physiology, and exercise science have provided us with a body of knowledge that give us insight into which movements are more beneficial than others. In addition, they can give us insight into how these movements are made. In other words, what are the building blocks that support successful movements?
In order to move, the body requires the cooperation of the muscles. In order to sprint with an extended back, for example, the low back muscles, hamstrings, abdominals, and hip muscles all need to work together. These individual muscles form a group that makes executing certain movements easier. We can refer to this cooperation between muscles as muscle interactions.
During muscle inter-actions, it doesn’t matter how strong the muscles are individually. What matters is how the muscles work together to produce a movement. It is kind of like lifting a couch. It doesn’t matter how easy it is for each of us to lift our end of the couch if we keep lifting our ends at different times. If we don’t lift the couch at the same time, then the couch won’t go anywhere.
The body operates most optimally while sprinting and jumping by making certain movements. For example, it is both safer and more effective to sprint with a neutral pelvis rather than a rotated pelvis. In order to maintain the position of the pelvis, the trunk muscles must work together to control the pelvis position. The activity of the muscles that support the movement of the trunk are an example of muscle interactions.
Muscle interactions, like the interactions between the trunk muscles, is a building block for successful movement. If the trunk muscles don’t work well with one another, then certain movements won’t be possible.
The building blocks for successful muscle interactions are successful muscle actions. To refer back to the couch example, it doesn’t matter if we lift the couch at the same time if you are unable to lift your end off the ground.
Muscle activity, or muscle actions, are important building blocks for movement. For example, imagine you are sprinting. If your hamstring muscle acts too late, or not strongly enough, when you are pushing off the ground, the forces from the ground will overload your pelvis position. As a result, your pelvis will rotate forward in order to create more tension in the hamstrings.
In this situation, one of the “weak links” in your sprinting is your hamstring muscle action. In other words, the hamstring either acts too late or not strongly enough, which compromises the neutral position of the pelvis. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to sprint. What it means is that other muscles and tissues will be burdened with compensating for the inactivity of the hamstring. Over time, this can lead to injury, or poor sprinting (basic action) performance.
Muscle actions are building blocks for muscle interactions, which are both building blocks for movement. If a player cannot create enough tension (force) in his hamstring while extending his hip during sprinting, then certain movements won’t be possible. In this case, maintaining a neutral pelvis and an extended back will be very difficult.
Based on our analysis above, the movement perspective has three key components. There are movements, actions between muscles, and actions of individual muscles. However, these aspects are not independent from one another. During actions, there is a link between the muscle actions, muscle interactions, and eventual movement. Errors at any of these levels can influence the others. For example, the movement of the pelvis influences the tension on the hamstring and vice-versa.
There are two perspectives that we can take when describing motion in football: the action perspective and movement perspective. Hopefully, it has been made clear that these perspectives are not mutually exclusive. It is not one or the other. It is actions AND movements. Not actions OR movements.
In order to properly identify and improve the “weak link” in a players football ability, we must consider the action itself and each of the contributing building blocks.
It is vital to mention that there is an implied link between these five levels. Muscle actions at the fifth level should be linked to the football actions at the first level. If this link is ignored, then the transfer of training to the match will be compromised. For example, in the real world, the fifth level can often take on a life of its own. Strength coaches, for example, will spend valuable training time developing muscles to act in a way that they don’t have to in a game, or even worse, muscle actions that are completely irrelevant to football.
Football coaches are also guilty here. Many times, the first level takes on a life of its own. Coaches ignore the building blocks of football actions and try to solve every problem inside the context of the game. While this approach makes sense given the primary importance of the football context, it is not always adequate. More often than not, players probably spend too little time developing themselves from the second level through to the fifth level.
Coaches, and their staff members, should specialize in at least one of these levels and have an understanding of all five levels. This increases the chances that the appropriate “weak link” can be identified in a players performance. This means that we can create even more precise training sessions.
Actions and movements are philosophically different. Actions are ways of interacting with our surroundings. Movements are ways of interacting with ourselves. We need to look at motion from both perspectives in order to identify “weak points” in a players game.
Coaches and players operate inside the football context. Certain actions are only available inside the football context. You cannot press a central defender at Wal-Mart. Players are primarily concerned with the football situation. They deal with the football situation by making football actions. They press, pass, get open, and transition.
In order to make football actions, players need to execute certain basic actions. These are actions that are unspecific to the football context. For example, sprinting, jumping, and changing direction. These are actions that you can do in other surroundings. They are not specific or unique to football. In order to get open, a player might have to sprint, push his opponent, and change direction. Basic actions are a set of building blocks for football actions.
In order to make a basic action, certain movements need to be made. Players will need to flex and extend their hips, swing their arms, and rotate their pelvis. Sometimes, players encounter restrictions or limitations in their movement ability. For example, when a player becomes injured and is no longer able to flex his ankle, he suddenly can no longer sprint or press. In other words, he cannot make actions. He cannot play football. Movements are a set of building blocks for basic actions.
In order to move your body in a certain way, your muscles need to cooperate with one another. When climbing a ladder, your gluteal, hamstring, quadricep, and calf muscles each need to coordinate and time their actions relative to one another in order to support your leg flexion and extension movements. These muscle interactions are building blocks for successful movement.
Finally, each muscle needs to “do its part” when making a certain movement. Individual muscles make certain actions. The characteristics of these actions can support or limit the success of movements and actions higher up the chain. Muscle actions are building blocks for successful muscle interactions and movements.
These five levels can be used to identify and correct any “weak links” in a players game. They can also contribute towards a more appropriate training program that adequately prepares players for the game of football. It is important that these levels don’t take on a “life of their own”, but are seen as pieces of a bigger puzzle. The puzzle we are trying to solve is the performance on the pitch (football actions). In order for training interventions to contribute towards better football actions, there should be a clear link from the football actions all the way through to the muscle actions. Each level should be connected by a common thread. Together, these five levels create a more complete picture of football motion.