If you’ve ever listened to a Physics lecture, then you are familiar with the feeling of hearing your native language spoken in a way that sounds foreign. Is this guy speaking English? English is “how” he’s communicating, but it’s “what” he’s communicating that sounds Chinese. You speak English, sure, but you don’t speak Physics. 

I’m guessing that you are a football coach. As a football coach, you live in the football world. And, inside the football world, everyone speaks the football language. Coaches use words and concepts like transitioning, passing, pressing, switching play, and wall passes. We debate attacking, defending, team organizations, and tactics. Because we share a common language, it is very rare for football coaches not to understand one another.

Of course, football coaches aren’t the only people living in the football world. They live alongside exercise scientists, fitness coaches, strength coaches, psychologists, data analysts, nutritionists, and others. This, of course, is a good thing. The knowledge that these people possess is very valuable. However, it is anything but easy for these people to share their knowledge inside the football world. This is because the exercise scientist, psychologist, nutritionist, and data analyst all have their own unique language. They are used to communicating with words and concepts that everyone understands inside the academic walls of their particular discipline. But, inside the football world, these words and concepts lose a clear meaning. While diversity of knowledge and expertise is a good thing, it is only worthwhile if the information can actually be shared. For this to occur, we need a common language. A language that serves as a filter with which we can translate concepts from different scientific disciplines. We can use this ‘language filter’ to give important scientific concepts a shared meaning inside the football world.

Without this filter, coaching staffs will continue communicating using several different languages. In this case, language is a barrier, not a tool. The exercise scientists uses terms like fascicle length and high threshold motor units. The psychologist uses terms like amygdala and psychometrics. The fitness coach uses words like aerobic, anaerobic, and alactic. The strength coach uses terms like plyometrics and force-tension relationship. The head coach is having flashbacks to his first day of Physics 201. 

Language becomes an obstacle when the meaning of words is unclear, or undefined. For example, read the following excerpt from Albert Einstein’s Relativity.

“An observer who is sitting eccentrically on the disc K’ is sensible of a force which acts outwards in a radial direction, and which would be interpreted as an effect of inertia (centrifugal force) by an observer who was at rest with respect to the original reference-body K. But the observer on the disc may regard his disc as a reference body which is “at rest”; on the basis of the general principle of relativity he is justified in doing this. The force acting on himself, and in fact on all other bodies which are at rest relative to the disc, he regards as the effect of a gravitational field.”

Notice how this sentence is in exactly the same language that you have been reading comfortably thus far. However, this sentence strikes you much differently doesn’t it? Unless you speak the Physics language, you could read that sentence 100 more times and still not know what is being said. Now you know how the head coach feels when seven different PhD’s are trying to communicate with him. 

The college team that I coach has players from seven different countries. As a result, there are seven different languages that can be spoken. Portuguese, Spanish, English, German, etc. What language should we speak? How do I make sure that everyone understands what is being said? There are basically two choices.

First, we can ask all thirty of our players and five staff members to learn seven new languages. Or, everyone can learn one language. Which option is more reasonable? Which would you choose? Obviously, we agree to speak one language, which happens to be English. As a result of this choice, language isn’t a barrier, but a tool. A tool that all thirty players and five staff members can use to communicate and transfer information and knowledge to one another.

This principle that my team adopts is what we can call the universal language principle. The purpose isn’t to purify language and act as a sort of ‘language police’, dictating what can and cannot be said. The application of the universal language principle is an attempt to recapture the meaning that words have. I want people to know what I mean. I don’t want them to interpret what I mean. When you use unclear language, you force people to interpret what you mean. If they interpret what you mean differently than what you intended, then miscommunications arise. The cartoon below is a great example of incorrectly interpreting what someone said.

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The consequences of this are obvious. Imagine telling your players at halftime to be “more aggressive”. This is a perfect example of vague and unclear language. It begs the question, “what does he mean by that?” You have forced your players to interpret what you mean. As a result, you shouldn’t get upset if someone gets sent off in the first few minutes of the second half. After all, you’re the one that was unclear.

This problem also occurs between staff members. A fitness coach might tell the head coach that the players need to develop their aerobic capacity. This again begs the question, “what does he mean by that?” Once again, don’t blame the head coach when this is interpreted differently that how you intended. This is the consequence of forcing people to interpret what you mean.

Most coaching staffs fail to apply the universal language principle. It’s more like the “anything goes” principle. People use whatever words and concepts they want and nobody gives a damn if other people understand them. This problem is made worse by the fact that nobody will challenge you to make yourself more clear. People are so afraid of revealing their own incompetence or misunderstanding of something that they would rather ‘pretend’ that everything was clear. They don’t want to be the one to say, “Wait, what? What do you mean by that?” 

A good example is the clip below. Jerry Seinfeld tells us a joke that Norm Macdonald doesn’t understand. The guy on the far right laughs loudly at the joke. When pressed to explain the joke, he reveals that he didn’t understand the joke at all. Rather than admitting he didn’t understand the joke, he tried to maintain an illusion that he understood what was going on. This also happens in football. Nobody wants to be the guy that asks the fitness coach to explain what he means by, “Let’s do 105% MAS runs today using the 15:45 interval method. I think this will be a good way to accumulate some quality high speed distance.” So, we pretend to get the joke. As a result, the language problem goes unnoticed. Like a thief in broad daylight.

We would rather maintain the illusion that we understand rather than admit our misunderstanding. As a result of this illusion, language continues to be a barrier in football. When language becomes a barrier, communication is compromised. When communication is compromised, then information transfer is not possible. When information transfer is not possible, then people make decisions without important information. And, when people make decisions without important information… 

In 1998, NASA was attempting to launch the Mars Climate Orbiter. Two groups of engineers were assigned to the project. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system to communicate their calculations whereas the team of engineers from Lockheed Martin used the English system (inches, feet, and pounds). Two different languages were used to make calculations for the same aircraft. As a result, the aircraft exploded.

Clearly, language is important. In fact, it is the starting point. If a homeless man came up to you in the street and began speaking gibberish, would you know how to help him? Why is it that the only Spanish you know is, “Tú hablas ingles?” The majority of our interactions begin by removing barriers to language, first, before we say or do anything else. Why don’t we adopt this same approach inside of the football world? Why do we let language remain a barrier?

Philosopher Richard Rorty once said, “We are nothing save the words we use.” The goal of communication is to be understood. In order to communicate, language must be clear. It must be precise. It must be shared. 

In order for experts from outside the football world to contribute to football knowledge, they first need to be able to communicate. For this to occur, two things need to happen. First, they must learn the football language. Second, they need to translate their knowledge into football knowledge. This two step process is what allows knowledge from outside of the football world to become knowledge inside the football world. 

Step 1 means that football is taken as the starting point when asking research questions. What is football? What does it mean to play football better? These questions can be summed under the umbrella Football Philosophy, which is the task of forming the fundamental principles and concepts of football. 

Step 2 means taking knowledge generated outside of the football context and framing it in football language. What do the principles of physiology mean for playing football better? Playing football longer? This translation process is critical to being understood by a coaching staff. If you wanted to write a book that sold extremely well in the United States, would you write it in Chinese? Of course not. Likewise, many experts come into the football world with good intentions of helping players and coaches, but are often disappointed by their inability to make themselves understood. This is because they are communicating their knowledge in Chinese.

Football coaches don’t know what to do with a concept like Critical Velocity or Explosive Strength Deficit. Since they don’t know what to do with those concepts, don’t be surprised if they do nothing with them. You have to tell them what it means. And you have to tell them what it means on the pitch. How does your knowledge improve football? In order to answer that question, you have to know what football is. And then you need to know how your knowledge can contribute to better football. It is only by converting your knowledge into football knowledge that you will make the desired impact.

In order to make sure language isn’t an obstacle, we need to apply the universal language principle. This means that everyone inside of the football world agrees to speak a common language. This increases the chances that people don’t have to interpret what we mean, but know exactly what we mean.

In order to apply the universal language principle, a theory is necessary. This is what we call football theory. Football theory is a clarification of the fundamental principles and basic concepts of football. This clarification serves to create a clear and coherent football language that provides precise definitions for words and concepts – with no grey areas. We can refer to these words and concepts as football principles. We can use these football principles to translate knowledge from outside the football world into football knowledge. Knowledge that is applicable inside of the football world.