> 7 min. reading time >

Picture this.

A daily Dutch evening show about the happenings of the Tour de France of that day. A pleasant summer evening atmosphere is created with a rustic wooden table, glasses of wine and a picturesque provincial background bathing in dusky evening light. People knowledgeable about speed biking sit at this wooden table. One person is the odd one in the bunch. He is a former soccer athlete.

As is a habit when cycling and soccer people sit together, the conversation goes towards the difference in responding to injury. We all know that soccer players roll around on the grass, moaning and grabbing onto their hurt body part, doing a full body pantomime of the concept of victimhood, as soon as a rival’s shoe has so much as grazed their skin. Cyclists on the contrary (as everyone knows as well) make the most horrible falls down ravines or end up as the one on the bottom of a huge tangle of cycles and riders that was going 70 kms/hr just a second before they turned into a messy heap in the middle of the road. They break collarbones, arms or other bits and pieces and hop on their bike as soon as they can and, while bleeding a trail, they sometimes even manage to still win. 

This odd one in the bunch at this table full of Tour de France experts had had enough of the discussion about this apparent contrast in strength of character between the two types of athletes. Here is what he said: “Due to the rules of the game there is a pay off for soccer players to over dramatize their injuries. From the rules of their game, there is none for cyclists. Now can we please talk about intelligent matters?”

Top sports and structural cleverness

That’s cool isn’t it? 🙂 

This soccer player understood the dynamics of structure very well. If the rules of the sport make being the victim pay with things like penalties that can make the difference between winning and losing, then you will see players try to use those rules to their advantage. Put a cyclist (who wants to win) in that same structure of the soccer rules and they will very likely start doing the same thing. Now put a soccer player in the structure that underlies the speed bike competition. When he falls badly after an elbow kiss with a rival, chances are he will pick himself up, broken bones and all, and heroically break his body some more while making an effort to win anyway.

Top sports and structural cleverness

“It is the structure, silly!”
That’s what the former soccer athlete would have said if he had had the vocabulary of structural dynamics and my sense of humour. But he didn’t need that vocabulary because he understood it’s essence through common sense and clear thinking. 

Structure is a bunch of elements which have relations with each other and form a whole together (the structure) that causes a predictable outcome.

So in the decades old discussion about the difference in responding to injury by soccer players or speed bikers, the element ‘rules of the game’ had been overlooked as being part of the structure. Overlooked in favour of ‘strength of character’ which is actually not an element at all in this structure, meaning it has nothing to do with why the players do what they do.

And here is another structural predictability. Soccer players have a higher chance of realising this bit of structural wisdom than cyclists. Why? 

Think about it. The soccer players are seen as weak, which they probably like less than being seen as tough. Cyclists have less incentive to really think about the reality of their response to injury because, well, for most people it feels nice to be seen as being in possession of a strong character, right? No incentive to look at what is really going on there. 

Structural cleverness in the Olympics

In the last few weeks I heard many Olympic athletes speak to reporters from the same understanding of structure when they were asked about their chances of winning. Almost all athletes list the elements which are part of creating the very best chances for winning in their sports and say how well they have prepared for those elements.

Like this Dutch sailor: “Unlike most of my competition I have practised in these waters for a year so I know them very well. I have done all I can to be in the best shape physically and mentally. And it has paid off, my body feels stronger than ever. I made the podium in 40% of the world cups last year. Given all of this and the strength of the competition I am up against, I have a very decent shot at winning gold.” 

Another athlete (Dutch Judo guy) thought it would help him reach his goal if he stated his goal in public phrased like this :  I am going to win gold!
He did not even come close to the podium and the analyses from various sports experts to his performance were very interesting. People said he should not have boasted about his goal. “You make it too big if you do and that puts way too much pressure on you”. or “Set the goal, then forget the goal.’ 

From a structural perspective it is rather easy to see why stating what will happen does not work for you. It is unknowable whether you will win so you are in fact lying to yourself. And why would you do that? Who else but a person who doubts that they will win, will feel the need to ‘think positive’ and state the opposite of those doubts? This is called the boomerang effect. Stating the ideal, I will win gold, actually reinforces the doubts which are a drain on your energy when you are working a creative process.

Top sports and structural cleverness
The boomerang effect of positive thinking – read more about this here

Knowing reality clearly, that you’ve done all you can, placed yourself in the very best position to win gold, and that the rest as well as the end result is out of your hands puts you in a much better position to win than by positive thinking. Not being sure that you will win is not a sign of low self esteem, it is a sign of have both feet on the ground.

People who have goals like ‘being the best of the freaking WHOLE world in my sport’ simply cannot afford to be sloppy about their working reality. The better they know it, the better they can prepare. And when a tenth of a second difference can make you the best of the world or not, then everything matters. A lie that gives you a temporary nice feeling and long term pressure simply will not do.

We are human beings. Rather flawed. We can’t predict the future and there are much more things we can’t control than things we can. Knowing this, we can enjoy creating the things we want to create in life and work and, maybe after a moment of fireworks, pick ourselves up if things don’t work out, adjust our course and pursue what we love with new rigour and a bit more wisdom.

Btw: The quotes are loosely representative of what these athletes said, or what I remember having heard these athletes say.

Sign me up for a monthly letter with good stuff like this

    Do you have two minutes that you wouldn’t mind giving me as a gift? If no, no worries, if yes, great! Click on the link below.

    Experience a free session

    Do you want some of the clarity that this soccer athlete has, aimed at a topic in your own life or work? I am scheduling new structural thinking sessions for the second half of the year. Free of charge (because of training), full of never-thought-to-think-about-that questions.

    How does structural consulting work?

    Top sports and structural cleverness
    Structural Thinking is very thorough detective work

    This article is based on what I am learning from the work of Robert Fritz – master, teacher and consultant of the creative process for business and individuals. Go read all his books! Do his workshops or contact me for paid as well as very affordable or even unpaid (because practice) sessions.

    Picture credits: drawings are made by me