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Why Football is Better than Tennis and Golf

BARCELONA, SPAIN – MAY 05: FC Barcelona players throw Josep Guardiola their head coach into the air at the end of the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on May 5, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. This was Guardiola’s last match.

I was recently watching a Pep Guardiola documentary of sorts on Youtube. Actually, it was more like an intimate and revealing interview between Pep and Spanish movie director Fernando Trueba recorded in 2011. Among many things, Pep talked about how the player that plays in front of huge stadiums packed full of huge numbers of people once played football on the streets with his friends. He went on to illustrate how he never met a professional football player that does not love the game. Expanding further on this point, Pep explained how his love of football shaped him as a person, saying that the best education he had received was from the school of football.

“I have learnt to deal with defeat, that others can be better than me. I have learnt to recover after not performing well, to try harder to be the best. I have learnt to accept that a team mate can be better than me, that the coach can pick another player if I have behaved badly. All that knowledge about relationships I have learnt from sport…I did not receive that education in theory, but in practice.”

At this point I was thinking all the points he was making were fairly normal…until the following quote struck me.

“That is why group sports are more powerful than individual sports.”

This got me thinking about comparing group sports and individual sports. I was curious as to which particular category of sport is better, on an overall scale. Which type of sport requires the most skill, the most determination, the most sacrifices and the most mental toughness. In essence, which type of sport is the most difficult to become world class at.

Having a limited knowledge of individual sports such as tennis and golf, I tried to picture myself in Roger Federer or Tiger Wood’s shoes in the middle of a lawn tennis game or golf tournament. No doubt a key distinction in both these sports is that when times get tough, there are no team mates to turn to. All the pressure is on the shoulders of a single person. There is no-one but yourself to blame if things go wrong and the performance is not good enough.

On the other hand, in a football team, there is a different kind of pressure. Your performance has a direct impact on the performance of your team mates. If you make mistakes, not only have you let yourself down, but you have let down your team mates as well. It is what I call the ‘guilt factor’ in team sports. This guilt factor enhances the pressure an individual feels to perform because the guilt of not performing is multiplied. This is not the case in individual sports because you are not playing for others and as such your actions have no consequences, so to speak. The only consequence is what thoughts a player has in his head. Roger Federer clearly has mastered the art of controlling emotions:

“Previously I always thought it was just tactical and technique, but every match has almost become mental and physical – I try to push myself not to become upset and stay positive, and that’s what my biggest improvement is over all these years. Under pressure I can see things very clearly.”

It is clear to see that in a game like tennis, mental strength and psychology play an important part in the success of a player. While I do not doubt this, I do doubt that the role of the mind is more important in individual sports than in team sports. The reason for my doubt is that I believe you need even more mental stability in football due to the complexity of the game. Not only can obstacles come in the form of a loss of confidence on your part, they can also come from the opposition players or your own team mates. It is not enough to simply be at ease with your personal psyche; it must be integrated successfully and harmoniously within your team.

An example of this might be the case of Mario Balotelli. He is a man who does not lack confidence or self belief. The problem is that his mental strength does not lie within the accepted limitations for his team to cope with. This is especially true for his manager Roberto Mancini. Mario’s “self confidence” is perceived as a bad attitude, a brash cockiness and a weak team orientated mentality. If Balotelli’s personality was to be used in tennis or golf, he might stand a better chance of annoying and disgruntling less people, allowing him the freedom to express his talents to the fullest. In football, a more subtle approach has to be taken to successfully integrate with the people around him. This is what I mean when I say that team sports represent a more difficult and complex environment to control your own emotions, even if your are self confident and mentally tough.

Application of skill on a tennis court or a golf course is much, much easier than in a team environment. This is another reason why I believe football is better than tennis and golf. Golf especially is played in a closed environment. This is a state where skill takes place in a stable and predictable environment. Corresponding with the closed environment, golf is an internally paced sport. In other words, the golfer controls when he chooses to commence and conclude the skill action. The skill has a clear beginning and end, the golf swing being an example of a closed skill.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 27: Manchester City Manager Roberto Mancini speaks to Mario Balotelli during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Swansea City at the Etihad Stadium on October 27, 2012 in Manchester, England.

The football environment is the opposite of these conditions, being both an open environment and an externally paced sport in which the athlete’s decisions and execution of skills are affected by the players around him and the time that he must execute skills. A striker cannot miss an opportunity to shoot on goal because he feels rushed into taking the shot. Football players have to contend with a highly charged and pressured environment where quickness and speed of thought are crucial to skill execution, unlike in golf where you can take your time and pace yourself. Tennis is in between golf and football on the scale, where some plays are internally paced (executing a serve) and it is an environment where you must contend with only one or two opponents instead of eleven.

The final point I want to make is that a group sport can have a bigger impact on the audience because it is a social event as much as it is a sporting event.

“You have to learn how to relate to others. I have learnt to make an effort for a team mate and I know that tomorrow he will do the same for me in order to achieve our common goals.”

It is these interactions between team mates which enrich the sport. Football is a microcosm of society, where people gather together, share aspirations, make plans and objectives, and sets out to achieve them together. Differences of opinion will occur, people will get upset and bust-ups will inevitably occur. Managing these issues is part of the sport. Achieving victories together sweetens the experience of playing the sport.

In my opinion, the complexities and the richness of football cannot be compared to individual sports such as tennis and golf. Football is simply the best game in the world. Pep Guardiola perhaps has the ultimate reason for why football is the only universally loved game:

“It is also a fun game, it brings pleasure, it is a game in the end. We have forgotten about that word, to play. We at the bottom play football, we play everyday. I play dreaming about the next game and my players play everyday.”

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