Why footballers aren’t stupid

Earlier this month Charlie Adam scored the goal of the season against Chelsea. After the match he was interviewed about his breathtaking strike. 

“It was one of them where it sat up nice, I saw the goalie off the line, and I was lucky enough when I struck it, it went in”

Not giving 110%

Footballers have got a reputation. Some earn hundreds of thousands a week. But when they’re asked to explain what they do, their answers are deeply dissatisfying.

“I’ve just hit it and thankfully it’s gone in”

“It’s nice to get on the scoresheet”

“It’s always a tough place to score” 

As a spectator, you long for the inside track on that special goal. You want to understand how Charlie managed to do it, and what it felt like.

But instead of enlightenment, post-match interviews repeatedly deliver the same inanities. They seem to confirm something we suspected: footballers are stupid.

Explaining the unexplainable

But what if we were to question this assumption? What if footballers’ limited vocabulary reveals something deeper?

What if it reveals not the stupidity of the footballer, but the stupidity of the questions.

After all, they are being asked to do the implausible: to accurately formalise in words something that was instinctively performed through their bodies.

Just because you know how to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you know that is how you do it.

This foundational myth – that all experiences can be objectified, abstracted and communicated through language – runs deep in our culture.

If someone fails to communicate an experience adequately, we assume it’s because they lack cogency. If they were smarter they could explain it.

Research as the post-match interview

When I see research, I often get the same feeling of emptiness as when I listen to Charlie Adam. However engagingly the phenomena is presented, I get a sense that my understanding is being limited by the medium of the explanation.

Which is why researchers are going to increasing lengths to achieve a ‘truer’ representation of their experiences; from expensively produced video to elaborate visualisations of data.

But what if researchers are in the same intractable position as Charlie Adam? Trapped in our own post-match interview loop, translating personal experiences from the field through a set of inherently limiting mediums.

So how do we break out? There are no simple solutions.

Suffice to say this: If you want to understand what it’s like to score, you need to be prepared to take aim yourself.