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Ludwig Wittgenstein made his thoughts rizomatic rather than arboreal.   In other words, instead of starting from the roots and working in a methodical way to bring things under one rule, a rhizome approach is a network with diverse forms, no particular foundation, for ever increasing connections, but following lines in much the same way as an evolutionary tree.   I have taken this analogy and applied it to learning.   As the above diagram portrays, learning comes at us from many directions, in many forms and no particular structure to it.   We just LEARN.

Learning by the use of metaphor.

What is a metaphor?   How can metaphor be applied to learning in football?

A metaphor can be described as a figure of speech, where words or a phrase representing something can be used in place of another, in order to suggest some kind of similarity between them.

A person who uses a metaphor has the intention of aiming at the truth but literally speaks falsely.   For example, “Manchester United are on fire” is a false statement; however, the real meaning which is conveyed to the listener is on the lines that that Manchester United are playing very well.   “Liverpool have their tails up,” is a false statement, but it conveys that Liverpool are playing with a lot of confidence.

The assertion that Man United are ‘on fire’ is false, but the implication is not false.   There is no similarity between the sense that Man U are playing well and that they are ‘on fire,’ however, it can be used metaphorically because of the ambiguity of meaning surrounding such words as heat and fire when applied in the above context.

Metaphors can be summarized as saying one thing and meaning something else.   They can be regarded as a figure of speech whereby one thing is represented by another.   Wayne Rooney is a ‘star,’ Joe Hart (goalkeeper) is a ‘cat,’ Steven Gerrard is a ‘tiger’ (in the tackle).

Wayne Rooney; a star?
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Steven Gerrard; a tiger?

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Joe Hart is a cat

Even though we know full well that Joe Hart is a human being and not a cat there is a conflicting intuition that (because he has exceptional agility and reflexes) the statement “Joe Hart is a cat” is sort of true, but clearly false.


As this shows, many metaphors are based on similarities.   “Shane Long (WBA striker) is a greyhound” can be cited as another example of how animals are used as metaphors to express certain characteristics.

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Shane Long; a greyhound?

These metaphoric phrases can also be described as similes;   greyhounds are fast; Sean Long is fast.   During a football match a spectator may exclaim, “Maurice Tillotson is a butcher,” leaving the listener to work out what the speaker is trying to implicate.   The listener will search for the most significant meaning of a ‘butcher’ in the context of the football game, and will probably conclude that Maurice Tillotson ‘chops’ his opponent.

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Maurice Tillotson; a butcher?

As we will explore, wise coaches will work on their metaphoric language skills in order convey ideas to their players, this can result in a more effective learning strategy as opposed to using direct statements.

If this account doesn’t make too much sense; stick with it and I will give further examples of how language can be used metaphorically in order to gain learning and understanding in footballers.   It is acknowledged in psychology that a clever metaphor can make us think deeper (at some levels) about the implications of its meaning, and can be a mechanism of teaching and changing the ideas and behaviour of footballers.   Many Managers and Coaches use metaphors in dealing with players without actually being aware of doing so or being aware of their effectiveness.

I have used the animal kingdom as metaphors to describe footballing abilities; Joe Hart is a ‘cat,’ Steve Gerrard as a ‘tiger,’ and Sean Long as a greyhound.   Here are some other settings which we commonly use.

Orientational metaphors organise our concepts according to the basic experiences of spatial organisation.  up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow, central-peripheral.

Marinho is a deep thinker. That away win boosted our spirits. Playing at home gives me a liftI found my last manager a shallow person. At thirty five, he’s on the way outAfter that bad injury he fell into a depression.

Containment metaphor :  ‘an ontological metaphor in which some concept is represented as having an inside and outside, and capable of holding something else’.

His years in football had contributed to a full life. He spent another empty day on the injury list.  The extra training sessions mean that her week is crammed with activities.  Her passion for football meant she was getting the most out of life.  Jimmy always put a lot of energy into his training sessions.

Conduit metaphor : ideas are like objects, words are like containers, and communication is like sending.

It’s hard to get that idea across to the players.  He gave us the plan but we had to implement it.  The Coach tried to pack more details into my head.

 Structural metaphor : overarching metaphors which allow us to structure one concept in terms of another—for example: ‘argument as war’.

Life as a battle or war:   That guy is an absolute loser, his mate is a winner.   She fought hard to get to the top.   The Manager kicked him out of his office.   He attacked my argument but I was able to defend my viewpoint.   Leeds are fighting against the tide.   Blackburn have survived the thunder storm.

Life is a game:   He played his cards well in order to score a new contract.

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In most sports we use wars and battles as metaphors to provide insights.

Children often learn more effectively by using creative metaphors as is demonstrated in football development games such as ‘Truck and Trailer,’ ‘Shark Attack,’ ‘Angry Neighbour,’ and many others.

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‘Truck and trailer’ is an example of using metaphors to enhance performance in childs play (truck has the ball trailer follows).

A psychology tutor recalled her experience as a novice swimmer.   Even after numerous lessons, she was finding it very difficult to learn how to swim.   Her Coach had explained the intricate details of the techniques of swimming; where to place her arms, how to co-ordinate her torso with her leg movements, and other technical points.    However, she failed to progress until a different coach came to the pool and used another method (metaphor) in order to help her.  “Imagine a windmill,” she was told.   The girl stood upright in the pool and swung her arms in the manner of turning windmill sails.   “Now imagine that the Windmill sails are bent.”   The girl now swung her arms in the manner of crooked Windmill sails (thus replicating the arm movement of a freestyle swimmer).   By the end of the lesson she was able to swim.


 A moving bent windmill sail replicating a swimmer’s arm movement? 

In the movie ‘The Full Monty’ four male strippers were practicing their act but couldn’t perfect their dance routine.   The instructor used the following metaphor: “Imagine you are the Arsenal back four.”   Within minutes the routine was perfected as they imagined ‘Tony Adams and co,’ raising their hands in unison when appealing for an offside.

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Imagining Arsenal’s ‘backline’ was a help in perfecting this routine.

Whilst coaching a young goalkeeper how to serve the ball out to his teammates a coach used metaphors in order to increase the efficiency of the player.   “Throw like a javelin,” “bowl as in a bowling alley,” were two metaphors used to convey the techniques of keeper distribution.     The improvement in the young goalkeeper’s efficiency was almost instantaneous as he quickly increased the distance and accuracy by which the ball was dispatched.

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Bowling and javelling throwing replicate a keepers distribution.

In this last example it is hypothesised that the young keeper’s brain can grasp the ‘open’ skill of a ‘javelin thrower’ and translates the action into his ‘keeper throw outs.’   There can be too much information to absorb if the learner is told where to place where to place feet, fingers, hands, body, head and other information.

The above examples illustrate why learning by metaphor is popular in many sports and can be affective with different styles of learners.   Well-constructed metaphors reduce the amount of time that a coach needs to spend verbally imparting ‘technical information’ which in many cases can be difficult to absorb by the learner.

At a team meeting the players were portioning blame for team’s indifferent results on the various units of the team.   The backline were not picking up their opponent quickly enough, the midfielders were giving away too much possession, the strikers were not showing for the ball, and so on.

After a while the coach moved over to the white board and drew a sketch of a sinking ship with people on the ship’s bow watching the stern sinking below sea level.    “The manner in which you are blaming each other for our poor performances reminds me of what the people at the bow are saying about the people at the stern: “I’m pleased that we are not at that end of the ship.”  

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A metaphoric reminder all units of a team must take responsibility otherwise the ship (team) sinks.

In his autobiography, former England International player, Alan Mullery, relates how he was finding it difficult to replace the classy Danny Blanchflower in the Tottenham Hotspurs team during the nineteen sixties.   Mullery was a more physical but less creative type of player than Blanchflower and he was finding it difficult to gain the appreciation of the Spurs supporters.   This was beginning to affect his confidence until in one home game he heard a supporter call out, “come on the tank.”   Mullery recounts how this single expression (comparison with a Tank) turned his career at Spurs around.   He knew that he could never compare with Blanchflower in some areas of his game, however, the comparison with a Tank (strong, brave in battle, a fighter) showed that he was appreciated in other areas of his game, and with this insight his confidence grew and he became an integral member of the Spurs team for many years.

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Alan Mullery’s comparison with a tank helped his confidence.

Matching metaphors can be used in the form of stories in order to elicit the desired response.  At a team meeting prior to a cup match I related to the players how I had watched a game on the previous day whereby the more fancied dominant team had constantly played through the middle of the pitch trying to break down their opponents, only to meet with strong resistance.   Faced with a similar situation this match-day, I put forward the question, “how are we going to play it today?”   The immediate response from several players was, “get the ball wide, and get around the back of their defence.”   Suffice to say that it is often desirable and more effective for the players themselves to embrace and perform the team’s strategies, rather than always relying on the Coach’s instructions.

A challenge for football coaches is to be creative in the use of language.   This will enable them to construct effective metaphors when they work with players.