It may appear a strange move to turn to one of the masters of French literary theory for an insight into modern soccer coaching principles. Indeed, Roland Barthes would more likely weave a path through philosophy, anthropology, semiotics and post-structuralism than third man runs, overloads and the offside rule.
But in a modest 64 years of life and thought, the Frenchman observed, discussed and mused over so much of what popular culture was providing to the Western world, and so precisely styled were his findings that even 35 years on the relevance remains.
And it is for his unique take on sport that this repurposed image-led book has been created. What Is Sport? had previously been a little-known gem by Barthes, and never reprinted in the Seuil editions of his Complete Works. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard here translates and attributes the text against a backdrop of stunning and sometimes thought-provoking imagery. He looks at five ‘national’ sports, in bullfighting (Spain), car racing (America), cycling (France), hockey (Canada) and soccer (England), and examines approach, social function, enjoyment, ideals, purpose and reward.
What makes this book interesting is essentially its ability to return the reader to the start. This isn’t a coaching manual that will directly relate to what you need to do on a Thursday night training session, but it may just alter the way you approach the next match, the next team talk, the next assessment you make in terms of balancing what you coach with what you really want out of the sport.
Many coaches will admit to, at times, becoming lost in the expectation of what competitive sport provides – be that the desire to win, a way they should behave or the process that needs to be undertaken to get a team from point A to point B. Barthes may well have subscribed to some of the key ideals contained within those points, but this book actually asks us to go a lot further… to reinvent our understanding. Do you have a team talk surrounded by coaching tools, or do you take your team off into a forest clearing? Do you ask your team to approach a cup final only with thoughts of winning, or do you relax them by insisting this is the first of many opportunities and, over time, they will mix success with failure, just as every team does?
Barthes’ approach to sport is innocent and unique, yet at the same time dynamic and insightful, and Howard’s representation of these principles is tastefully done. What can be taken out of it will vary wildly from reader to reader, but one thing that must be a constant is that for a philosopher who had passed away even before ‘veteran’ John Terry was born, his view on the world, and on sport, was absolutely compelling.
Barthes on bull-fighting:
What need have these men to attack? Why are men disturbed by this spectacle? Why are they totally committed to it? Why this useless combat? What is sport?
Bullfighting is hardly a sport, yet it is perhaps the model and the limit of all sports: strict rules of combat, strength of the adversary, man’s knowledge and courage; all our modern sports are in this spectacle from another age, heir of ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is a false theatre: real death occurs in it; the bull entering here will die. And it is because this death is inevitable that the bullfight is a tragedy. This tragedy will be performed in four acts, of which the epilogue is death.
Barthes on motor racing:
This is the meaning of a great automobile race: that the swiftest force is only a sum of various kinds of patience, of measurements, of subtleties, of infinitely precise and infinitely demanding actions.
What this man has done is to drive himself and his machine to the limit of what is possible. He has won his victory not over his rivals, but on the contrary with them, over the obstinate heaviness of things: the most murderous of sports is also the most generous.
What is sport?, Roland Barthes.