A study of talents developing in elite football

Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Kenneth Aggerholm Elite-Bildung: An Existential-Phenomenological Study of Talents Developing in Football 238 sidor Århus: Århus University 2012
Kenneth Aggerholm
Elite-Bildung: An Existential-Phenomenological Study of Talents Developing in Football
238 sidor
Århus: Århus University 2012

Norway has for some time had a leading position in sport philosophy among the Nordic countries. But recently Denmark have produced two excellent Phd-candidates that together with scholars like Ejgil Jespersen, Henning Eichberg, Ask Vest Christiansen, Verner Møller, and others, can build a sport philosophical milieu for the future. Kenneth Aggerholm, who defended his doctoral thesis in March 2013, is one of the aspiring young scholars. In addition to his philosophical background he has had a career as a top football player. He is therefore able to bridge the gap between academic theories and the practical world of football.

The focus of Aggerholm’s Phd thesis is the study of ‘talent development’, or rather ‘talents developing’. He wants to contribute not to a new theory of talent selection, but rather to an understanding of how talents are developing towards expertise. The thesis has two research questions: 1) How can the concept of elite-Bildung contribute to the understanding of football talents developing into elite players? 2) How can creativity play a role in facilitating the process of becoming an elite football player?

The questions are answered by a thorough existential-phenomenological analysis of several aspects pertaining to the process of developing talents. The theoretical analysis is supported by empirical studies consisting of three kinds of case studies, seven individual interviews, two group interviews and one questionnaire. Since the author himself has been an expert football player, he is able to draw on his own experiences.

Let me say a few words about what this thesis is not. It is a monograph in sport philosophy with limited usage of empirical material. It does not contain a literature review of empirical studies on the described phenomena: Elite talent development, soccer training or conceptual understandings of Bildung. Even if the thesis builds on some case studies, the use of empirical material is limited. Instead the thesis offers an independent and in many places well developed understanding of existential phenomenological philosophy. The description and analysis of central phenomena in football are quite impressive. Even more so is the use of original philosophical sources, especially existentialist phenomenology from Kierkegaard, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, and to a lesser extent hermenutic phenomenology from Gadamer,  Heidegger and other philosophers such as Nietzsche. The monograph is very ambitious in its search for relevant literature. The only main sources missing from the phenomenological framework are works by Husserl.

Aggerholm’s main idea seems to be that talent development should not be seen as a process whereby deliberate practice and technical drills towards expertise develop talents. Talents are not passively developed as passive talented material. One should rather see talents developing by existential involvement in a process of Bildung. In this process developing creativity becomes important. The best players are creative. Aggerholm makes an in-depth study of phenomena like ‘question’, ‘expression’, ‘humor’ and ‘repetition’. They may seem more at home in the theatre than in sports, but Aggerholm manages to make them relevant for the sports arena in a convincing manner. The feint and the dribble are examples of creativity. But a dribble can be repeated or be performed with variations that make comments on the first one. In sports one can question established truths, use humor and jokes, express things by playing styles and develop ways of doing things that are uncommon.

Aggerholm has an independent and well developed understanding of existential and hermeneutic phenomenology. He demonstrates an advanced and skilled grasp of difficult and subtle philosophical problems. The thesis is creative and original by studying phenomena that at first sight seem to be situated outside the field of sports practice, but end up being located in its center.

The language of Aggerholm’s thesis is excellent, the preciseness and the way of expressing difficult points are quite impressive. We find relevant concepts, new inventions and independent ways of expressing things like ‘being a talent’ versus ‘having a talent’. ‘talent developing’ versus ‘talent development’ and so on.

The thesis is creative and original by studying phenomena that at first sight seem to be situated outside the field of sports practice, but end up being located in its center

Aggerholm has developed a relevant and useful model for his analysis. The above-mentioned phenomena ‘question’, ‘expression’, ‘humor’ and ‘repetition’ are analyzed in relation to four fields: ‘subjectivity’, ‘inter-subjectivity’, ‘collective’, ’institution’. It is interesting to see how the author manages to expand the individualistic aspects of existentialism to encompass the inter-subjective, and even collective and institutional aspects of human existence.

The thesis reveals a good understanding of philosophy in general and draws on insights and relevant material from various sources, also outside of the existential-phenomenological circles. The author thus gives many good examples and illustrations of his views and points.

Even if the author during the work jumps from one existential or phenomenological author to another, from Kierkegaard to Sartre to Merleau-Ponty to Heidegger, and in this sense is quite eclectic, he nevertheless has a very good grip on an existential-phenomenological ‘ground-model’, a certain way of reasoning and doing philosophy.

The thesis is interesting not only for sport philosophers but also philosophers in other fields. It is relevant for practitioners in other perfection cultures, from arts to business. It is relevant for sport psychologists, coaches and for talents in sport, even if the terminology and philosophical language would present a problem for many.

So far this seems to be a piece of work that is too good to be true. And in fact it is too good to be true, since there are some negative or suboptimal aspects of the work. The thesis is almost a purely theoretical work. The author has collected empirical material but it is not clear how it is used. There are few excerpts from the database and few citations. The description of the material, how it was collected, analyzed and used is quite sketchy compared with what one will find in a ‘normal’ qualitative empirical study. The thesis is in this sense something in-between, something in the middle, between a pure philosophical analysis and an empirical study based on observation and interviews of talents in football.  The thesis could stand well on its philosophical legs without the empirical material. Or the author could have explained in the introduction how, in addition to philosophical works, he had used his own background, interviews and observations to prepare for the writing of the thesis.

Since the author has collected empirical data and also has been a talented player himself it would have been useful if he had illustrated, and had been giving examples, of more of his philosophical points and claims. This becomes better during the last part of the thesis. But on many occasions the presentation becomes quite abstract. This is unnecessary since the phenomena that are discussed in many instances are quite concrete.

In many cases I miss a clearer contextualization. Are we on the playing field, in atraining or a match situation, are we in the locker room before or after the match, or still further away, while mentally or physically preparing for next day’s match?  Are we all the time at talent-level or are the phenomena typical for all players? Since the abstract philosophical analysis in most cases is quite sharp I would have welcomed clearer examples and better contextualization of the analysis.

There is in most cases a normative ‘positivity’ in the description of various phenomena in the ‘football world’. But there is also a certain ‘negativity’ connected with phenomena like play, theatricality, humor, etc., that is somehow downplayed. It is in some cases acceptable to fool people but far from always, and football players are not always on the right side. In many cases and on many occasions football players deliberately try to fool the referee and get an undeserved free kick or penalty kick. They use unfair means behind the back of the referee. Creativity can be used for many purposes, not only the good ones. Theatricality is maybe more often used to the Devil’s satisfaction than God’s. The author discusses normative ambiguity in some cases, like ‘humor’ versus ’irony’, but the normativity question has more shades of grey than the author presents.

All in all, this is an interesting and excellent piece of philosophical work. Congratulations to its author and to Denmark.

Copyright © Gunnar Breivik 2014

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