Thoughts on Taking Play Seriously
As part of an ongoing series of explorations into how things survive.
My high school soccer coach taught me that the difference between the useless and the valuable rests in how you treat it.
Most people are familiar with the game Monkey in the Middle. Four players form a circle around two players and move the ball around to keep it away for as long as possible from the “monkeys”. In rec league soccer, this drill often devolved into kicking and chasing until everyone got bored. I hated it.
In high school, Coach introduced a variant of this game called Keepaway. He constrained the size of the field and limited each player to a maximum of two touches. And suddenly, the nature of the game changed. The “monkeys” spent more time coordinating together to limit passing lanes; the outside players focused more on touch, precision, and positioning to open up small windows of opportunity in a flash.
Much later, I found out Pep Guardiola’s teams at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City practiced this drill religiously. And these games of rondo were instrumental to their success. As Marti Perarnau recounts in his book Pep Guardiola, The Evolution:
“His players quickly realised that it wasn’t about holding on to the ball but about how to play it and how to be aware of the position of everyone around them. ‘They really had no problem getting to grips with it and Philipp Lahm in particular loved it. He used to complain if we’d left it off the training schedule!’ They all came to realise that practising positional play made them better players.”
This little game trained Guardiola’s teams to constantly think in terms of balance, posture, and position. If you have mastered possessing the ball and you know how to pass and move, you can open up an infinity of possibilities.
Positional Play and Infinite Games
“There are many ways of winning and very few ways of enjoying yourself.”
- Rodrigo Zacheo, Uruguayan football commentator
Guardiola’s philosophy is the latest iteration of “positional play,” a philosophy of soccer popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by Johan Cruyff and Juanma Lillo. Positional play obsesses over balance, posture, and “the tendency of something to act in a certain manner under given circumstances.”
The end goal of positional play isn’t just to win (though its track record among successful implementers is quite impressive). The goal is to reimagine what is even possible every time you take the field, an equally spontaneous and deliberate exploration. Philosopher James Carse would call such artfulness the act of playing an infinite game.
Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with them. A finite game’s purpose is to win; an infinite game’s purpose is to continue playing. And there must be a good reason for anyone to continue playing, otherwise they would simply stop.
And what makes a game worth playing? What makes any pursuit possess rondo-like qualities? In Finite and Infinite Games, Carse offered this:
“Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one's unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one's ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be. Our social existence has, therefore, an inescapably fluid character... this ceaseless change does not mean discontinuity; rather change is itself the very basis of our continuity as persons.”
Infinite players take play seriously. Anything, if inspected skeptically enough, can be reduced to meaninglessness. But there’s a quality to every craft that, if treated appropriately, transforms it from a sloppy game of Monkey in the Middle to an awe-inspiring game of Rondo. It is precisely in those moments you are least expecting to learn that you end up changing your perspective entirely.
Such openness to change and exploration is the hallmark of an artist. The endless stream of notes, sketches, drafts, misfires, drills, conversations, observations, arguments, debates, and meals -- these all contribute to the continuous playing with boundaries and sharing one's vulnerable, fluid self.
All the World’s a Rondo
As we get older, many of us drift away from the overtly artistic aspects of life. Not all of us have the disposition or the gumption to pursue sport or art professionally. But everything is a craft, and so we all still need our rondos.
The people whom I admire most revere their rondos. An old history professor still does calculus study every morning. A tech mentor constantly harps on making self-study a ritual. Some of the best design and engineering teams in the business regularly solve "toy problems" together. And you don't have to search far for examples of musicians obsessively running scales or artists ritually painting the same scene over and over again.
There's not much that separates the "waste of time" from the "life-changing," and it's usually in how we as individuals and as organizations choose to play.