Inside the Hall of Mirrors

Decoding James Smith’s Message

Jamie Hamilton
May 14, 2018 · 13 min read

The problem that I seem to have when listening to James Smith speak is that, for long periods, I can’t shake the feeling that he is leaving something out, that the world which he describes is, in some deep way, incomplete. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe, like an itch that can’t be scratched.

Now, a large part of this issue may well be down to my own infinite ignorance, that much goes without saying, perhaps I merely lack the requisite entry requirements to grasp the nuance of his insights.

Occam’s Razor — the likelihood that the simplest explanation will turn out to be the correct one — seems to indicate that this may well be the case.

If memory serves me correctly, I first came across James Smith on Twitter, probably in relation to discussion regarding the World Football Academy’s ‘Objective Football Theory’. This is a topic that I have been particularly interested in since becoming familiar with its core concepts through Raymond Verheijen’s book, Football Periodisation. I wrote a couple of pieces for These Football Times in August 2016 to help iron out my understanding of these ideas and have maintained a keen interest ever since.

During my research in that period, along with reading the book, I also listened to as much of Verheijen as I could find online. YouTube clips were limited but I did discover that he had appeared as a guest on three episodes of the Just Kickin It coaching podcast.

I listened to all three numerous times and felt that I came away with a fairly clear idea of the foundational tenets of Verheijen’s teaching. This feeling was apparently confirmed by the inclusion of one of my articles describing his ideas on the official WFA website. I won’t attempt to unpack those tenets here but suffice it to say that viewing football in as ‘objective’ manner as possible lies at its heart. More on objectivity later.

The process also afforded the opportunity to become familiar with the style of Just Kickin’ It. The hosts, Josh Faga and Brian Shrumm (I was never entirely sure which of them it was that was speaking) seemed to ask just the type of questions that I was interested in. I began to work through various episodes and, through my listening, I enjoyed long-form conversations with many fascinating football people. The likes of Jed Davies, Kieran Smith, Adin Osmanbasic, Michael Beale, Todd Beane, along with many others, provided wonderful insights into the world of professional football coaching, a world which I am determined to soon join.

So, I was intrigued to learn that, featuring on three episodes of this year’s content, the guys had as their guest one, James Smith.

As I mentioned, my only prior knowledge of Smith was from his Twitter profile where he self-describes as ‘Consultant/Theorist/Author/Thinker’. His Twitter handle is ‘@thethinkersmith’.

I was eager to familiarise myself with Smith’s work before listening to the podcast so that I could better understand his insights. I discovered that he is author of the book, The Governing Dynamics of Coaching of which there are numerous promotional videos posted on YouTube.

These preview videos, released on Smith’s Global Sports Concepts YouTube Channel seem to have borrowed much from the trailers for epic science-fiction movies in the grandiosity of their stylistic leanings. It is of course impossible to be sure by looking from the outside, but this does not appear to have been done with tongue-in-cheek.

And fair enough, its good to take yourself seriously, as someone worth contending with, the price that you put on yourself is the price that you’ll be bought for, so perhaps it is just a matter of personal taste that I find these motifs to be somewhat ‘over-the-top’.

Anyway, putting these aesthetic quibbles to one side, I began to listen to Smith lay out his perspective of the coaching landscape. I have not read The Governing Dynamics of Coaching, so I was eager to learn as much as possible about the themes of the book before contemplating the decision of whether or not to purchase it more seriously. And this is where my problems really began.

At this point I feel it necessary to empahsise that I am not a scientist nor an academic of any kind, although, as far as I know, neither is Smith. Expertise and rigour are not my specialities. I have no background in the hard sciences save for A-Levels in Physics and Mathematics completed almost two decades ago. I am in no position to doubt the veracity of Smith’s knowledge in these areas and have absolutely no interest in doing so. I consider myself to be an ‘expert’ in nothing.

The problem that I have is one that is concerned with pragmaticism of Smith’s theorising. I am an amateur football coach moving towards making the transition into the professional domain. I take my coaching seriously and have gained valuable experience since quitting my job as a manager of bars and restaurants five years ago to concentrate on developing myself as a football coach.

Of course, the bills still need to be paid, so during this time I have been fortunate to have found a job flexible enough — as a bartender in a friend’s pub— to allow for, at times, as much as five days a week coaching on top of full-time employment. I’m fairly sure that this is the type of situation that many aspiring coaches who tune into Just Kickin’ It will be familiar with.

So, with time precious, I was eager to expose myself to ideas that would hopefully enhance my ability to coach in the most effective ways possible.

I was, then, surprised that I quickly found myself confused as to the precise nature of what Smith seemed to be suggesting. I found his answers extremely difficult to follow and, at times, felt my face physically contort as I strained to keep track of his labyrinthine trains of thought. I was aware that Smith was a consultant to professional athletes and sports institutions, so I found this lack of clarity in his explanations perplexing.

Had I missed something? I rewound to check, but invariably I found myself as lost in the zig-zagging sequence of apparently logical deductions that characterise Smith’s flow-chart-like rhetorical style as I had been previously. I felt like a mouse in a maze, desperately trying to make sense of things, feeling for some thread of familiarity that might lead me out of what seemed increasingly like an endless network of featureless corridors. It was like being trapped inside an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube.

I have chosen not to use extended quotations to buttress my argument here, as I am all too aware of the pitfalls that inevitably occur when one’s words are removed from their original context. Instead, I would encourage everyone to listen to these episodes — along with the material on YouTube — and to make up their own minds about the usefulness — and coherence — of Smith’s insights.

Once again, I must make it absolutely clear that I am not attempting to refute Smith’s litany of scientific facts, nor do I disagree with his descriptions of the objective characteristics of football.

What I am refuting is the usefulness of instructing coaches to base all of their decisions on the foundational principles of the laws of natural science, ‘science’ being that which is, according to Smith and many others, demarked by the criterion of Karl Popper.

While I have not read Popper, I do possess a cartoon impression of some of his most well-known contributions. He was clearly a brilliant man whose insights have been rightly lauded by scientific and philosophical thinkers alike.

Having said this, I find Smith’s proclivity to repeatedly appeal to what appears to be Popper’s authority (particularly his theory of objective knowledge) rather than clearly explaining his own positions when challenged upon them, to be unhelpful, tiresome and perhaps even suggestive of a narrowness of historical perspective.

After all, it is not as though Popper’s claims have not been refuted themselves. In his 1977 essay, Objectivity, Value Judgement, and Theory Choice, Thomas Kuhn provides an excellent example of such critique.

Smith also uses a collection of analogies (analogies which he admits to finding amusing although, perhaps unsurprisingly, given his apparent distaste for such unregulated reactions, no laughter is audible) to demonstrate what he sees as the Neanderthal-like thinking that has pervaded the coaching domain up until now. Amongst others, he uses a Formula 1 car as an analogue for a football team (if it’s good, anyone can make it go fast).

Smith’s clumsily formulated analogies such as this continuously pit apples against oranges. The suggestion that ‘anyone could manage Real Madrid because the players are so good’ is palpably absurd. This is not a computer simulation, in reality you would first actually have to convince the squad of global footballing glitterati that you are worthy of your position.

Anyone apart from exactly the right man for the job would be chewed up and spat out so fast that housekeeping would be mopping his remains up off the Bernabeu dressing room floor before he’d even have the chance to say ‘Hola’.

And the ‘right man for the job’ is not decided purely on the basis of his ‘objective’ knowledge. To coach a football team, you actually have to be able to communicate with players on a human level. There is no algorithm to which one can refer when deciding how a message should be conveyed. Should it be in a group setting or in private? Should I crack a joke or get straight to the point? Where should I pitch my tone of voice? How close should I stand? What mood will my mannerisms infer?

Julian Nagelsmann emphasises this point -

‘If you have limited tactical knowledge, you can still be a successful coach. On the other hand, if you have great tactical qualities, but you are not good with man management, you will never be successful. I place great emphasis in giving my players a clear tactical plan to give them help and support in match situations. But the relationship I have with them is very, very important to me.’

This conflation of mechanical parts with human beings is no isolated incident. The idea that humans are ‘mechanical’ systems whose brains exert ‘computational’ power is one that seems to characterise Smith’s fundamental view of the world. Smith speaks of the need for coaches to ‘self-regulate’ their emotions to the point where, it would seem, no traces of their passions may be found.

And, come to think of it, where is this ‘optimal point of emotional self-regulation’? How has it been derived? Based on what metrics? Using which methodology? Who has decided where it lies? I’ll give you one guess…

Does Smith honestly believe that an outpouring of emotion from the coach must always be detrimental and cannot possibly have a positive influence on the performance of the team? If this is the case, why employ a coach at all? If all decisions are to be made on the basis of objective deduction and computation, then what role is left for the ‘coach’ to play?

Why not simply employ a team of analysts to instruct the players, a group of pale faced technocrats stoically dictating from behind the screens of their devices? Hell, why not dress them in bio-hazard suits so that their expressions would be obscured from the potential of misinterpretation and that their bodies be protected from exposure to the frothing animalism of those ghastly players?

Smith speaks as though the ‘subject’ (the coach), by way of subjective perception, is an inhibitory factor in his grand coaching equation. As though the world exists only of ‘objects’, a closed system of logical frames where the only truth is one that is derived from the transcendental doctrine of the, objectively applied, scientific method. It’s what psychiatrist and author, Iain Mcgilchrist describes as, The Hall of Mirrors.

And, while we’re discussing the objectivity of the scientific method, it might also be useful to note here that, as Marie-Louise Von Franz points out in her concluding essay to psychologist, Carl Jung’s 1964 book, Man And His Symbols -

‘Modern micro-physics has discovered that one can only describe light by means of two logically opposed but complimentary concepts: The idea of particle and wave. In grossly oversimplified terms, it might be said that under certain experimental conditions light manifests itself as if it were composed of particles; under others, as if it were a wave’

So, it appears that, counter-intuitive to modern mechanistic thinking, even the supposedly objective nature of light’s sub-atomic structure does, in fact, depend on which way you look at it. You might even venture to posit that it is relative to your perspective.

And again, if these observations do not represent a fair assessment of Mr. Smith’s position and my issues with it, then I am more than happy to be corrected.

Unfortunately, Smith’s apparently unwavering reverence for all things scientific, post-enlightenment, modern and ‘objective’ doesn’t stop here. It also manifests itself in a pernicious form that is an altogether different kettle of fish from the mere deification and worship of scientific thinkers such as Popper.

Towards the end of a recent ‘trailer’ for his book, Smith uses a graphic which depicts ‘Sport’ as the knuckle dragging ape lagging behind the increasingly upright, human like figures in the commonly used representation of evolution.

In his version of the meme, Smith seems to be suggesting that the current collective of sporting professionals (a group that he conveniently excludes himself from despite his vocation) are the regressive primates, drooling animals incapable of the refined thinking that Smith prescribes.

In contrast, and somewhat curiously, Smith casts the fully upright human as being representative of ‘Music’, ‘Engineering’ and ‘Gastronomy’. Quite what distinguishes these particular disciplines from any others remains unclear, and, despite my own penchant for metaphors of harmony, the conflation of Bach’s concerto scores with aeronautical components and a paella would seem to stretch the comprehension of even Rene Magritte’s most whimsical fans.

Ceci n’est pas une prawn

As I have said, I am an expert in nothing, but, through my experience of existing in reality, I have learned (or induced) that if your goal is to convince others of your wisdom, belittling them through dehumanisation by insinuating that they are monkeys seems a sub-optimal strategy.

And to what end is this base analogy drawn? Are all coaches now expected to become experts in quantum physics? To familiarise themselves with theories of the multiverse? To refer to Einsteinian laws before designing a training session? Perhaps they are, perhaps I just lack ambition, perhaps I am a simpleton that will never possess the requisite mental faculties to meet the intellectual specifications of the NextGen football coach. Coach 2.0.

But, and here’s the thing, even, if through the installation of some neuro-implant, I could access — and understand — every piece of objective scientific literature ever written at the flick of a switch, I still wouldn’t use these facts alone to govern how I act as a coach.

We live in a world of experience as well as one of ‘objective’ ‘things’. Smith seems to relegate the human aspects of existence to mere derivatives of his doctrine of Governing Dynamics.

Not only does Smith, in my view unnecessarily, obfuscate his message regarding the importance of objective scientific thinking, but he tells only one side of the story. And, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, ‘he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that’.

So what if I know that the equation for torque is t=r x F? How does that help me? Picture the scene: it’s half-time, I want Paul to receive the ball on the half-turn and spin to face the goal. What should I tell him? ‘Listen son, just remember that the magnitude of the torque is relative to both the positional and force vectors?’

I need not bother myself with such ‘governing dynamics’, nor do I wish to build a straw-man of Smith’s argument, but I struggle to grasp the pragmatic footballing relevance of such objective knowledge.

And what of the subjective? Is this brave new coaching world one that desires to eradicate individual perspectives altogether?

What of empathy? What of passion? What of an understanding of the irrationality of the human condition? We know so little about the nature of our own consciousness that it seems bewildering to condemn a domain as infinitely complex as human psychology to that of the role of slave to scientific authority, or worse, to that of pseudo-science or dogma.

Of course, there is non-sense out there, junk-science peddled by charlatans, but something is not required to be, by Popperian demarcation, ‘scientific’ for it to be taken seriously. What of love, poetry, music and desire? What of the art of coaching?

Can we not step back from the microscope for just a second, gain some ‘necessary distance’ from what it is that we are experiencing? Only then might we begin to see the forest and not just the trees, the whole rather than just the parts. For it was without the aid of ‘science’ that humankind raised themselves to a point where the scientific method could be discovered at all!

I am, it would appear, not alone in my feeling of confused exasperation when it comes to Smith’s ideas. Consultant to the English RFU and Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth FC, Dan Abrahams, recently took part in a debate with Smith, moderated by Josh Faga, on the most recent season of Just Kickin It.

Abrahams seemed to grow frustrated in the face of Smith’s lack of clarity and abstract theorising. He appeared keen to ground these concepts through practical examples which he felt were conspicuous by their absence in Smith’s comments.

Again, I will not attempt to dissect that conversation in detail here as I would, once again, urge everyone to listen to the discussion themselves and to draw their own conclusions from it. Regardless of what these conclusions might be — for what it’s worth, my opinions on Smith’s content remain unchanged — I think that it is just these types of difficult conversations, between coaches of differing perspectives, that are vital in progressing our understanding of where the pathway of ‘good coaching practice’ may lead.

The disagreements between Abrahams and Smith spilled over onto Twitter and the prospect of a second debate was even aired. I don’t know whether or not this will happen, but the discussion of Smith’s work is likely to continue as he has been included as a speaker by Verheijen in an upcoming WFA event.

I look forward to following this debate as it develops, and, in the meantime, I am confident that James will accept my refutation to his substantial conjecture in good faith. After all, it is through this process of conjecture and refutation, and this process alone, that our rough conceptions of knowledge may continue to be refined.

TITLE PIC: ‘Theseus’ by MachiavelliCro