Children at Play
by Alan Jacobs · February 21, 2011
Sometimes I find myself walking home from work around the time the local elementary school dismisses its charges for the day. When this happens my daily journey becomes a little more interesting and a little more complicated, because children don’t walk the way adults do. Children will run past you, then stop and squat to look at a slug on the sidewalk, then run past you. Even when no stimulus, sluggish or otherwise, presents itself, they’ll slow down and dawdle for a while before hoofing it again. Also, for any given weather they might be wildly over- or under-dressed. The other day the temperature was in the high forties when I saw ahead of me two girls, ten years old or so, one of whom was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans while the other was bundled into an Arctic parka, with the hood raised and tightened. They were walking home from school and so had accoutered themselves, but neither seemed to notice the differences. They dawdled, and ran, and dawdled. I dodged them when necessary, which was often.
Adults aren’t like this. Adults dress appropriately and move steadily towards their goals. By and large we’re like Kant in Königsberg, predictable enough for neighbors to set their clocks by. And by and large soccer players are adults. They have settled and predictable work rates, so much so that when you’ve watched a player for a while you can easily find them on the pitch because you know the speed at which they’re likely to be moving: your eye slides across the field of vision to the right spot surprisingly often. Even when they play positions that require them to alter their speed from time to time, they do so in a kind of rhythm: X many times a game Gareth Bale or Ashley Cole comes shooting up the sideline, or Leo Messi zips diagonally towards the goal.
Some players seem to have reached a kind of Kantian perfection of workrate, rarely seeming to vary from their established pace. Xavi is one—he runs far more than most people think: without moving very fast he almost never stops—and Dirk Kuyt is another. But soccer has its children too, the ones who alternate, in ways no one else can understand or predict, between sprinting and dawdling. There’s a reason why the inner life of Zlatan Ibrahimović looks like this.
Most of these childlike players are strikers, and I think there are two reasons for that. First, play that way as a midfielder and you’ll be subbed off at halftime; play that way as a defender and you’ll be subbed off by the twenty-minute mark. But second, irregular levels of energy constitute an effective technique for strikers: they can do nothing for long enough that defenders become distracted by the movement of others, and then they suddenly poach.
Also, this kind of player fascinates spectators, on the sound Skinnerian principle of intermittent or variable-ratio reinforcement—the same principle that keeps people obsessively checking their email and Twitter feeds. The predictably lazy or predictably energetic player doesn’t tap into our cognitive eccentricities the way the childlike player does: the latter always provides something for us to react to, whether that reaction is frustration or delight, and we react all the more strongly because we don’t know, at any given moment, which of the two he’s going to provide. When Berbatov is on the pitch the stadium turns into a giant Skinner box. And we’re the rats.
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