Creative Team Cultures: How Spanish football put the ‘I’ back in Team

Creative Team Cultures: How Spanish football put the ‘I’ back in Team

James Vaughan

Traditionally cultural values command, control and inhibit our innate creative spirits. Many cultures around the world teach us to value convention and reinforce social norms. However human creativity naturally embraces change, and requires a sense of freedom to flourish. With many cultures restricting our creativity some believe we must overcome our social conditioning to reach our creative potential.

Within sport, the age-old cliché ‘There’s no I in Team’, surmises the problem. Team ethic and creativity seem incompatible, leading many coaches and leaders to believe that a ‘creative team culture’ is a paradox. However Spanish Football has found a different I in team not individuality, but identity.

Since 2008 something has changed dramatically within Spanish Football, the perennial underachievers have created two footballing dynasties. Both on the domestic and international stage, FC Barcelona and the Spanish national teams have entertained the masses and swept aside all challengers with there unique style of play, known as ‘Tika taka’.

Established within the hallowed grounds of La Masia (FC Barcelona’s much vaunted academy) Tika taka is the secret to Spanish success. While tradition claims “there’s no ‘i’ in Team” the Spanish are well aware of a new vernacular. With ‘Tika taka’ as the vehicle they have developed an ‘I’, the ‘Identity’ of team and player.

Described as both creative genius and selfless team ethic, Tika taka represents a form of alchemy, integrating the competing concepts of culture and creativity to produce phenomenal team performance and unparalleled player development. ‘Tika taka’ is both the catalyst and product of this reaction, representing footballing ‘gold’ this style of play is characterised by intricate passing patterns and deft technique, coupled with unparalleled problem-solving, decision making and creativity.

Contrary to most, the Spanish understand ‘why’ they play the game. In the words of Pep Gaurdiola (FC Barcelona head coach 2008-2012) the target is not to win titles, the target is to achieve a unique style of play. This belief has a profound effect on the creativity developed and displayed by players exposed to it. ‘Tika taka’ becomes both the vehicle and the destination for player development and performance.

Within Football development around the world it’s widely recognised that professionals and aspiring young players are often overwhelmed by a fear of failure (social conditioning). Cultivated by exposure to a western climate overly fixated on financial reward and social comparison (the result), the ‘why’ behind ‘playing’ is contaminated, degraded and lost. Playing becomes limiting mistakes and doing anything to win “if in doubt kick it out”.

Players developed in these controlling conditions acquire habits that short cut long term skill acquisition. As a result many fail to reach their potential, and are often plagued by bad habits that re-emerge in pressure situations. Post 1966 England national teams and star players have often been accused of ‘choking’ on the world stage, many suggest this ‘fear of failure’ is to blame. This summer the England U21 and U20 teams have crashed out of their respective tournaments without a win, while the corresponding Spanish teams have been at their aesthetic best.

Pioneered at La Masia the Spanish development environment is explained by Xavi Hernandez (FC Barcelona’s & Spain’s most decorated player). “I was 11 when I arrived, and the football philosophy of this club was drilled into me, the most important thing is a willingness to learn. Its the philosophy that the result is not important”

World Cup Final, European Championship, Champions League Final or 5 a side with the U11’s at La Masia, Xavi Hernandez style of play endures. While time and space may determine the extent of his playing style or technical repertoire displayed, his approach to the game does not change. Years of development in a climate conducive to holistic development have not only created a rich technical inventory, but a deeply embedded value system, of which ‘Tika taka’ and the ideology of La Masia are central.

Four time Ballon d’Or winner (world player of the year) and FC Barcelona teammate Lional Messi sums La Masia’s core development value from his own perspective.

“Football is a game, I’m trying to have fun on the pitch, always, just to play. That’s why I do it. The day I stop having fun is the day I retire…I never want to lose that spark, that passion.”

The very natural tendency to do things because we enjoy them is often crushed by the evaluative cultures of many elite athlete development programs. Developing a strong player identity based around a unique style of play may allow individuals to overcome or resist the fear of failure (social conditioning) associated with high-pressure situations and tap into their creative resources.

When Xavi Hernandez steps onto the pitch he fully identifies with his teams playing style, Tika taka courses through his veins, it’s at the centre of his being and importantly he’s not alone. His teammates (of which Messi is one at FC Barcelona) share these values, identifying with the unique style that defines them as individuals and teammates. The harmony between player and team identity allows the development of complementary playing styles and creates a strong sense of belonging.

This shared identity gives players freedom to express themselves, act in accordance with their beliefs and let their morals govern their behaviour on and off the pitch. This is possible because club, country, coaches, fans and players all share the same doctrine. This playing style has unconsciously become part of their psychological DNA, internalised to the point whereby its part of who they are.

The way they ‘play’ the game is part of their identity; it’s the evolution of self.

Like evolution, this natural process, is organic – it takes time and requires patience. Like all natural processes there are conditions that facilitate it and others that don’t. Conditions that provide player autonomy, to act in accordance with their identity, breed creative behaviours. While most Footballer’s experience climates that command and control, the Spanish, via the blueprint of La Masia have aligned a nation to create a motivational climate allowing players to feel and develop psychological freedom at all levels of the game.

Some believe these conditions are unique to FC Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain and a result of long entrenched political unrest and Catalonian independence. While there is no doubt the dynamic between culture, values and motivation is central, consider the rise of Swansea FC. Almost relegated from the English Football league tens years ago, they are now the Premier Leagues best exponents of Tika taka. Their success is based on a simple philosophy explained by their Chairman, Huw Jenkins.

“There’s no financial pressure on the players or the coaches to win… they can enjoy themselves and play the game”.
Perceived pressure has been shown to inhibit the use of autonomy supportive behaviors. Overly evaluative environments create pressure that radiates throughout organisational structures, causing leaders to behave in overly controlling ways often stifling people’s creativity. Within junior and youth football this pressure is transmitted through well-intentioned parents who unknowingly reinforce behaviours and techniques associated with “if in doubt kick it out”. A problem often cited by the FA’s development manager Nick Levett.

Speaking in Brazil after one of Spain’s games this summer, Xavi gives another particularly unique perspective that is the result of his development at La Masia “without my teammates my game makes no-sense”. The selflessness of this statement suggests conformity to team ethic, however when you are at one with your team, sharing the beliefs of your teammates, coaching staff, fans and countrymen, conformity is not part of your vocabulary. Perhaps Tika taka is less evolution of self and more transcendence of self.

Perhaps the truly creative are truly enlightened, playing the game for the greater good; selflessly doing what they do best for their teammates and the worldwide spectacle. Perhaps they do it to bring joy to the millions of fans around the world? Perhaps they do it because they love it and perhaps they do it to express themselves.
The worlds best suggest a change in motive is required “Today teams are playing more statically, more for the final score than producing good football. For them, it’s more important to win than to play well. We need more players with passion coming up for the good of Football.” – Lional Messi

Creative cultures require feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. At La Masia, FC Barcelona and within Spanish national player development programs mastering their playing style ‘Tika taka’ is the goal. This goal defines their competence as a team and individuals, attaining this goal privileges constant learning and development above all else, giving coaches and players clear purpose, they do what they do for ‘the greater good’. Coaches for the good of their players, and the players (in Messi’s example) for the good of the game and (in Xavi’s example) their teammates.

This environment aligns all involved to a clear purpose motive, something that transcends the self. As humans we have a natural tendency to pursue these goals and values because they proved the highest forms of relatedness and belonging. We naturally identify with them and they become part of who we are, part of out identity. At this point, when the players of FC Barcelona and Spain are acting in accordance with these goals (playing Tika taka) they are also acting in accordance with their identity, giving them the freedom and autonomy required to be creative, even in pressure situations.


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