A Basic Human Need
The need for self-expression is an important part of our lives. When we don’t or can’t express ourselves, it can be very frustrating but also potentially damaging because we repress important parts of who we are. We need self-expression. Respectful responsible self-expression. It is vital for our health and happiness.
Pack Your Bags
The above refers to our lives in general but for the purpose of this article I will focus on the concept of self-expression in sport and its related psychological beneficiaries. To do so let’s take a brief trip to South America to examine Brazilian soccer in the early part of the 20th century, elegantly written about by Jonathan Wilson in his book Inverting the Pyramid. Back then Brazilian club soccer was heavily influenced by British players and coaches living in Brazil and by extension by the conservative British style of play of the time.
Outside of clubs however the locals were playing street soccer. The footballs were often made of rags, the informal games were rough and ready, the skills were creatively unorthodox in comparison to the those displayed in the clubs and those who demonstrated them had no reservations about being flamboyant or showing off. Archie McLean a player from Scotland who then played in Brazil was not impressed by the antics claiming that they would not have been tolerated in Scotland.
The Brazilian style was of course Samba style. Creative, individual, ostentatious, upbeat and involving a great deal of bodily rhythm. Relatedly, and interestingly, in his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper compared the Brazilian great Pelé to a capoerista, a person who is proficient at a martial art developed by Angolan slaves, the movements of which were disguised as a dance to fool their masters.
In any event this flamboyant bravura ultimately transferred from the streets into the national team whose style was about improvising creatively as opposed to sticking to rigid formations. It was about off the cuff self-expression. Not tactically undisciplined self-expression but self-expression that was compatible with the temperament of the players. A bit like what sport is meant to be maybe? A bit like the reason why any of us involved in sport got involved in the first place.
In some modern-day team sports the subordination of the athlete’s self-expression becomes increasingly apparent in the way that the team prepares and plays. I am referring to the over planned, overly cautious, mechanistic, restrictive approach to sport that eliminates instinctive self-expression by the players on the field of play. This is unfortunate both for individual self-expression and for the unity of the team because according to Judith Glaser “Neuroscience is teaching us that ‘self-expression’ might be one – if not the most important ways for people to connect, navigate and grow with each other.”
Self-expression has long been linked with confidence and self-esteem. In our western society we live in a culture of self-expression. Social media is testimony to this. We now have TikTok influencers with subscriber pools more than thirty times as large as Time magazine. Self-expression is somewhat akin to a human right these days yet in sport we can continue to have benevolent and not so benevolent dictatorships at coach and manager levels who cast a cold eye on incidents of self-expression that deviate from ‘the game plan’ and who in doing so are in fact hostile to the very values of spirit and self-determination that they themselves demand of their players.
Do such managers and coaches ever really reflect on or enquire into what it is that motivates their athletes to make the sacrifices that they make to participate in their sport at the level that they do, and do they not realise that one way of developing or maintaining or regaining confidence in their players is to facilitate self-expression by their players on the field of play?
The athlete who places a high premium on individual self-discovery will probably recoil at such rigid, top-down regulatory controls and from managers and coaches who advocate restriction rather than liberation and who fail to see sport as an expression in itself. This type of athlete may nevertheless bite the bullet and go along with things for practical reasons in “the name of the game” albeit without experiencing much authentic personal meaning as the chasm between tiresome fad following and real authenticity can be too wide.
The Impact of Self-Expression
Self-expression can be enormously impactful and not just at an individual level for the person doing the expressing. Michael Spitzer in his new book, The Musical Human, (published 1st April 2021) informs us that the first note known to have sounded on earth was an E natural. The note was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber.
A primitive form of self-expression perhaps . . . but what an impact.
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