A Football Coach’s Procrustean Bed

There is a story in Greek Mythology about the barbaric owner of a small home in Corydalus. Located halfway between Athens and Eleusis, this small estate was inhabited by a man named Procrustes. In a sort of Twilight Zone meets AirBnB gone bad, Procrustes would host travelers in his home and offer them a unique spin on the idea of hospitality.

Dinner, a warm bath, and fresh clothes were the custom before introducing the now comfortable travelers to their sleeping arrangements for the night. Inside the guest room lied a special bed that Procrustes was quite fond of. Being the excessive host that he was, Procrustes wanted his guests to fit the bed to perfection. However, his solution to achieving this perfect fit was nothing short of brutal. Those guests that were too tall had their limbs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; and those guests that were too short had their limbs stretched by ropes to help them fit the bed ‘just so’.

Procrustes performing his version of ‘tucking someone in’

I can’t help but wonder, and ponder, if football coaches have their own version of a Procrustean bed. Most of the time, we can identify Procrustean beds in situations where we put something in the wrong box, or category, but an even better signal of a Procrustean bed is in situations where we are changing the wrong variable. For Procrustes, he changed the human being, not the bed.

In a word, we use Procrustean beds in situations where we make the travelers fit the bed, instead of making the bed fit the travelers.

In Education, we change children by giving them medication (like adderall) to be able to sit in a classroom, instead of changing the classroom to fit the children.

In Medicine, it is quite often the case that we invent diseases to fit drugs, instead of inventing drugs to fit diseases.

The main point of Procrustean bed’s in our modern interpretation is that we are constantly acting in a world where we have limited knowledge, limited observations, massive amounts of unknown, unseen, and unpredictable circumstances and yet, we are constantly forcing reality into reductive categories, convenient narratives, ‘how to’ prescriptions, and ‘so-easy-that-anyone-could-do-it’ solutions.

And, I am proposing that Football is no different.

Imagine that you have a 17 year old player in your club that is being called up to the 1st team. In other words, the player may be going from 4 sessions per week against 17 year old’s to 5 sessions per week against fully developed adults. At a higher level of football, the game is played at a higher tempo, which means there is less space and less time, and as a result the 17 year old will have to perform his football actions with a higher speed. Put simply, and perhaps too simply, it’s going to be an overload.

The Procrustean Bed coaches are faced with when a player moves up from U17 to 1st Team

However, what often happens is the 1st team coach changes the player instead of the training volume. This is a Procrustean Bed. Recall that Procrustes chose to change the height of the traveler by chopping their limbs off, or stretching them out, instead of altering the size of the bed to fit the traveler. In similar fashion, instead of the 1st team coach changing the volume of the training session to fit the 17 year old, he changes the 17 year old to fit the volume. This time, the coach stretches the limbs of the player to make it fit the Procrustean Bed.

The coach changes the wrong variable. Instead of changing the training volume (the size of the bed) he changes the player (by stretching his limbs)

Of course, the result is that the Youth player not only has to play at a higher tempo and make actions at a higher intensity, he also has to do more of it in terms of volume. So, intensity AND volume increase instead of just one, and then the other. This is an example of taking a prepackaged narrative, like the idea that players moving to a higher level need to do even more training to ‘catch up’, instead of taking the more logical approach of introducing a higher intensity, while reducing the volume (temporarily). So, instead of stretching the limbs of the player to fit the bed, the coach should reduce the size of the bed (volume) temporarily, and as the player adapts to the 1st team training intensity, the bed (volume) can eventually be increased to match the volume (bed size) being done by the 1st team.

What happens when the appropriate variable is changed, i.e. the bed, not the player.

Obviously, don’t take these graphics literally, their purpose is to help illustrate the (mis)use of Procrustean Beds in football coaching. Procrustean Bed’s seem to be all around us in the modern world and if we reflect deeply enough, we can start to see them all around us in the football world as well.

Here are some other questions to provoke us to think more deeply about how Football coaches use Procrustean Beds. In each of the below, ask yourself which variable is the bed, and which variable is the traveler? And, which one are you changing?

Do coaches fit their players/teams to their tactics, or their tactics to their players/teams?

Do coaches fit their players/teams to their cultural/value systems, or their cultural/value systems to their players/teams?

Do coaches create/invent problems to find a use for new technology, or do they create/invent/find technology that can solve an existing problem?

The Procrustean Bed

Just like Procrustes had intentions to be a good host, we as football coaches have intentions to help make our players better. However, we seem to be unaware of how we have constructed backward fitting narratives akin to a Head Chef that takes pride in delivering the perfect portion of satisfying food to your table, but does so by stapling your stomach. Coaches take great pride in the performances of their players and teams, but are we doing so by attaching marionette strings to their limbs?

Procrustes didn’t continue his murderous version of AirBnB for long. One day, Procrustes invited the wrong traveler into his home — a man named Theseus. How did Theseus over throw the treacherous Procrustes? By making him lie down in his own bed, and in order to remain consistent with Procrustes obsession with perfection, Theseus had to make a slight adjustment to Procrustes body — by decapitating him. Perhaps by recognizing our own use of Procrustean beds in football, we can avoid the same metaphorical fate that befell Procrustes.

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