GAA Football

Kicking Out: The Art of Doing Nothing

In the 2018 All-Ireland final against Tyrone, Ciaran Kilkenny’s first half performance was a masterclass in The Art of Doing Nothing. Picture by Seamus Loughran

OF an evening last week, with the threat of Santa coming back to take away the toys past its sell-by date, our two eldest girls (we recently purchased a third from the stork) fultil other.

To ‘fultil other’ is a phrase believed to be unique to north Derry, meaning to tear into each other.

The natural fatherly instinct is to wade in and try to do what GAA umpires are incapable of: discover who started it, and administer justice.

But this particular evening, half out of exhaustion, we decided not to bother.

Let them at it. See how it turns out.

Lo and behold, after a few minutes, the squealing stopped.

Fairly soon after, they were away off down the hall together, playing happily.

This is known as The Art Of Doing Nothing.

An idea familiar to professionals in parenting and healthcare, the basic principle is that unnecessary interference can lead to a worse outcome than just leaving whatever it was alone.

The Dutch did not invent doing nothing, but they’re the world’s greatest exponents of it.

They call it ‘niksen’.

A viral piece written by British-born and Netherlands-based journalist Olga Mecking for The New York Times in 2019 led on to the publication of her book entitled ‘Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing’.

“I do nothing with purpose,” Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership development and organizational change at Insead in Paris, told her.

Doing nothing with purpose is very different from just doing nothing.

Like all good principles in life, you can apply it across to sport very easily.

My interest was piqued the night Manchester United played Newcastle recently.

Manchester United’s striker Edinson Cavani is 34. By top-flight standards in England, he does not possess blistering pace.

By right, he ought not to function in the helter-skelter world of Premier League football.

But his equaliser was a lesson in The Art Of Doing Nothing.

He’d fluffed an earlier chance by doing exactly the same thing. Just as the cross was about come in from out wide, Cavani stopped and stood still while the world spun on its axis around him.

The defenders all instinctively kept heading towards their own goal.

By doing absolutely nothing, he created the space he needed.

The first time, he missed. The second, he didn’t.

It was Johann Cryuff who said that you play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.

Cavani’s far from the first ever to do it, but his art is his movement.

And sometimes the art of moving is not to move.

Pep Guardiola once said of Lionel Messi that he was “the player who runs least in the Spanish League, but when he gets the ball he has a complete spatial x-ray of his surroundings. He knows where everyone is… and boom!”

In the 2018 All-Ireland final against Tyrone, Ciaran Kilkenny’s first half performance was a masterclass in the art.

He played the game at centre-forward and spent most of the day going the opposite way from goal.

Go back and look at the few minutes that turned the game.

Everyone remembers Cluxton’s kickout into McCaffrey’s run that finally injected the energy into Dublin’s performance when they were 0-5 to 0-1 down.

Kilkenny finished the move.

As McCaffrey came past him, Kilkenny is standing absolutely dead still on the stop.

Tiernan McCann is right by his side.

When McCaffrey gives him the ball seconds later, Kilkenny hasn’t moved a muscle. McCann has been sucked to the ball, it’s popped off and there’s Kilkenny in five yards of space to fire it over the bar.

From the resulting kickout, he was stationed at 11 as Niall Morgan miskicked it into his path. A simple handpass, penalty, goal.

Kilkenny had 27 touches that afternoon. He was involved in 1-10 of Dublin’s total, scoring 0-3, directly assisting two points and having a hand in another 1-5.

Dean Rock has mastered it to an even greater degree.

He has forged a brilliant career out as a minimalist.

When Dublin attack, Rock hugs the left wing. His movement will often be very basic. But as others get sucked to the ball, he stands his ground. It’s frightening how often he’s afforded a free shot precisely because he’s done nothing.

There are many hundreds of club footballers up and down the land who do nothing on the field.

That’s somewhat different to doing nothing well.

A 2007 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology looked at the probability of a goalkeeping saving a penalty kick in soccer.

It identified that “given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s centre. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left.”

That’s because the temptation is always to do something rather than nothing.

In coaching terms, we’ve become obsessed in the GAA with the idea that you always have to be running to create space.

Training sessions can become a sea of cones and everyone being sold the idea that attacking means getting yourself as close to the goal as possible.

But as Ciaran Kilkenny showed that afternoon, sometimes if you stand still in the right place, the space will create itself around you.

Doing nothing is easy.

Doing nothing well is an art.

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