Can Soccer be formalized?

In this blog post, I will attempt to highlight formalization ideas proposed by Simon, 1997  and Stinchcombe, 2001 (both pg. 38 O&O)  , and connect them with how a soccer team is organized and run.

Formalization is often viewed as an attempt to render behavior more predictable by standardizing and regulating it. According to Simon, formalization permits “stable expectations to be formed by each memeber of the group as to the behavior of the other members under specific conditions. Such stable expectations are an essential precondition to a rational consideration of the consequences of action in a social group.”

I believe Simon’s outlook on formalized practices, when applied to soccer, carries considerable weight. For all you non-sports fanatics that have not seen a soccer match recently; the most important aspect while competing in a match is teamwork. Unlike football, baseball, or hockey, soccer players are not limited in their movement (i.e you can go anywhere on the field). Because of the freedom of movement in the game, and the amount of people on the field (11), a certain amount of transparent formalization occurs. Expectations are placed on each player on the field to control their assigned area on the field, but the are not solely limited to that spot. For example, a forward might come back on defense on a corner kick. This is a preconditioned action that demonstrates a respect for the “rational consideration of the consequences of action in a social group.” Even though the forward is not required to come back on defense, the preconditioned rules formalized by the group, or in this case the players on the field, facilitates a certain action to maximize effectiveness (i.e not get scored upon). The intangible “consideration” Simon discusses is more directly addressed by Stinchcombe’s view on formalized organizations.

Stinchcombe believes formalization entails a system of abstraction. This intangible quality should be “cognitively adequate, sufficiently accurate and a complete to guide action, communicable, transmissible to users, and contain an improvement trajectory that enables correction over time.” All five of the values presented by Stinchcombe occur multiples times during a soccer match. For example, in order for a player to be subbed into the match, he must be “cognitively adequate, or in other words, smart enough and on the same page as the other players. Without this link, the player would become lost in the flow of the game, consequently negatively affecting the teams effectiveness. The team can also improve their trajectory over time through individual player development, new team strategies, and game formation adjustments.

A soccer team, in a way, can be considered a formalized structure. Unlike a company which has written guidlines on actions and tend to gravitate more towards a Taylor version of the scientific management model, soccer utilized a formalization technique which is unspoken, but yet understood. Throught practice, player form stable expectations and execute decisions according to what their teammates are doing. During a match, a player must constantly change and adapt their styles (or trajectory) to the different environments  presented in order to maximize effectiveness and hopefully obtain the ultimate goal. (Get it? like a soccer goal!)


7 Responses

  1. I find this idea of sports teams as an organization really interesting because of how many different ways their structures can be be applied to the organizations we discuss. Your description of a soccer team and its leniency, versus that of say, a football team, is a really interesting comparison to Simon’s view of a formalized organization. It made me think about how unique my experience as a member of a crew team was when put in the context of an organization. Unlike a soccer team, in which particular roles within the organization are defined but are subject to modification where necessary, any slight change of action during a rowing event would be completely detrimental to success. Every rower has to be completely in sync with the others in order for the boat to move as efficiently and effectively as possible. Contrary to other sports, it does not benefit any member if one member’s power can dominate that of the others. An uneven distribution of power could cause the boat to move unsteadily and slower than it would if the power was distributed completely evenly. The only person in the boat who has any “authority” over the other members is the coxwain, because he or she is responsible for steering and keeping the boat on course. Though the coxwain does not contribute to the actual movement of the boat, the entire operation would be impossible without his or her assistance. I just thought it was interesting to note how unique this set up is in terms of an organizational structure.

  2. Upon further thought, as with almost everything in society, I found that every sport can be characterized as having a formalized structure. First think the general idea of sports. Sports are essentially a group of different people who, through abiding by a definite and set structure (rules), try to outperform or outscore (specific goals) of the other team. Using various sports as examples: Basketball has a distinct set of rules on how you may stop a person from scoring, how many times you can step with the ball, how long you can hold the ball for; Boxing rules specify how long each match will be, where you can hit the opponent, and with what parts of your body you can hit them with; Golf specifies where you may hot the ball, how many times you may hit the ball, and with what you can hit the ball with. As a child, playing sports, coaches are there to teach an athlete how to perform the best without breaking the given rules. This is the staple of our society. As people grow, they learn to adapt and abide by various rules. Whoever can achieve the most under these set of rules achieves the goal (or is more successful).

  3. I thought this would be an interesting series of articles to follow if you are interested in the Organization Structure of US Soccer:

    These are the first two in a series of 5 articles that will analyze various aspects of the Organization Structure of the Federation. Also see for general information and news from the USSF.

  4. As I read this, I pictured playing soccer in middle school, when the entire team would just chase after the ball, from one side of the field to the other.

    I feel, as others have said, that sports are a great analogy for organization structure. They also benefit from almost instant feedback opposed to corporations. The results from a coach’s decision can be seen quiet quickly (a reliever pitcher who lets up 3 runs or a football play that results in a touchdown).

  5. As a former soccer player myself, I found this post very enjoyable to read! I had never considered the possibility that the game could potentially be an organization in and of itself. I think you did a great job at describing the aspects of the game that relate to formalized structure. And to expand on this even more-I think you could also view soccer from the natural system perspective on the basis that over the course of the game, the players and coaches may make the decision to change a strategy or game plan based on the current situations or challenges faced in the heat of the game.

  6. One thing that cannot be left out is “the love for the game”- if we think about teams are successfull because the players are willing to sacrifice the ‘self’ for a greater good, for the love of the sport, and maybe that’s why we are always going to have Wal-marts, Microsofts because their founders simply loved the game.

  7. Goal- we get it!

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