“Mes Que en club”- On the rare occasions that Barcelona fans leave the main stand empty this is the simple phrase that defines a club, a system and an ideology. The club work on a system of mutual communication with the feet and a comprehension of one idea, the idea was brought to them by Johan Cruijff – icon of the club as both manager and player. His ideas can be boiled down to a few simple statements use the ball, and adapt to the situations as a collective. Cruijff believe that those who pass through ‘La Masia’, the Barcelona training school, are uniquely positioned to deliver this system. His belief is founded on their training, the core of which is an exercise called the ‘rondo’ (piggy in the middle game- see below) The rondo teaches all of the skills needed to fit into this style of play and ‘La Masia’ graduates such as Messi, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta are well versed in it. “It is the foundation of every session, rondo everyday” Xavi explains. Yet to watch the drill itself, one might be underwhelmed- not by the skill on display but by the actual idea itself. The fact that it works is countenance to Leonardo da Vinci’s belief that, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I initially heard about this drill when reading an article about a young football coach names Iain Cathro. He took an amateur u11’s team and turned them into giant killers. They played and beat all of the local academies. He described it as ‘the most important drill’ used it to develop his young players. He was snapped up by one of these academies to replicate his success as their Head of Development and consequently produced several international players: including Ryan Gauld, dubbed ‘Mini-Messi.’ Now Assistant Manager at Valencia CF, his methods very obviously have impact.

The rondo has echoes of what Daniel Cade talks about throughout ‘The Talent Code’: meaningful, repetitive, technique focussed practice. What it also offers, Cruijff states, is an element of randomisation, which allows the players to develop a series of mental images to adapt to “everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo. The competitive aspect, fighting to make space, what to do when in possession and what to do when you haven’t got the ball, how to play ‘one touch’ soccer, how to counteract the tight marking and how to win the ball back.”

As an English teacher this set me thinking about what a possible fundamental route to all aspects of the study of English as a subject. My conclusion was that if such a thing existed, then it was the analysis of single words in isolation, and the ability to understand their use in a wider context. It is this that helps us write creatively, or analyse a writers intentions. The hints at true purpose or towards certain outcomes arrive through the simple connotations of individual words within the works overall construction. This gave me the idea of a creating an independent task which could be performed at the start of every lesson in order to frequently rehearse this skill.

Wordplay, was absolutely key in my household growing up and it is clear that culture capital is a very successful predictor for academic success. If students can be given a short sharp boost in these areas and in particular the key skill set of our subject then we may see remarkable results. Gaming language was fundamental to my childhood and love of language. Whether it be through puns, jokes or even mocking TV adverts; language flooded my house. I did not lack for cultural capital, despite lacking any real financial capital. Perhaps this rondo, could imitate those games in a focussed and, excuse my French, but fun way.

I’ve yet to use this idea in my classroom, but have developed my basic outline for the concept. Students work in small groups of six to eight, they take turns to tackle (question) each other and pass (analyse.) In doing so, they explore the possibilities of words and their intended purpose. This gives them a sense of sculpting their own writing, and also why writers may use certain phrases and to what effect. Of course, just as with the Barcelona system there are certain fundamentals that need to be in place in order for this to be meaningful practice, but the basic idea is the same as the rondo.

The game relies on a element of cooperation, and could probably be adapted to be more or less complicated/difficult as required. I will outline the simplest structure as I currently understand it. Just to be clear this will be adapted once I see how a class take to it, but I feel that I may be on to an idea that, with work, can dramatically improve performance towards mastery in the way that FCB’s rondo’s do.

Game rules.

Set up: Take a series of quotes from the text, large or small, being studied. Place those quotations into a hat or such and let battle commence! One ‘tackler’ is in the middle and asks a series of pre-planned questions on the quotation. Around the outside 4-6 students attempt to analyse the selection quotation(s) as a group.

Step 1- A pupil picks a quotation out of the hat and reads it aloud to the rest of the group.

Step 2- The pupil that they pass it to (could be volunteers) selects a single word/phrase that they will focus on for their analysis.

Step 3- The next pupil who receives/volunteers must make some suggestions as to possible connotations/associations, or they may want to focus on a technique which they’ve noticed.

Step 4- The next pupil will explain one of these connotations/associations and link to the text rest of the given text.

Step 5- Person answers the all important ‘why’, in reference to what they feel the writer aims to achieve.

The ‘tackler’ in the centre is prepped with some questions to challenge thinking or can simply ask a person to explain an idea if they feel it is not valid. Failure to justify or give an answer means swapping in to the centre. The desire to remain on the outside of the ring, probably comes through  the peer pressure Xavi describes “If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you”, though possibly a more appropriate encouragement would be to utilise healthy competition for overall winners using (those who avoid the middle longest) the school reward system.

Final thoughts. 

Ian Cathro believes children now “are not playing as much football.” This is a very similar sentiment to the one I hear in English departments all the time, ‘Children aren’t reading, like we did.’ His solution of “giving them back the touches they’d have got knocking the ball against a wall” is the foundation of what I would like to achieve, give students back those hours of reading, and storytelling. Compact the practices into a dynamic routine. Perhaps this ‘rondo game’ is not the answer, but I feel it is our duty to find methods to give back those hours that children are currently losing. After all, as much as I love the beautiful game, lost hours touching the ball will limit their ability to make the professional grade but limited hours of reading and storytelling WILL limit their life choices, social/emotional well being and development as citizens. Given recent political shifts, I think it is pretty clear that this would be catastrophic for all students, but especially those who have low cultural capital in the first place.

Footnote.

Below is a similar system used by Borussia Dortmund, the differences in design of drill relate to the end point task. In the case of Dortmund the focus is fast break football; whereas Barcelona are all about ball retention.

I would be interested if other people have designed any similar systems for focused practice. Please share.

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