GIS and Soccer, an Unlikely Comparison

I’ve put a lot of thought into the theme of my inaugural blog. In my previous introductory post I noted that I expect to write a lot about my profession – Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and even more about my passion – Soccer. So while thinking about which topic ought to kick start my blog, I never dreamt that both could occupy the same subject. Why would I or anyone else for that matter, they seem so radically different. One is a high intensity, physically demanding sport, the other, a professional office job predominantly spent in front of a computer or some mobile device. The reality is both interests have a vast, multifaceted base but strip the layers to their very core and you will see they both share two fundamental principles – Time and Space.

The general definition of a geographic information system (GIS) is “a computer system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data.” The definition tells us all we need to know. It tells us that a GIS involves components like computer hardware, software and people. It also tells us a number of processes are involved such as capturing, storing, manipulating, analyzing and managing data. Lastly, there is an output, the presentation of the data in some format be it a map, chart or table to be used to better understand relationships and make decisions. The components, processes and outputs in a GIS can vary but nothing has a greater functional effect on the output’s raison d’être then the data itself. Spatial data are representations of real world phenomena. Take for example maps, they are a snapshot of the earth’s surface and their data (e.g. points, lines and areas) represent real world features that occupy space at a given point in time. Assume you have two maps of the same town, one before and one after five years of rapid growth. Regardless if the components and processes change or remain the same, the new map looks very different from the original. Not because a different technician created it on a new computer with new software, or because a different colour scheme was chosen or the map layout has been updated; the new map is fundamentally different because the time and space of its representation is different.

The “Beautiful Game” can be tremendously complicated if you let it. Like a GIS, it too is a system of components, processes and outputs. Too often we get bogged down in over analysis of the human components and the intricacies of the tactical processes behind team formations and styles of play. True, after 90+ minutes of play a combination of the two lead to an output – the match result. So how then does Time and Space transform the output of a soccer match?

Last fall I enjoyed a great discussion over coffee with the Technical Director of my son’s soccer club. Of the many things we discussed, player development was the hot topic. Inevitably the Canadian men’s national team and their abysmal world ranking came up as a talking point for our overall quality as a soccer nation. He told me the margin of technical skill and tactical prowess between Canada and other ‘soccer nations’ was much smaller than many believed. He explained at the national team level, our coaches are proficient, our men and women are physically fit, they can pass, shoot and dribble as well as any but we are lacking in our speed of play – specifically, our mental speed of play or decision making. Dribble here, pass there, drop into this supporting space, cut off that passing lane, break that line with a run into space; knowing how to do these things isn’t our weakness, inability to think several seconds ahead of the play and do these before our opponents makes the difference. At first, the gap in the speed of decision making is small, maybe fractions of a second between Canadian kids and their European and South American counterparts. But, as they age the gap widens, potentially to as much as several seconds at the senior level. Over a 90+ minute match, seconds become minutes of mental lapses and lost opportunities. In an otherwise technically, tactically and numerically balanced match, those minutes can open up a great deal of time and space giving your opponent the advantage needed to tip the balance and alter the result. Boil the game of soccer down to its simplest form and the winner will always be the team that exploits and commands time and space most advantageously.

While studying Geomorphology at university one of the themes that resonated with me was the ubiquity of time and space and their effects on everything in the natural world. Far from an elite soccer player and fuelled by my desire to understand these relationships, its not surprising I was led into the world of GIS, a profession built on the study of temporal and spatial relationships within and between phenomena. As a result, I subconsciously approach everything in life with a priority to understand the unique situational relationships with time and space for guidance. This of course extended to my coaching youth soccer. Forgive me for using the beaten to death cliche “Work smarter not harder.” Of course neither aspect ought to be ignored but if this is your mantra, it’s a pretty important part of the formula for developmental and team success. Every soccer fan in the world has watched a team be utterly dominated from start to finish only to pull off a divine upset. But that match winning one goal difference wasn’t divine intervention, it was the product of one or more players thinking half a second ahead of their marks and commanding the space resulting from their opponents mental lapses to create an opportunity that they seized. Smarter not harder.

I make maps everyday at work and I could certainly map a path that leads my players to much match success but that isn’t my job! My job is to help provide them with the map making tools they need to map their own time and space to success.


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Welcome to my blog where I intend to share this, that and all things in between of personal interest. Expect to see a lot about my profession - Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and even more about my passion - Soccer. The This and That of my blog ought to be straightforward enough but what of the random in between? Guess you'll have to check back often to find out! I thank anyone who takes the interest and time to read my posts. I hope you enjoy or at least appreciate a different perspective and I welcome hearing yours.

3 thoughts on “GIS and Soccer, an Unlikely Comparison”

  1. Fantastic start but if you call the beautiful game your passion you would call it by it’s proper name, football not “soccer”. Very informative article.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and provide feedback, I appreciate it and hope you get a chance to catch my next post coming soon. I do however disagree that a name is intrinsic to passion of any kind. In North America, the majority know the game as soccer, in Germany it’s Fußball, Spain call it Fútbol and in Brazil it’s Futebol.

      Passion is a feeling that transcends language. There are a lot of things in a name but passion is not one of them.


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