When Dynamics of Youth called for research proposals in 2013, everyone still vividly remembered the death of Richard Nieuwenhuizen. In late 2012, the linesman was beaten so badly by several young amateur footballers and a father that he died from his injuries. His death shocked the Netherlands and made it painfully clear that aggression on the football pitch is a serious issue. Nieuwenhuizen's death prompted a team of researchers brought together by sport experts Maarten van Bottenburg and Ramón Spaaij to conduct a unique multidisciplinary study. We discussed this study with Dr Jeroen Vermeulen, one of the researchers.
A study of transgressive behaviour in youth football
Crossing the line
"The study involved researchers from three different disciplines looking at ‘transgressive’ behaviour on the football pitch", says Vermeulen. Representing the School of Governance, Vermeulen himself and Dr Inge Claringbould provided the anthropological angle. Together with Inge Claringbould and several research assistants, Vermeulen spent three months in late 2015 watching matches played by boys aged 12–14 and 16–18 with three Utrecht-based clubs from the sidelines and from the clubs' cafeterias. In this way, they analysed how transgressive behaviour is expressed in boys' football.
While the organisation scientists were observing behaviour, a second team (comprised of legal experts Dr Rianka Rijnhout and Prof. Ivo Giesen focused on the rules of youth football. The reason was that KNVB (the Dutch Football Association) seeks to increase players' familiarity with the rules, in hopes that this approach will cause them to behave better. But how well do young players actually know the rules and does this knowledge really help them to treat each other with more respect? Developmental psychology provided a third perspective with which to address the issue. Prof. Marcel van Aken and Dr Anne van Hoof's contribution to the project was answering the question as to how behavioural, emotional and identity-related aspects relate to the context of youth football.
Transgressive behaviour accepted as normal
In order to answer these questions, the legal experts analysed files documenting aggression in football, while the developmental psychologists conducted a survey among youth footballers. They found that many boys only had a rudimentary understanding of the rules. Moreover, the researchers state that 'the preventive effect that knowledge of the rules is supposed to have should not be overestimated'. In other words, just because people know the rules does not mean that they will act accordingly on the pitch.
"Our anthropological perspective allowed us to gain excellent additional insights into why youths engage in transgressive behaviour", Vermeulen went on to tell us. "We found that the entire football world has accepted this kind of behaviour as normal. People think it is normal for a player to bring down another player when he proceeds unopposed in the direction of the goal. It is considered a good thing, because this action is how you prevent the other player from scoring a goal. In addition, it is considered normal for linesmen belonging to one club to signal for offside when a player from the opposing team isn't actually offside. People will say, 'Well, these things happen.' If people condone such poor behaviour and the breaking of rules, one can imagine people taking things just a little step further and becoming aggressive."
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Young target group
Many incidents, such as Nieuwenhuizen's death, happen in youth football. "The players that we followed in our study were aged 12–14 and 16–18. They were at a major development stage, during which teenagers learn how to deal with authority and power relations. Their peers and peer pressure play an important part", says Vermeulen. "The development that one can observe in this group may be somewhat indicative of how they will deal with things once they are adults. We also hope to find clues which will help us to make these youths' development smoother, particularly with regard to things such as aggression and transgressive behaviour."
Creating a new perspective
The team learnt a lot from the interdisciplinary collaboration, says Vermeulen, but it was not always easy. "What we learnt was that we were very different and had a very different way of looking at things. If you want to administer a survey of young people and conduct quantitative research, you need a structured research setting. By contrast, anthropologists can approach people on the pitch pretty much any time, in a manner of speaking. They are after spontaneous responses. This difference resulted in an interesting dynamic."
In the end, the pilot study resulted in two publications: one by the governance scientists as well as one by the developmental psychologists and legal experts. According to Vermeulen: "The objective was to shed some light on various sides of the issue using a multidisciplinary study. We definitely achieved that goal, so the project met our expectations with this regard. But in order to arrive at a 'transdisciplinary' approach, in which one creates a transdisciplinary new perspective, one must continue to collaborate for a longer time and collaborate more intensively as well."
As far as that continuation is concerned, Vermeulen agrees that the project merits further research: "We have explored the issue together. What we really wanted to know was what causes this kind of behaviour and how to prevent it. Of course, a relatively brief pilot study such as ours is not going to answer that question. However, I do think that we touched on a few things which are worth a follow-up study."
For instance, one of the conclusions drawn by the researchers was that transgressive behaviour on the pitch is often considered ‘normal’. Could this part of the problem possibly be part of the solution as well? "At the very least, we should be aware that this behaviour is now considered normal", Vermeulen feels. "I played football myself for twenty years and I know that it's hard to be critical when you're caught up in that world. It essentially involves disqualifying yourself. Even so, we must be able to raise this issue at football clubs. In order to change the idea that transgressive behaviour is normal, we must first admit that it is considered normal."
At present, there are no specific plans for a new project, partly because not all parties involved have the time required for a new collaborative project. "It means doing truly new things, which sometimes involves doing things that others won't tolerate and having to discuss absolutely everything", Vermeulen explains. "What do we consider proper science? How do we deal with respondents? These questions are fundamental. Multidisciplinary research isn't just fun and wonderful; it also involves a lot of hard labour."
Dynamics of Youth
In dealing with social problems, you need to start with the children. Within the Utrecht University theme Dynamics of Youth, scientists from all fields of expertise study how young people develop in our rapidly changing society.