Olli Sotamaa: Playing the academic game as a holding midfielder

Photograph by Melissa Hanhirova, Museovirasto.

Written by Olli Sotamaa. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

As the three-year mark for the Centre of Excellence soon approaches, I was asked to reflect upon what we’ve learned about academic leadership so far. While I don’t have any simple principles or best practices to share, I will highlight a few things that can be useful when leading a group of excellent scholars.

A quick glance to leadership literature reveals a deep devotion to sports metaphors: leaders are often addressed as managers, coaches, captains of the “team”, or maybe strikers who lead from the frontline. While a critical game scholar should be well-aware of the challenges of directly applying sports rhetoric to academic work, I cannot resist the conventions of the genre. The metaphor I’m proposing is that of a holding midfielder.

You don’t need to follow football (some of my American readers may prefer ‘soccer’) to understand the significance of a holding midfielder. This is a player who works tirelessly around the pitch to provide support to the defence and to help the offence when needed.

Holding players come in different varieties. Good defensive midfielders are disciplined “no-nonsense” players who read the game quickly, understand the big picture and are always well-positioned. Defensive midfielders act as a shield to the defence and are not afraid to take one for the team.

Defensive midfielders don’t necessarily make it to the cover of the latest instalment of FIFA or sell millions of jerseys, but they are definitely team players. While they work for others, they do not expect to be at the centre of everyone’s attention all the time.

Tim Sparv, a defensive midfielder and the captain of Finnish national team, is a good example of a player who identifies potential problems already before they arise and therefore doesn’t need to tackle or run as much as many others do. He’s internationally known as a “no-stats all-star” who does not necessarily generate spectacular stats but constantly makes the teammates around him better.  

Another type of holding midfielder is the deep-lying playmaker. These players are outstanding distributors of the ball and with their involvement orchestrate the play of the whole team.

To Italians, the deep-lying playmaker is known as ‘regista’. Regista translates directly to director: with their intelligence and excellent passing range registas dictate the tempo of the game. Deep-lying playmakers may not run around the pitch vying for the ball, but they rather become the metronomes of the team who know when to attack quickly and when to focus on keeping the ball.

Andrea Pirlo is the paradigm of the regista. Both in AC Milan, Juventus and the Italian national team, he embodied the role and dictated the offensive play of the team. Rather than his goals, Pirlo was known for his passes highlighting how starting the move can often be at least as important as finishing the play. (In his biography “I think therefore I play” Pirlo also revealed that he had played at least four times more football games on PlayStation than in real life.)

In addition to the defensive midfielder and the deep-lying playmaker, there is one more role that deserves our attention, namely that of a box-to-box midfielder. The name comes from these players’ ability to both defend in their own penalty area, the “18-yard box”, and to attack the opposition penalty box.

Box-to-box players are known for their non-stop dynamism and willingness to cover every blade of grass in the pitch. Box-to-box player does not only get things started but also humbly tracks back when play does not proceed as planned.

Miraildes Maciel Mota, known simply as Formiga, is a prime example of a box-to-box midfielder. She is the only footballer in the world who has appeared at seven World Cups. The nickname, ‘ant’ in Portuguese, refers to her tireless and hard-working style of play. Due to her mobility and commitment, Formiga, now aged 42, is still able to instill a sense of fighting spirit in the teammates around her.

In current-day football, players need to adapt to constantly changing tactics and formations. Players are asked to play in various positions and combine several roles (like the Brazilian Segundo Volante). “Fluid” formations require players who are not afraid to put their foot in, but also have the skills to move the ball up the field.

Academia isn’t too different in its requirements. In a recent leadership event, we were reminded how it is not enough for professors to serve only as researchers, teachers, mentors and supervisors. Increasingly professors are asked to become full-blown academic entrepreneurs who work also as project initiators and managers, HR experts and accountants. They of course also serve in committees, boards, councils and working groups. And on top of that, professors are supposed to find time for research group leadership.

In the CoE, I’ve served both as a responsible leader of one of the four core research themes and as the group leader for the Tampere University team. Already before this, I’ve served as the co-lead of the Tampere Game Research Lab. These responsibilities overlap in some aspects and together they’ve provided a diverse collection of leadership challenges.

The jack of all trades nature of a box-to-box midfielder becomes useful when tackling the everyday issues associated with the group leader job. Often it’s important to lead from the field, not from the touch line – operating for example as a methodology consultant who makes sure that the project follows an ethically responsible and proper course of action. As the people around you have different roles and personalities, it’s clear that one management strategy does not apply to every case.

Sometimes you need to shield your co-workers like a defensive midfielder and make sure that everyone has the required resources and freedom to focus on their selected tasks. While it is useful to be aware of the objectives set by the Ministry of Education and Culture or the university leadership, these goals may not always serve the interests of every individual and therefore they need to be employed cautiously in the everyday life of any research group.

It is also crucial to set the right tempo for activities. No team can press all the time, and a good regista knows when to accelerate and when to slow down. It’s, for example, important to know when’s the right time to apply for funding and when it’s better to skip a few calls. When possible, practising a certain dissent and working against the dominant culture of speed is advisable.

While the university marketing department may want you to be a “star” or a “big name” in your field, it is worthwhile considering how much you want to be in the spotlight. Next time you get a call from a journalist, perhaps you should consider recommending a knowledgeable PhD student or a postdoc. Or what about engaging more closely with the local actors and communities and finding more grounded ways to increase the social impact.

Sometimes our work is about creating clever game plans and making breakthroughs but conceiving academic life solely as a competitive continuum of achievements can be pretty depressing and demoralizing. Sometimes it’s more important just to play a bit of casual Keep the ball and have a good time with your colleagues. Learning to know your co-workers a bit better can open collaborations that you never imagined.

Furthermore, even the best players have their shortcomings. A defensive midfielder and a deep-lying playmaker often form a so-called ‘double pivot’ in which both can focus on their strengths. I’ve been extremely privileged to work with Professor Frans Mäyrä for almost two decades now. Having someone who will back you up without asking and with whom you can openly discuss the optimal division of labour has been a lifeline really.

Finally, building a network within your institution, not only within your team or your discipline, is crucial. While formal management training surely has its value, all the best leadership tips I’ve received from my peers. While some people may consider solidarity old-fashioned, the feeling of belonging is central for retaining motivation and focus in current-day academia. So if you want to have a chat about leadership, research group dynamics or the latest Champions League draw, drop me a line and let’s talk. I’m sure we all can still extend our peer-support networks.

Olli Sotamaa is an associate professor of game culture studies in Tampere university and the editor (with Jan Švelch) of Game Production Studies (Amsterdam University Press 2021). He never made it as a midfielder. Instead, he enjoyed a respectable career as a Sunday league waterboy.