The Wheatley Institution

How to BE Good: Jazz, Soccer and Virtuous Improvisation

David Wilmington
January 21, 2016

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First I want to give you an introductory, unscientific prologue and context-setter. Those among you who have studied this, philosophers or other folks who have studied virtues ethics, will recognize in the definitions and language of virtues ethics that I am using today that I am coming out of a specific school of the revival of virtues ethics coming through Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas and others. But since we have a broad scope of things to cover here with jazz, soccer, and virtues ethics, we will be focusing more on the broad scope than the deep things.

The catalyst for the argument that I am offering came from a strange recognition. My background is in music and I have also had some soccer training. As I studied theology and ethics and philosophy, I started to hear that what philosophers, and particularly theologians who are interested in virtues ethics, that what they were describing was an ideal person that would come out of this, the kind of character that would come out of it. As I started to think about issues of how you might train that kind of person, I could really only think of one model that I had seen that would come up with something like that. That was the way you train a jazz musician for improvisation. So first, it was realizing what virtues ethicists are often interested in, the end product, although you wouldn’t call it a product, is someone who is able to perform. It is a question of performance. With that and over ten years of harassing various colleagues who care nothing at all about jazz or soccer, this is something that I have come to believe very strongly as a way of doing virtues ethics.

“From Practicing It, It Happened”

The battle for the 2015 women’s world cup was won on the playing field of New Jersey in 2003. In 2003, an Australian coach was demanding that US soccer player Carli Lloyd practice taking shots on goal from the center circle of the soccer field. These shots were more than 50 yards long and they had to drop in over human-size training sticks that were placed about nine yards from the goal line. At the time, Carli Lloyd wondered who or perhaps what kind of person is going to shoot from midfield.

As it turned out, the answer to that question 12 years later in a World Cup final was Carli Lloyd. She was the kind of person who would shoot and score one of the cheekiest, craziest, most beautiful goals in US soccer and in World Cup finals history—men’s or women’s. She didn’t know yet that she was that person because she wasn’t that person yet in 2003. Twelve years later, Carli Lloyd completed the fasted hat trick in World Cup history by scoring from about one step past midfield, her third goal in 16 minutes in the World Cup final against reigning champion, Japan.

I still get chills when I watch the video of that shot. Most of the 27 million Americans watching (it was the largest television audience for soccer in US history and it was the third-most-watched event of that year) have wondered, “Who even thinks of that? Did she mean to shoot? Was this pure, and for the Japanese keeper, cruel, luck?” Lloyd’s personal trainer insists that it was no fluke. “It’s something we’ve worked on. She had the courage to do it. . . . That shot was always part of her arsenal. It was just a matter of picking the right moment to unleash it.”[1] World Cup heroine Lloyd, whether she knows it or not, took a much more Aristotelian approach to explaining this legendary goal: “Instincts kicked in. From practicing it, it happened.”[2]

How the Beautiful Game Happens

Soccer, or football, or fútbol, or Calcio, or footie, the beautiful game, is an almost infinitely variable, dynamic, and fluid game performed by 22 players, 20 of whom roam at will on fields often as large as 110 yards by 75 yards. The clock never stops. Any player can possess, pass, or shoot the ball from anywhere on the field at any time, more or less. The ball can be played backward, sideways, forward, at almost any time. Any player can attempt to receive or steal the ball at any time. It is a contact sport in which tackles, barges, sliding challenges, and leaping challenges are frequent and even a clash of skull on skull can be legal. It might stop play, but they might say, “Well, this is no foul. You are both battling for a 50/50 ball so your skulls will have to deal with that.”

Players can be described in terms of position, but even this is so fluid that coaches will often announce their starting lineup and their formation with barely veiled deception. Everyone knows that Leo Messi is not really a right midfield winger and that Roberto Carlos, who used to play for Real Madrid, could only be called a left back defender as if it were maybe his forwarding address during his continual forays into Real Madrid’s attacking third. Sixteen of the 22 players will play the entire 90-plus minutes with only the half time break for rest, and a typical professional match will involve most players covering at least three-and-a-half miles and some as much as five miles, in combinations of jogs, 30- to 40-yard runs, 15- to 30-yard sprints, and often while controlling the ball only with the foot. There are a few set plays, and more than any other sport, the mystical chemistry (or lack sometimes) among the players on the field can make coaching during a match an almost futile and irrelevant endeavor. In short, soccer is a performance by a team of individuals which involves a staggering number of variables, surprises, adjustments, mistakes, recoveries from mistakes, luck, and movement in an environment so dynamic, it is almost a category error to speak of a soccer playbook.

Like 22 actors all trained for multiple fluid roles in some kind of improvised Shakespearian play, soccer players must make up their actual lines during the performance, in relation to their own company of teammates and in counterrelation to another team of actors who are dedicated to imposing their own distinct plot twists. How does one go about trying to train players to make them capable of such dynamic performances of physical, cognitive, and social or relational skills when the game at most allows for only brief periods of adjustment and assessment, and often demands something like the instinctual action that Carli Lloyd has described?

As it turns out, Lloyd has given us the answer already. She practiced. But you should ask, “How can you practice the unexpected?” The answer in terms of the actual pedagogical practices of soccer is a surprising mix of quite mechanical, predictable, and even rote drills, which develop sets of physical skills, and the kind of training that goes beyond skill. Carli Lloyd, and every other top player, has been formed to have the kind of character that the player will then perform in whatever situation she finds herself.

Soccer Training Methods

Next I am going to explain to you two examples of a popular and influential training method that was started by a Dutch coach called Coerver. The organization and execution of this kind of training maximizes the number of touches the player can have on the ball. It isolates and repeats certain kinds of touch, movement, and fundamental soccer moves, the most basic of these can be thought of in musical analogy as practicing scales. They are fundamental, constitutive elements, isolated from playing the actual music or game.

You might see as a warmup for athletics as, “Okay, run a lap.” Top coaches will get the warm up doing soccer movements. For one warm up what they do is practice touching with the inside of the foot, the outside of the foot, the one foot isolated over and over and over. You have to be aware of space a little bit because there are players lined up with you.

The next one is a little more like a game situation because the idea is that you are dribbling at someone else and then you are performing this move called the Cruyff, which is a cut move to change direction pretty quickly. Obviously there are all kinds of mechanics involved, bodily movements there. It is a little bit more like a game here. There are goals, there is another player who doesn’t have a ball who is trying to stop you, defend, steal the ball, they can score on either of the goals and they are using some of the same skills they just practiced over and over and over in the warm up. Which part of the foot are you going to use? Now you have to decide which.

The progression of this program, and ideally this would take place within a practice, aims to continue executing and refining the skills and moves in different situations, which become more and more game-like as the training session progresses. Eventually the players execute the soccer equivalent of a musical étude. Now a musical étude is an actual piece of music. You are no longer just practicing your scales, you are playing a piece of music, even if it is not a masterpiece.

So they execute these in the soccer world. These exercises are developed to target specific skills. Notice that even at this stage, it is relational. You are constantly aware that what you are doing is larger than the skills that you are perfecting and that even though they are not shooting at the goal and scoring a goal, what they are doing here is kind of the basic grammar of soccer.

The Game Is the Best Teacher

The key insight here is the mode of addressing the immense challenge of determining how best to train for a game, consisting of continuous series of dynamic, variable, fluid movements, requiring mental and physical awareness, decision-making, and bodily performance. Ultimately the game itself is the best teacher, and I submit that this is precisely because the game provides the element that cannot be completely replicated in training, unpredictable variables of motive—either your teammates or the other team—situational judgments, strength of will and body, emotion and effort.

The Coerver training simulates well the progression from isolated skills and movements to more game-like scenarios, but every experienced coach knows kids who are superstars doing these drills in the camps, but cannot perform it in the game. I have had this experience as a coach as well. The kid will be the best player out there for this during practice and then in a game he looks like he does not know what he is doing. Even though musicians, for example, can practice performing—you can wear the clothes you are going to wear, you can go to the hall you are going to play in, and perform without stopping if you make a mistake—it is still different than walking out on a stage in front of an audience. There are all kinds of different variables. This is why no amount of careful training can create a cognitive flowchart of discrete data assessment, decision trees, that would ever result in a play such as this: Zinedine Zidane’s transcendent, game-winning, championship-winning, left-footed side volley from 16 yards out in the 2002 champions league final between Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen.

His teammate Roberto Carlos pops it up in the air, there is no momentum on it for you to head it or anything like that. It is behind Zidane and so if you watch this play very closely, which I have, he actually has to back up a little to set up what he is doing. It doesn’t offer any kind of good angle, X axis or Y axis for striking the ball immediately at the goal. It is clearly a ball that 98% of good soccer players will attempt to control with their feet or knock forward with their chest and then try to make it efficient. I know that is what I would do. Instead, Zidane, who has just tracked back a few steps, shifts his weight to his right foot, as though it were a flagpole, rotates his hips to raise his left leg close to parallel to the ground in a powerful, almost balletic move, smashes the ball with the laces of his left foot for an unstoppable, glorious shot. And by the way, he is not left footed. This is his weaker and less accurate side.

Had he practiced this maneuver hundreds of times? He probably had practiced striking the ball something like that, certainly, but so do most elite players and we still rarely see a thing like this. The primary reason why we don’t see dozens of these goals every season, despite the enormous number of excellent players playing at the top level, is that what Zidane, or Carli Lloyd, or Leo Messi perform is the highest expression of excellence for the activity of soccer. They perform in the game what many others only rehearse in practice. That is why we see them do things that even after we have seen them done leads us to wonder who even thinks of doing that.

One could argue of course that the elites would have been elites regardless of the approach to their training. However, in addition to the objections to that assertion from the athletes themselves who roundly give credit to their training, we also have to recognize the great competency and fluidity which even non-elite, merely “just solid” players, still perform within that dynamic and unpredictable game. So even the regular Joes or the regular Carli’s, or the regular Zinedines if there are any, do develop something more than a compilation of skills and rote flow-chart series of decision making procedures. They, too, are the kind of people who perform with excellence the goods and goals of soccer. When we realize that what we are describing is the kind of training that forms a certain type of character via habits and practices and parameters defining the goods in variable situations, we should realize that we are echoing virtues ethics.

Virtues Ethics: How Virtue Happens

Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics was written from the political and moral perspective of the Athenian Greeks of 330 BC but many modern philosophers, theologians, and educators have returned to this approach in the last several decades. Aristotle focuses on creating a kind of person, rather than trying to figure out how to identify, consider, and choose among every possible choice available in a problematic situation. A truly virtuous person can behave virtuously, do the right thing, simply by acting naturally or by being herself because she simply is a virtuous person. Even your desires are trained to desire the good, so you would gradually stop desiring anything that is not in line with the good. Doing the wrong thing would cease to be a temptation to you because you actively and passionately desire only the good.

At the highest level of virtue for Aristotle and eventually for Thomas Aquinas (you can even see this expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy), the good choices will seem like the obvious choices and a person could trust that what he wants, desires, and wills to do will be the right and good thing. According to Aristotle and most of his modern followers, you can only create this kind of person through training and habits. A person becomes courageous, for example, by doing or practicing courageous things until the virtue of courage is ingrained into the character of the person. You practice a virtuous character like you practice scales on a piano or striking the ball in soccer. In battle, the courageous man does not debate about what to do, and both the rashly crazy or the cowardly acts will not even seem like options. By performing his own character, he will do the courageous thing.

This approach to ethics is quite different from most modern approaches to ethics, which often assume that people act like computers, applying data to complicated flow charts of possible ways of choosing and acting. The modern flow-chart approach to ethics sometimes imagines a human behavior can be governed and improved by just gathering more data. We then process the data, consider every possible option, identify choices that then allow us to achieve a goal that is consistent with some kind of principle we have in mind. Then you choose which route to follow. This choice, of all the possible choices that I have assessed, will allow me to best serve this particular principle which I want to follow. The only limits, filters, or criteria for me to decide are whatever principles I choose to recognize as legitimate and binding upon me as guidelines for my choices.

The problem with this is that of course, ethical challenges are ever new and data is always limited. Just think of the challenges for bioethics. No flow chart can encompass every possible development or consequence such that the correct moral choices will result. Furthermore, as the last two centuries of world history have shown, it is more and more difficult to agree about which principles are the highest and which should win out if there is a conflict, whether in law or culture or religion.

The recent turn to virtues ethics, whether centered on Aristotle or other philosophers of virtue, focuses on the cultivation or character. Train up a person to habitually do good things for good reasons, and she won’t have to agonize over the vast flow chart of possible choices. If she sees a wallet lying on the sidewalk, she won’t even consider stealing the cash and using the credit cards. Like a saxophone player who doesn’t have to think about the fingerings for each note, the virtuous person will perform virtuously with a kind of trained intuition or instinct, without deliberating over all the data and considering every physically possible option.

For the real performance of the virtue, however, we must recognize that the virtuous person still must, like the musician or soccer player, do more than the ethical equivalent of pressing the right keys or striking the ball with the right part of the foot. In the realm of ethics and politics, there is no pre-written music and no coach guiding us through the narrow parameters of some kind of training drill. We are onstage without music. It is game time. Even within the basic structure of music making or soccer playing, we must perform our skills and judgment in relation to the countless variables of the other musicians in our band or players on the pitch. This is a kind of improvisation and requires a person who embodies the proper harmony between individuality properly understood and relationality. In other words, we are talking about the improvised performance of rules, principles, relationships, and even surprise. So with an analogy to training and ethics in mind, we turn to jazz to learn what improvisation is and, perhaps even more important, what improvisation is not.

Freedom in the Groove: How Improvisation Happens

Most people have an idea of what practicing a scale might sound like or at least how Sister Maria taught the Von Trapp children to sing Do Re Mi. We should recognize that just as soccer drills were actually participating in soccer activities, even at the most fundamental skills level, good musicians will teach their students that they are participating in music making, even while learning scales, and especially when they are learning the patterns that make up phrases in musical sentences and paragraphs.

Consider a jazz quartet consisting of bass, drums, piano, and a trumpet, performing the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan.” After playing the main melody or tune of the piece, the melody that you might sing along with if it had words, they play continuously, cycling through the basic structure of the song while the players take turn soloing. The trumpet player solos first by inventing his own melody, rhythmic variations, and even a dramatic arc for expert soloists. His improvised melody is very different from the actual pattern and written tune of “Caravan.” However, rather than existing as just an individual, as if an ontological state detached from serious relationships, we see and hear that the intensity and sophistication of relationship, of listening, responding, stating, counter-stating, increases immensely precisely when the trumpeter is soloing. So it is the individual, but then it is also embedded in multiple layers of relationality.

My point is that we should ask ourselves what those musicians can teach us about performing certain virtues crucial to the dynamics of individuals in relation to community and to tradition. Building on Jeremy Begbie’s examination of relationality of successive notes and of melody even, we can see that the simplest notion of harmony, which is two tones sounding together, suggests something about the necessity of a distinct notion of the individual. Harmony is nothing other than the relation or the interaction at the material level of two individuals or more. Harmony is the sound of properly ordered relationship. If either note in our two-note example were not distinctly and recognizably itself, say if one of the notes starts to drift out of tune to try to become the other note, then the harmony created—the relationship which is this third thing you can hear in addition to the two notes—becomes something other. It is differently ordered or badly ordered and maybe is no longer harmony. Furthermore, we can note the incoherence of a claim that harmony itself can be appreciated or even recognized as a relationship without a profound uncommonality. It can’t be a homogenous blob. Without the disjuncture of distinct individual identities, we have an undifferentiated sameness at best, but more likely we have a clamorous unison of forced and false homogeneity.

Obviously notes are not people and they do not form each other or make up a community, but as Begbie points out, music allows a different experience in concept of relationality and time.[3] Jeremy Begbie focuses on the distinctly embodied nature of improvising. Within the strictures of composition, the instrumentalists can let the inventive musical ideas flow immediately through them and into their instruments almost as if they are hearing and speaking with the hand. It is a liberation of the body from only playing pre-written, pre-planned notes in order to respond conversationally with their fellow musicians. The great jazz writer Albert Murray, and his most famous disciple Wynton Marsalis, frequently point out that the activity of jazz is a training and performing in constant negotiation among individuals all aiming at the same goal, or telos, of creating good music.

When people are making music together, thereby inscribing their human relations within the dynamics of musical identity and relationship, we can see an alternative way of being that transcends the limits of other modes of human relating, all the while remaining rooted in materiality. We aren’t disembodied souls. The trumpet player does perform a solo that is genuinely his individual creation, but it is also genuinely supported and affected by several layers of relationality. The rhythm section continues to play, to interact with him, reacting to his melodic invention through call and response or imitation while also adapting to his variations in harmony and rhythm. Even when the other musicians solo here, the trumpet player is still in relation even though he stops playing, because they are responding sometimes to ideas that he has raised in their heads or they will play back something he had done. So even when the soloist stops, he is still involved.

This performance is made up of four musicians, each of whom has been shaped by tradition and participation in hundreds of small instantiations of a larger jazz community. To speak and play within several idioms of the larger language of jazz, all share the definition of the common good that seeks to make music by combining their individual voices according to the more or less set notions of rhythm, harmony and melody. However, the tradition is developed in such a way that significant aspects of these common elements are negotiable even while playing them. The highest level of tradition-embodying preparation is brought to bear by individuals who may, for the good and fun of music being created at that moment, suggest a shift or change the harmony or alter the chords. While breaking the rules of the given song was a kind of departure from the structure at hand, it was still firmly within the tradition. The tradition itself teaches you how to mispronounce the words on purpose sometimes and bend or break the kinds of rules that may be non-negotiable in other musical traditions. However, at its best, even the most avant-garde jazz knows when to get back in touch with the rules. After all, a guard may go so far avant in the name of being progressive, that it becomes a lost patrol and ceases to lead anyone still devoted to good music making.

My goal here in presenting this survey is to help us better appreciate training and formation practices that are already living, breathing, flourishing options. My goal is so that those of us committed to formation in a virtues ethics model, especially Christian virtues ethics or any virtues ethics that is based on the idea of a transcendent, a faith-based virtues ethics, that we consider doing ethics differently with this kind of formation model in mind. I am suggesting that the most effective approaches to jazz training, to soccer training, have in mind the creation of a kind of person capable of improvising, while continuing to practice the goods in service a defined, capital “G” good. This training mirrors virtues formation by focusing on developing an improvisational and relational kind of character that can dynamically perform practice habits of mind and body, habits which must be drawn upon and performed at levels both intuitive and conscious.

As a theologian, musician, and soccer coach, I want to help develop more precise awareness that these disciplines, jazz and soccer, seek similar ends and have much to teach each other about the training necessary to achieve those ends. I want to encourage a dialogical exchange of insights among musical, athletic, and ethical thinkers and practitioners. Thus academics, coaches, teachers, and ministers might consider the incredibly fluid situations in which people must perform virtuous character. Via this analysis of improvisation in soccer and ethics, rethink how we might guide training and formation with that fluidity in mind. Now I am not suggesting that all virtuous people must first become jazz musicians or soccer players, although I actually kind of do believe that. It would be better. I tell the classes I teach that if all of you were jazz musicians, we would jump over the first half of the syllabus. I am suggesting that ethical formation and virtues require something like the ability to improvise. In part, it also serves as a corrective for ethicists who risk overemphasis on community and interdependence because they fear hyperindividualism.

A denial of demonization of all individualism would destroy the kind of training necessary to form a particular kind of character who can contribute good music or contribute well to team sport. Indeed, even some of my own intellectual mentors seem all too eager for the individual to fade away, replaced by notions of forming what sounds like mere nodes on a common mind of the community. Alternatively, a proper understanding of improvisation should also correct any rejection of robust claims about community or tradition as formative and continuously operative. Community and tradition will be continuously operative in the individual. For this proper ordering, harmonizing of individual and community, relationality and subjective expression, dynamic responsivity, and faithfulness to the tradition, we need a paradigm shift in our approaches to formation.

The degree and type of preparation is key, but most important is the notion that this formation is aimed at performance. It was Alasdair MacIntyre and others have long explained the conclusion of sound and practical reasoning is action, action which it is best for this particular agent to do in these particular circumstances.[4] My case is that nowhere else do we see in action such a combination of those things as we see in improvisation. This seems to be a much more fruitful model than some even suggested by MacIntyre. I have nothing against loom weavers or fishing villages, and if you have read MacIntyre you know what I am riffing on, but the tradition-embodying action in jazz improvisation and in soccer seems a much better school for teaching us how to do this. For Christian theological ethic, the notion of inspiration even imposes itself here, in engagement with the transcendent, with God, with the Holy Spirit. Not just in the general sense of artistic catalyst or intuition. For, to be “in-spired” is to be filled with the spirit—same root word, which is to say “breathed into”—by the creative ruach of Genesis 1 and 2 which created everything and that was the breath that filled Adam with the spirit of life.

This kind of inspiration we see in jazz improvisation is rarely the emotive romantic kind. In fact, most jazz musicians appear very controlled, even when everyone can see the effects of great physical exertion on them. If you ask someone, “What were you thinking when you did ____ ?” you are likely to get fairly vague answers. Some musicians talk about tapping into or tuning into music that is just out there and around them. They know that their countless hours of practice, though, had prepared their minds and bodies—has tuned them—to hear and receive and then perform. Sonny Rollins says, “When you get out on stage . . . forget your books, . . . forget practicing . . . Let the music play you.”[5] That has most often been completely mangled to the idea that practicing doesn’t matter and you shouldn’t think about any of those things kid, just go out there and play. That will sound terrible and no one will want to listen to you. His point is the reason you forget about the practicing, as he puts it, is you have imbibed it. It is part of you. You have drunk it in and now it is part of you and then you go out. Instead he says, “Let the music play you.” You get on stage, the music is there already, you forget it. You want to get to that place where nobody can describe it. But just like apophatic theology, or other points emphasizing in the limits of our language and knowledge about God, the inability to describe precisely what happens and why does not mean that just anything from anywhere will get you to that point in the soul’s journey into inspirational improvisation. Like the Coerver soccer drills I explained earlier, the most transcendent and inspired miraculous performances of complicated and relational activities, like soccer and jazz and virtues ethics, usually begin years prior with simple, even mechanical, because we are embodied, practicing in musty practice rooms or cold, lonely soccer fields in New Jersey. It should not be much of a stretch to realize we are right up against Augustine’s emphasis on divine interiority, but now transposed specifically into the key of ethics. So an account of virtues ethics that takes seriously the task of understanding and modeling moral formation on the example of jazz and soccer improvisation has the potential to bring us an anthropologically faithful (we are embodied and we are connected to the transcendent), but also pneumatological approach to understanding how you can be free precisely because you are in the zone. You are free because you are in the groove, a groove you have been training in. Your body and mind, desire, listening and attitude were all formed to be ready to perform this virtue whenever the opportunity and context were right. You do it, you are it, because you practiced it. You do the good, you are the good, or are participating in the good because your practice shaped you to perform your character, body and soul.


[1] James Galanis as qtd. in Wahl, Grant. “The story behind the goal and the star: Carli Lloyd's rise to World Cup hero.” Sports Illustrated. July 14, 2014.

[2] Carli Lloyd as qtd. in Wahl, Grant. “The story behind the goal and the star: Carli Lloyd's rise to World Cup hero.” Sports Illustrated. July 14, 2014.

[3] See Begbie, Jeremy. Theology, Music, and Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[4] See MacIntyre, Alasdiar. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

[5] “Sonny Rollins – Incorporating What I Practice into Improvisation,” YouTube video, 1:01, from a Google Hangout, posted by “Jazz Video Guy” on May 7, 2014,

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