The “diving habits” of footballers and other meanderings in football science

21st June 2010

Let me take advantage of all the excitement surrounding the Wold Cup to engage people in science of a different nature…sports science. Sports is studied with rigorous scientific methods not just anecdotal evidence or impassioned opinions from ardent fans. A couple of papers caught my attention especially given the spate of red cards and teams (Australia, Nigeria) losing players early on in the match as well as the unusual “diving habits” of some the players.

Most teams do it and some are better than others, some are extremely outrageous and deserving of Oscars for their exaggerated performances which makes me wonder whether a drama lesson is included as part of soccer training….it’s the diving habits of some of the players, they get a light tap in the knee yet the keel over howling in extreme pain! Morris and Lewis conducted three studies to examine the deception intention of footballers who make tackling dives.  They found that there was agreement between non-professional observers and the intention of tackled players…i.e. people are pretty good at telling when someone is faking it and more interestingly there are specific behaviours associated with players who are “simulating”. E.g. ballistic continuity which the authors define as  “ whether the effect of the tackle only involves the momentum of the player or is the movement supplemented by the tackled player. Example: the players was tackled and his momentum caused him to roll as he hits the ground, however, the player engaged in additional rolls that were not part of the momentum of the fall.”  Or my favourite the Archer’s bow, you know the one, the tackled players body resembles an Archer’s bow (see picture) These actions are theatrical and the player has to gamble between a dramatic performance that ensures the referee observes the effect of the tackle but at the same time must not be exaggerated.

A British study published in 2008 reveals uniform colour and gaze behaviour of penalty takers influences goalkeepers impressions. Gaze is the direction in which one fixes their eyes. They found a player with a 90% gaze, which means they were looking quite closely into the eyes of the goal player, will be perceived by the goal keeper to be positive and assertive. Players wearing red uniforms are also perceived more positively than penalty takers wearing white uniforms. The 12 goalkeepers in this study reported higher expectancies of saving penalties from penalty takers displaying 10% gaze (looking away from goal keeper with flitting glances) and wearing white uniforms. More research is necessary before teams start wearing blood red and staring down the goalkeeper to analysis how these positive impressions can be effectively used in strategies for taking or saving penalties.

To any soccer enthusiast it is blatantly obvious that a 10 man team has to play harder than a 11 man team, you don’t need a statistical study to tell you that, but what is of interest is how specifically the dismissal of one player earlier in the game affects the work rate of the other players and what coping tactics can be introduced. Carling and Bloomfield in their study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine looked at the work rate of players  in a 1st Division French League team after one of their team mates was dismissed early on in play, after 5 minutes during a game in the 2007/2008 season.  They used a computerized player system to monitor the work rate in seven out of the ten players (three defenders and four midfielders) during five different time intervals. In comparison to 15 other games when the team had its full complement of 11, when down to 10 men, these seven covered a greater distance, had shorter recovery times, and more moderate-intense movements which the authors suggest shows that “players may not always utilise their full physical potential” when playing 11 vs 11. This is a quite a small study: 7 players and  one game, but a larger study with more teams, players and also analysis of the work rate of opponents may reveal data that can help coaches develop tactics for the team to better cope with 10 men as well as to fully utilize their potential in  an 11 vs 11 game.