The Number 10 Jersey and Christian Pulisic

The Number 10 Jersey and Christian Pulisic

The double-edged sword of respect and expectation that comes with the number 10 jersey is reserved for the shoulders of a player that can handle the weight. So when Jürgen Klinsmann, former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach, handed it to seventeen-year-old Christian Pulisic before a 2016 World Cup qualifier game, he knew the load that was being placed on the young playmaker. “The No. 10 has a meaning,” Klinsmann said. “Ask him now how he feels with that heavy number on his back.”

That night, Pulisic responded brilliantly, scoring two goals and assisting on a third in just twenty-six minutes, making him the youngest U.S. player ever to score in a World Cup qualifier. Even Bruce Arena, who’s seen his share of promising prospects in his forty years of coaching at the college, pro, and national team levels, believes in Pulisic. “I think he is just a natural,” said Arena. “The game’s easy for him. He’s got exceptional skill, vision, he’s pretty smooth.” Wary of anointing him a savior too early, Arena did inch out on a limb when pressed: “It makes you think that this is going to be perhaps the first American superstar in the sport. You have to be hesitant about this but this is a very talented young man.”

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Was Mental Fatigue To Blame For Messi's Miss at Copa America?

Was Mental Fatigue To Blame For Messi's Miss at Copa America?

In perhaps a defining moment in his career, Lionel Messi missed his penalty kick at the end of  the 2016 Copa America Final. The soccer world asked how this iconic player, voted to be the best in the world five times, could blast the ball over the goal in such a crucial moment at a major tournament? Certainly, Messi had played in overtime games before and was able to handle the physical toll. However, the mental stress of the moment may have been too much for his world-class skill to take over.

Coaches and players talk about it, complain about it and even blame results on it but it's been difficult to measure mental fatigue. Physical endurance is easily tracked and managed through several physiological metrics. But during a strenuous game in the middle of a long season, how does the mental grind affect technical sports performance? Dr. Samuele Marcora, professor and director of research at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Kent, found a lack of research evidence on how the two are related so he designed an intriguing study that found a direct correlation between cognitive load and decreased physical and technical performance in soccer players.

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World Class Conditioning Will Be Key To World Cup Success

Jürgen Klinsmann understands what it takes to compete in a World Cup.  With eleven goals for the German national team across the 1990, 1994 and 1998 tournaments, he is still the sixth leading goalscorer in World Cup history. 

As he prepares the U.S. men’s national team for this year’s trip to Brazil, his message of preparation begins with world-class fitness.  Now, a new research review from three sports scientists confirms Klinsmann’s obsession with being in top condition.

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8 Coaching Keys From Sir Alex Ferguson

The Mount Rushmore of coaching legends finally has its fourth member – Sir Alex Ferguson.  Alongside, say, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden and Scotty Bowman, Ferguson will be remembered as one of the most successful managers of all-time and certainly at the top of the football/soccer ranks.  With his slightly surprising retirement earlier this year, he left behind a Manchester United club that is now valued at $2.3 billion thanks in large part to the 13 English league titles and 25 additional titles won in his 26 years at Old Trafford.

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Go With The Flow - Part 2

Number-loving sports like baseball and basketball have plenty of individual statistics to measure a team and a player’s performance over time.  Not so for the “beautiful game.”  "In soccer there are relatively few big things that can be counted," said Luis Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University. "You can count how many goals someone scores, but if a player scores two goals in a match, that's amazing. You can really only divide two or three goals or two or three assists among, potentially, eleven players. Most of the players will have nothing to quantify their performance at the end of the match."

Amaral and his colleagues at NU’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science knew that there was plenty of information buried in the data about player movement, passing and timing, if only a logical model could be created to explain the chaos on the field.  Just as we learned in Part 1 about network models in basketball, Amaral, a lifelong soccer fan from Portugal, used his knowledge of social network analysis in biological systems to create a model of soccer ball strategy.

"You can define a network in which the elements of the network are your players," Amaral said. "Then you have connections between the players if they make passes from one to another. Also, because their goal is to score, you can include another element in this network, which is the goal."

Diagram 1 (click to zoom)
Using detailed player event data from the Euro 2008 international tournament, the researchers mapped every pass for each of the 31 matches.  By comparing the passing route that a team used to end in a shot on goal, certain patterns emerge that highlight the players that are most often involved in the build-up to a goal.  Not only could Amaral predict success for the team but also assign value ratings to each player.

"We looked at the way in which the ball can travel and finish on a shot," said Amaral, who also is a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO). "The more ways a team has for a ball to travel and finish on a shot, the better that team is. And, the more times the ball goes through a given player to finish in a shot, the better that player performed."

In Diagram 1, take a look at the bold network connections representing the most used passing paths between Euro 2008 players (denoted by their uniform numbers).  Just as in the basketball network paths, finding passing patterns that end with shots on goals can give clues to the most efficient ball movement.

Diagram 2 (click to zoom)
From their initial research paper that appeared in PLOS One, Amaral created a company, Chimu Solutions, dedicated to refining their network model by adding data from thousands of top flight games across multiple leagues.  Their goal is to produce a single metric that measures a player’s value as defined by their contribution to shots on goal.

In fact, by the time Euro 2012 came around last year, the model was able to attach an average player rating for each team.  Diagram 2 shows the table for Spain’s champion roster which most pundits would agree ranks the players in a logical order from top to bottom.

This focus on data analytics is the new standard for sports and those teams that accept the challenge to find athlete monitoring tools that reveal these trends and patterns will have the competitive advantage over those teams that do not.  Indeed, with apologies to Sun, the network is now the sport.

Using Rate Of Perceived Exertion As A Training Metric

Coaches invest hours devising training plans that will push their athletes just to the edge, but not over.  Overtraining leads to burnout and injuries but going easy won’t get the right results.  The challenge of walking this fine line is truly understanding the intensity and workload being placed on athletes, whether its real or perceived.  Objective, wearable technology has helped in the form of heart rate and GPS monitors, but can be expensive and doesn’t capture a true sense of the player’s experience.  As an alternative, sport scientists have recently found that a self-reported rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can accurately capture the workload experience.

Two sports that are learning to rely on RPE, soccer and swimming, represent two very different training styles.  Soccer coaches spend considerable time on team drills and scrimmages while interspersing physical fitness into the sessions.  Swimmers, while part of a team, primarily focus on individual times and skills.  Despite the differences, researchers have found plenty of evidence that the athlete’s opinion of their workout difficulty is valid and reliable.

Back in the 1960s, Gunnar Borg, psychology professor at Stockholm University, created the RPE scale, now respectively called the Borg scale.  The original version asked athletes to rate their level of exertion on a range of 6 to 20, with 6 being “very light” and 20 indicating “very difficult.”  While the 6-20 range may seem an odd choice, it actually has some logic.  Borg found that if the rating is multiplied by 10, there is a high correlation to the athlete’s heart rate at that moment (i.e. a rating of 12 typically corresponds with a HR of 120).

Borg also added a 10 point scale, known as the Category(C) Ratio(R) scale or CR-10.  This produces ratings of 1-10 and is used not only in sports training but also in clinical settings to estimate levels of pain.

Last year, Spanish and Italian researchers compared the workout assessments of 28 semi-pro soccer players.  For an objective measure, they captured heart rate history and tracked their distance travelled with GPS devices.  Then, after each training session, they asked the players for their RPE using the Borg CR-10 scale.  They found a very high correlation between the HR data, the distance travelled and the players’ RPE ratings.

“Being easy to perform and inexpensive compared with HR-based methods, sRPE should be regarded as a viable way to track internal load in training setup in soccer,” concluded David Casamichana, sport scientist at the University of the Basque Country and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

But what if young athletes report a “less than truthful” RPE in an attempt to either impress or fool their coach?  In the same way, what if the coach’s interpretation of a hard workout does not match with a player’s reaction to it?
Renato Barosso, of the School of Physical Education and Sport at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, gathered together 160 swimmers of different age-groups and different competitive swimming experience, and nine of their coaches.  Looking at their training plan for the day, the coaches were asked to rate the workout using the CR-10 RPE scale, prior to the session.  Then, 30 minutes after the training, the swimmers were asked for their RPE to see how well it matched the coaches’ estimates.  Athletes were divided into three age groups, 11-12, 13-14 and 15-16, while the workouts were classified as easy (RPE less than 3), moderate (3-5) or difficult (greater than 5).

As might be expected, the agreement between coach and swimmer was higher for older swimmers and lower for younger swimmers.  While the coach’s estimate of intensity was assumed correct, the researchers found that the swimmers aged 11-14 ratings differed across all three categories, easy-moderate-difficult.  The oldest swimmers only disagreed with their coaches at the difficult level.

So, while RPE can be trusted for an accurate estimate of training difficulty, it would benefit both athlete and coach to gather all available data in one online training system for comparison and analysis.  Being able to chart RPE over time against more objective measures like HR, repetitions or activities would enable better training plans.

Why The Best Soccer Players Are Real Head Turners

In soccer, like many sports, the goal scorers get the headlines. Yet, they will secretly admit that the final pass played to them is very often their key to unlock the defense. Without the vision of a teammate to pick them out of a crowd, their finishing skill is almost useless.
As players progress through the ranks of high school, college and beyond, not only do their opponents get quicker with their feet but also with their eyes and brains.  Their time with the ball gets shorter forcing them to either make the correct pass or avoid the oncoming defender.  The luxury of time to survey the field for targets after they receive the ball is now gone.  The available options need to be gathered and assessed constantly so that when the ball arrives at their feet, the homework is already done.
So, what do top players do differently that makes their decisions consistently fast and correct?  Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, specializes in perceptual expertise in soccer.  At last month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he presented new research on what he describes as “the hidden foundation of field vision.”
From previous studies, Jordet knew the importance of visual search strategies in soccer decision making.  However, the typical methods used to test a player’s perception seemed artificial.  Whether it be putting athletes in simulated field situations in a lab or merely relying on a computer joy stick movement, Jordet knew he needed to make the tests more realistic.
“These (lab-based) tasks do not simulate the functional links between perception and natural movements, which may be essential to capture, if the goal is to reveal knowledge about real-game visual perception,” he wrote.
So, he went back to just being a fan and admiring the sport’s best players.  Using SkySport’s Player Cam broadcasts (now discontinued) of English Premier League games, he and his research team could watch isolations of a single player in one screen, while seeing the entire game context on another screen (see image below).
“Such video footage makes it possible to examine how players engage in visual exploratory behaviors by moving their bodies and heads to better perceive events taking place behind their backs,” said Jordet.
From 64 different games, they watched the habits of 118 of the world’s best players to detect the clues they leave on the field during 1,279 actual game situations.  Jordet’s hypothesis was that those players who engaged in the most active search of their surroundings before they received the ball would produce the highest percentage of successful passes once they received possession. He defined an active search as the player turning their gaze and head away from the ball to prepare themselves by trying to pick-up as much information about the positions and movement of teammates and opponents.
Dividing the total exploratory events (turning the head) by the seconds of each scenario yields an average exploration frequency.  Not surprisingly, the two EPL players, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, with the highest frequency rates of .62 searches per second are two of the most successful midfielders currently playing in the league.
In this video clip, watch (and try to count) the number of times Lampard moves his head while waiting for the ball:

When the player received an incoming pass, it was noted if he was able to complete the next pass successfully, especially if it was a forward pass in the direction of his opponent’s goal. A better search should yield better information which should improve the completion percentage of the next pass.
Sure enough, Jordet found a direct correlation between higher exploration frequency and pass completion rates.  Players with exploration frequency below .2 only completed 54% of their passes while those with more than .41 explorations per second had pass completion rates of 73% or higher.
As the research team notes, counting head turns still doesn’t tell us anything about what the player actually saw during those quick glimpses.  It seems they are able to put pieces of the puzzle together with each glance, allowing their brain to assemble the big picture.
“The findings can have major implications for both what scouts look for in players and for how coaches work to improve players’ receiving and passing skills,” concluded Jordet.
In Gerrard's case, this search habit pays off in creating scoring chances, especially in the final attacking third of the field.  The always useful website, EPL Index, just updated their analysis of the top EPL players this season, in these two categories.  As expected, Gerrard appeared in the top five of each ranking (see charts).

As Xavi, Barcelona’s midfield maestro, explains, “Think quickly, look for spaces. That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. I think, the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That's what I do.”

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Euro 2012: A New Way To Track Team Performance

Cristiano Ronaldo
Imagine if the new Adidas soccer ball that will be used in this month’s Euro 2012 tournament had a memory chip in it that could retrace its entire path through each of the scheduled thirty-one games.  Not only its direction and distance traveled, but if it could also log each player’s touch leading up to every shot on goal.

Would the sum of all of those individual path segments tell the story of the game and which players contributed the most to their team’s success?  Northwestern University engineering professor Luís A. Nunes Amaral has not only answered that question, but has now built a side business to enlighten coaches and fans.

While most sports have an abundance of statistical metrics to measure a player’s development, soccer’s fluid gameplay and low scores make it more difficult to evaluate a specific player’s impact and contribution.  To fill the void, several game analysis service firms now offer data on each action of every player during a game, but it’s left to the consumers of this data (coaches, players and fans) to interpret what combination of stats best explains if the team is improving beyond the ultimate metric of wins and losses.

Amaral, a lifelong player and fan from Portugal, saw an opportunity to help.  “In soccer there are relatively few big things that can be counted,” he said. “You can count how many goals someone scores, but if a player scores two goals in a match, that’s amazing. You can really only divide two or three goals or two or three assists among, potentially, eleven players. Most of the players will have nothing to quantify their performance at the end of the match.”

In his lab at Northwestern, Amaral and his team of researchers study complex systems and networks; everything from metabolic ecosystems, the Internet, neural networks in our brain and the propagation of HIV infection.  To him, the game of soccer is no different.

“You can define a network in which the elements of the network are your players,” he commented. “Then you have connections between the players if they make passes from one to another. Also, because their goal is to score, you can include another element in this network, which is the goal.”
They dug into the stats of the previous European championship, Euro 2008, and mapped the ball movement and player statistics for each game into a computer model.  They made the assumption that the basic strategy of every soccer team is to move the ball towards their opponent’s goal.

“We looked at the way in which the ball can travel and finish on a shot,” said Amaral, who also is a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) and an Early Career Scientist with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  ”The more ways a team has for a ball to travel and finish on a shot, the better that team is. And, the more times the ball goes through a given player to finish in a shot, the better that player performed.”

By combining a player’s passing efficiency (number of successful passes divided by total passes) and the ball flow around the field, the model can draw a network diagram of the paths that most often led to a shot on goal.  These well-worn paths begin to tell a story of which players are the most reliable and effective.  Amaral has given a very sports-bar worthy name to this ability – flow centrality.  The more often that a player is involved in the build-up of passes towards a shot, the more vital he or she is to the team’s success.

The research was published in the online science journal, PLoS ONE.

Since the study came out almost two years ago, Amaral has set-up a new company, Chimu Solutions, to not only offer soccer analysis but also to expand their algorithms and software to other lines of business to reveal “intricate team dynamics as well as individual metrics with the goal of differentiating role players from superstars.”

While goal scorers and goalkeepers most often get their names in the headlines, it’s often the supporting cast of players that determine the outcome of games.  Understanding how the ball should be and how it is moving up and down the field is critical to player development and game tactics.  One of the most difficult skills for free-flowing sports like hockey and soccer is the visual awareness of teammates’ locations and quick decisions to make progress towards the goal.  Flow centrality may just be the answer.

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Euro 2012: Cognitive Research Links Brain Function To Soccer Success

During the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament, you will often hear coaches and commentators refer to an athlete’s ability to “see the field” or be a play-maker.  Rookies at the next level can’t wait for the game to “slow down” so their brains can process all of the moving pieces.

What exactly is this so-called game intelligence and court vision?  Can it be recognized and developed in younger players?  For the first time, neuroscientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have found a link between our brain’s “executive functions” and sports success.

When in the middle of a heated game on the field or court, our brains are accomplishing the ultimate in multitasking.  Moving, anticipating, strategizing, reacting and performing requires an enormous amount of brain activity and the athletes who can process information faster often win.
In the everyday world, these types of activities, including planning, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and monitoring of our actions, have been called “executive functions.”  They are called into action when we face non-standard situations or problems where our automatic brain responses won’t work.  Neuroimaging studies have shown this activity happens in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. In ever-changing game situations, those abilities are often used and players need to adapt and be creative on short notice.

“Our brains have specific systems that process information in just this manner, and we have validated methods within cognitive research to measure how well the executive functions work in an individual,” says Dr Predrag Petrovic, the lead researcher in the study.

One of these standardized methods is the Delis-Kaplan executive functions system (D-KEFS) that consists of a series of tests of both verbal and non-verbal skills.  Petrovic and his team gave several of these tests to 57 elite soccer players from Sweden’s highest professional league, Allsvenskan, and the league just below known as Division 1.  After comparing the results, they found that the elite players performed significantly higher than a control group of non-players and the Allsvenskan players also outperformed the Division 1 players.

As in any sport, it’s the on-field performance that matters.  So, the researchers followed the professional players for two seasons and gathered statistics on goals and assists for each player.  There was a clear correlation between higher executive function test results and the ability to create goals.
Their study has been published in the online science journal PLoSONE.

Previous research had used sport-specific tests to measure individual abilities such as focus and attention.  Petrovic’s work was the first to link general problem solving ability with elite performance.

“We can imagine a situation in which cognitive tests of this type become a tool to develop new, successful soccer players. We need to study whether it is also possible to improve the executive functions through training, such that the improvement is expressed on the field. But there is probably a hereditary component, and a component that can be developed by training,” says Torbjörn Vestberg, psychologist and a member of the research group that carried out the study.

As Vestberg points out, this is exciting news for coaches and parents who can now link improvement in general problem-solving skills with their players’ sports performance.  Here at Axon, we are excited to be developing sport-specific cognitive training tools based on these foundational discoveries to help gain the edge over the competition.

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Michel Bruyninckx Trains Soccer Brains

Michel Bruyninckx
When describing what’s wrong with today’s youth soccer coaching, Michel Bruyninckx points to his head. “We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,” the 59-year old Belgian Uefa A license coach and Standard Liège academy director recently told the BBC. “Skillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player. Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”

We’re not talking about dribbling around orange cones here.  Bruyninckx’s approach, which he dubs “brain centered learning” borrows heavily from the constructivist theory of education that involves a total immersion of the student in the learning activity.

In fact, there are three components to the related concept of “brain based” teaching:
  • Orchestra immersion – the idea that the student must be thrown into the pool of the learning experience so that they are fully immersed in the experience.
  • Relaxed alertness – a way of providing a challenging environment for the student but not have them stressed out by the chance of error.
  • Active processing – the means by which a student can constantly process information in different ways so that it is ingrained in his neural pathways, allowing them to consolidate and internalize the new material.
This “training from the neck up” approach is certainly different than the traditional emphasis on technical skills and physical fitness.  The brain seems to be the last frontier for sports training and others are starting to take note of it.

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

At the Standard Liège facility outside of Brussels, Bruyninckx currently coaches about 68 players between the age of 12 and 19, who have been linked with first and second division Belgian clubs.  If there was any question if his methods are effective, about 25% of the 100 or so players that he has coached have turned pro.  By comparison, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association, of the 600 boys joining pro clubs at age 16, 500 are out of the game by age 21.

His training tactics try to force the players’ brains to constantly multitask so that in-game decision making can keep up with the pace of the game.  ”You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added. “By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available. Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.”

The geometry of the game is stressed through most training exercises.  Soccer is a game of constantly changing angles which need to be instantly analyzed and used before the opportunity closes.  Finding these angles has to be a reaction from hours of practice since there is no time to search during a game.

“Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision,” said Bruyninckx. “Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match.”

Certainly, brain-centered learning faces enormous inertia among the coaching establishment.  Still, for those teams looking for the extra edge, the Bruyninckx method is gaining fans. “Michel’s methods and philosophy touch on the last frontier of developing world-class individuals on and off the field – the brain,” respected tennis coach Pete McCraw stated. “His methods transcend current learning frameworks and challenge traditional beliefs of athlete development in team sports.  It is pioneering work, better still it has broad applications across many sporting disciplines.”

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Is This How Barcelona's Xavi Makes Decisions?

When Xavi Hernandez receives the soccer ball in his offensive half of the field, the Barcelona maestro has a world of decisions waiting for him.  Hold the ball while his teammates arrive, make the quick through pass to a slicing Lionel Messi or move into position for a shot.

The question that decision researchers want to know is whether Xavi’s brain makes a choice based on the desired outcome (wait, pass or shoot) or the action necessary to achieve that goal.  Then, could his attitude towards improvement actually change his decision making ability?

Traditionally, the decision process was seen as consecutive steps; first choose what it is you want then choose an action to get you there.  However, a recent study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University tells us that the brain uses two separate regions for these choices and that they are independent of each other.

“In this study we wanted to understand how the brain uses value information to make decisions between different actions, and between different objects,” said the study’s lead investigator Dr. Lesley Fellows, neurologist and lead researcher. “The surprising and novel finding is that in fact these two mechanisms of choice are independent of one another. There are distinct processes in the brain by which value information guides decisions, depending on whether the choice is between objects or between actions.”

Fellows’ team asked two groups of patients to play games where they chose between either two actions (moving a joystick) or two objects (decks of cards).  Each group had previous damage to different areas of the frontal lobes of their brains.  They could win or lose money based on the success of their choices.

Those that had damage to the orbitofrontal cortex could make correct decisions between different actions but struggled with choices about different objects.  Conversely, the other group, having sustained injury to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, had difficulty with action choices but excelled with object choices.

Dr. Fellows hopes this is just the beginning of more neuro-based studies of decision making. “Despite the ubiquity and importance of decision making, we have had, until now, a limited understanding of its basis in the brain,” said Fellows. “Psychologists, economists, and ecologists have studied decision making for decades, but it has only recently become a focus for neuroscientists.”

So, back to Xavi, it seems his decision-making may be a multi-tasking mission by his brain.  Of course, we may never be able to judge the accuracy of any soccer player’s decisions since the actual execution of the motor skills required has an critical effect on the outcome.  In other words, the decision to thread a pass through defenders may be an excellent choice but a number of variables could spoil it, including a mis-kick by Xavi, a sudden last movement by Messi or an alert defender intercepting the pass.

As rare as this may be, Xavi may actually consider his decision a mistake.  How he reacts to that mistake depends on his opinion of neuroplasticity, according to Jason S. Moser, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.  ”One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes,” claims Moser.

He hypothesized that those people, including athletes, who think that their intelligence is fixed often don’t make the extra effort required to learn from their mistakes as they think its futile.  However, if you believe your brain continues to evolve and change over your lifetime, then you will bounce back sooner from a mistake and work harder to improve.

To prove this, his team gave volunteers a memory task to remember the middle letter of a five letter sequence, like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.”  The participants also wore an EEG skull cap that measured brain signals.  After we make a mistake, our brain sends two signals within a quarter second of each other; the first alerts us that we made a mistake while the second signal that indicates we’re aware of the mistake and are working on a solution.

For those in the test group that thought their brains could be improved, they not only did better on successive tests but the second signal from their brain was significantly bigger, indicating their brains were working harder to correct the mistake.  If Xavi feels he can only get better, he will process any mistake at a fundamentally different neuro level than other players.  ”This might help us understand why exactly the two types of individuals show different behaviors after mistakes,” concluded Moser.

Facing a player like Xavi who not only multitasks decisions but also believes he can learn from any mistakes must be a depressing thought for Barcelona’s opponents.

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Why Are Great Soccer Players So Rare?

An athlete’s level of greatness is often measured by the opinions of his or her peers while they’re playing and especially when they retire.  Being recognized as one of the best by those who understand what it takes is rare.  This week, one of the world’s greatest soccer players of the last 30 years retired, yet he could walk down most streets in America without being recognized.

After 17 seasons, Paul Scholes of Manchester United played in his final tribute game last week and will become a coach at the club he’s been part of since his teens.

While not a household name in the U.S. like Messi or Ronaldo or Beckham, he has earned the respect of the greatest players of his time.

“My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester,” said Zinedine Zidane, French World Cup Winner and 3-time world player of the year. “He is the complete midfielder. He’s almost untouchable in what he does.You rarely come across the complete player, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get.”

“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen — the most complete — is Scholes,” said Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona midfield maestro, arguably the best midfielder in the world at the moment.  “Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away.”

“He’s always one of those people others talk about,” said David Beckham, world soccer icon and a former teammate. “Even when playing at Real Madrid, the players always said to me ‘what’s he like’? They respect him as a footballer and see him as the ultimate.”

So, what makes him different?  What is the secret ingredient that makes a few soccer players better than the thousands that come and go?  Obviously, many clubs would pay huge sums of money to find out.  Recently, two teams of researchers from the University of Queensland tried to narrow down the options.

In 2009, the university’s semi-professional soccer team was tested for their general athletic abilities across sixteen different tasks to get a measure of their inherent talents (speed, agility, strength, etc.)  Then they were paired off in games of “soccer tennis” which is what it sounds like - two players on a tennis court with a soccer ball kicking and heading it back and forth across the net.

Dr. Robbie Wilson and his team wanted to see if differences in basic athletic abilities were correlated with being a more skilled soccer player.  "There was no evidence of any correlations between maximal athletic performance and skill", concludes Dr. Wilson. "Our studies suggest that skill is just as important, if not more important, than athletic ability in determining performance of complex traits, such as performance on the football field".

Alright, so skill is at least as important as raw physical gifts.  Is skill enough?  There are plenty of skilled players who don’t become Paul Scholes.  This year, Dr. Gwendolyn David, also at the University of Queensland, picked up the trail from her mentor, Dr. Wilson.  Her team first tested 27 semi-pro players in individual soccer skills like dribbling speed, volley accuracy, and passing accuracy.

Next they observed these players in actual game situations watching for the “complex tasks” that combine the individual skills into a complete performance.  These included ball-interception, challenging another player for the ball, passing, shooting and blocking the ball.

Judging from the results, it was clear to Dr. David that superior skills do not translate to better game play.  "Athletic skill abilities measured in the lab were not associated with any measure of performance on the pitch. In other words, it's not your ability, it's what you do with it that counts,” writes Dr. David.  She recommends that youth coaches spend more time in actual game conditions rather than just focusing on individual skill development.

Despite these results, we’re still left searching for the secret of Scholes.  It seems to be more than physical abilities and soccer skills.  Others have commented on his uncanny sense of his surroundings.  His one and only manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, may sum it up best, "He has an awareness of what’s happening around him on the edge of the box which is better than most players. As a kid he always had a knack of arriving in the right area just at the right time, but he’s proving just as effective from outside the box because he’s using his experience in the right way. One of the greatest football brains Manchester United has ever had."

Join me on Twitter at Dan Peterson and Axon Potential

See also: Artificial Intelligence Tackles Football Knowledge 
and Kicking Style Of Women Soccer Players May Cause Injury

Artificial Intelligence Gets A Kick From Soccer Androids

The world's best players may soon be facing a new challenge from football playing robots, which their creators claim will be able to play and beat a human team. According to new research in WIREs Cognitive Science, building robots to play football is driving the development of artificial intelligence and robotic technology which can be used for roles including search and rescue and home help.

The author, Claude Sammut, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems in Sydney, reviewed the technology demonstrated at the RoboCup international robot soccer competition which this year took place in Singapore. Competitions have become a popular way for motivating innovations in robotics and provide teams of scientists with a way of comparing and testing new methods of programming artificial intelligence (AI).

"Football is a useful task for scientists developing robotic artificial intelligence because it requires the robot to perceive its environment, to use its sensors to build a model of that environment and then use that data to reason and take appropriate actions," said Sammut. "On a football pitch that environment is rapidly changing and unpredictable requiring a robot to swiftly perceive, reason, act and interact accordingly."

As with human players football also demands communication and cooperation between robotic players and crucially requires the ability to learn, as teams adjust their tactics to better take on their opponents.
Aside from football the competition also includes leagues for urban search and rescue and robotic home helpers which take place in areas simulating collapsed buildings and residential homes, revealing the multiple use of this technology.

While a football pitch layout is structured and known in advance, a search and rescue environment is highly unstructured and so the competition's rescue arena presents developers with a new set of challenges. On the football pitch the robots are able to localize and orientate themselves by recognising landmarks such as the goal post, yet in a rescue situation such localization is extremely difficult, meaning that the robot has to simultaneously map its environment while reacting and interacting to the surroundings.

In the home help competitions the robot is programmed to recognise appliances and landmarks which will be common in most homes, but in addition to orientating themselves they must react and interact with humans.

As the robotic technology continues to develop the rules of the competitions are altered and made harder to encourage innovation, it is the organisers' aim that this will drive the technology to a level where the football playing robots could challenge a human team.

"In 1968 John McCarthy and Donald Michie made a bet with chess champion David Levy that within 10 years a computer program could beat him," concluded Sammut. "It took a bit longer but eventually such programs came into being. It is in that same spirit of a great challenge that RoboCup aims, by the year 2050, to develop a team of fully autonomous robots that can win against the human world soccer champion team."

So while, for the moment, football players can focus on beating each other to lift silverware, tomorrow they may be facing a very different challenge.

Source: Claude Sammut. Robot soccer. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/wcs.86 and  Wiley - Blackwell

See also: Soccer Robots Are Getting Smarter At RoboCup and Soccer Robots Getting Smarter At RoboCup

Soccer Goal Celebrations Are Contagious

Behaviour is contagious. If you see someone yawn or smile, it's often a matter of seconds before you do the same yourself. This copying behaviour also turns out to work on the soccer pitch. "The more convincingly someone celebrates their success with their teammates, the greater the chances that team will win," according to Dr. Gert-Jan Pepping, Sport Scientist and lecturer in Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen.

From an evolutionary point of view, this 'contagious' behaviour is easy to explain.The ability to copy certain behaviours is important to survive in social groups. Pepping: "A good example is the behaviour of a school of fish, such as herring or sardines. Only by synchronizing with each other, that is, doing exactly the same thing as much as possible, do they increase their chances of survival." In addition, copying behaviour has another function: learning from each other. These two functions imply that we communicate individual and group aims via movement. Also emotional movement behaviour, such as cheering, can be understood in this way.

Emotions are often understood and explained in the context of what has just happened. However, emotions can also influence the future, Pepping's research has revealed. His research group investigated whether the way soccer players express their delight at a successful penalty influences the final result of a penalty shootout. Pepping: "What's nice about a penalty shootout is that the individual aim of scoring a penalty directly serves the group aim of winning the match."

Positive attitude
Pepping and his research group (Moll, Jordet, & Pepping, 2010) studied a large number of penalty shootouts during important soccer matches, but only as long as the score in the shootout was still equal. After every shot at goal, the player was assessed on the degree to which he expressed happiness and pride after scoring. This revealed that the players who expressed this clearly, for example by throwing their arms up into the air, usually belonged to the winning team. "This enthusiastic behaviour infected the team with a positive attitude. Also important, the opposing team was made to feel that little bit more insecure." In the study this latter effect was shown by the finding that when someone cheered with both arms in the air, it was more than twice as likely that the next opponent would miss his penalty.

What's very important is that the scored goal is celebrated with the people you want to infect. Pepping: "If you cheer facing the supporters after you've scored a penalty, the supporters will get wildly enthusiastic. That's all very fine, but they're not the ones who have to perform at that moment. Your team members on the pitch are. It's very important to celebrate together -- that's what makes scoring contagious."

Motivating each other
The same principle is easy to project onto situations outside the sports field, according to Pepping. Even in an office situation you can motivate each other by dwelling on a good group performance and celebrating it with each other. That means that the whole team will share the feelings of pride and confidence, which raises performance levels. However, you should be careful not to exaggerate by taking the expressions of happiness or pride out of context, according to Pepping.

In some countries people tend to react to success in a less heated way than in in others. "In the Netherlands many people seem to have forgotten how to react exuberantly." According to Pepping, if you want to increase your chances of success, both on the sports field and in daily life, it's important to 'take the brakes off'. It's natural to cheer in reaction to a victory. What's more, as revealed by the research, when individual and group interests coincide it's also a very functional reaction. More cheering means more success.

Source: University of Groningen and Tjerk Moll, Geir Jordet, Gert-Jan Pepping. Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2010; : 1 DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2010.484068

See also: Kicking Style Of Women Soccer Players May Cause Injury and Goalkeepers Use Clues To Guess Direction Of Penalty Kick

Kicking Style Of Women Soccer Players May Cause Injury

Significant differences in knee alignment and muscle activation exist between men and women while kicking a soccer ball, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Bone and Joint.

Data reveal that males activate certain hip and leg muscles more than females during the motion of the instep and side-foot kicks -- the most common soccer kicks -- which may help explain why female players are more than twice as likely as males to sustain an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury.

Soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States with approximately 20 million registered players and an annual participation increase of more than 20 percent , according to statistics from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) . Women also are playing this sport on more competitive levels. Prior research shows that females are more prone to non-contact ACL injuries than males and though many theories exist, a direct cause for the disparity is unknown.

"By analyzing the detailed motion of a soccer kick in progress, our goal was to home in on some of the differences between the sexes and how they may relate to injury risk," said orthopaedic surgeon Robert H. Brophy, MD, study author and assistant professor of orthopedics, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "This study offers more information to help us better understand the differences between male and female athletes, particularly soccer players."

Dr. Brophy and his colleagues from the Motion Analysis Laboratory and Sports Medicine Service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York used 3-D video-based motion analysis and electromyography to examine the differences between 13 male and 12 female college soccer players during the action of kicking a soccer ball.

Using eight to 10 video cameras, 21 retroreflective markers and 16 electrodes simultaneously, researchers measured the activation of seven muscles (iliacus, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, hamstrings and gastrocnemius) in both the kicking and supporting legs; as well as two additional muscles (hip adductors and tibialis anterior) in the kicking leg only. Five instep and five side-foot kicks were recorded for each player. Muscle activation was recorded as a percentage of maximum voluntary isometric contraction.

They found that male players activate the hip flexors (inside of the hip) in their kicking leg and the hip abductors (outside of the hip) in their supporting leg more than females.

* In the kicking leg, men generated almost four times as much hip flexor activation as females (123 percent in males compared to 34 percent in females).
* In the supporting leg, males generated more than twice as much gluteus medius activation (124 percent in males compared with 55 percent in females) and vastus medialis activation (139 percent in males compared with 69 percent in females).

"Activation of the hip abductors may help protect players against ACL injury," said Dr. Brophy, a former collegiate and professional soccer player and past head team physician for the former St. Louis Athletica professional women's soccer club. "Since females have less activation of the hip abductors, their hips tend to collapse into adduction during the kick, which can increase the load on the knee joint in the supporting leg, and potentially put it at greater risk for injury."

Brophy said that although the study does not establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between muscle activation and knee alignment and ACL injuries, the finding "moves us toward better understanding of what may contribute to differences in injury risk between the sexes and what steps we might take to offset this increased risk in females."

The current research in the area of ACL injury prevention has shown some promise. For example, in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that found a new training program called the Prevent Injury and Enhance Performance (PEP) program, was effective in reducing ACL injuries in female soccer players. Developed by the Santa Monica Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Research Foundation and supported by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) among other medical and athletic associations, PEP is an alternative warm-up regimen that focuses on stretching, strengthening and improving balance and movements and can be conducted during regular practice time and without special equipment.

"Programs focusing on strengthening and recruiting muscles around the hip may be an important part of programs designed to reduce a female athletes' risk of ACL injury," said Dr. Brophy. "Coaches and trainers at all levels, from grade school through professional, should consider using strategies that demonstrate potential to prevent these injuries."

He said that additional research is warranted to investigate how the differences in hip muscle activation and alignment between the sexes may relate to differences in the risk of lower extremity injury among athletes in soccer and other sports.

Source:  American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

See also: Goalkeepers Use Clues To Guess Direction Of Penalty Kick and Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning

Goalkeepers Use Clues To Guess Direction Of Penalty Kick

In the split second before foot meets ball, a soccer player's body betrays whether a penalty kick will go left or right, according to recent research in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The findings could explain how some top goalkeepers are able to head off a penalty kick, diving in the correct direction in advance of the kick. It could also point the way to changes in how players kick, and goalies react.

The research, performed by Rensselaer doctoral student Gabriel J. Diaz, employed motion capture technology and computer analysis to identify five early indicators of the direction a ball would ultimately be kicked. Diaz said his research stemmed from an observation of real-world penalty kicks, in which players aim for the left or right side of the goal while hiding their choice from the goalkeeper.

"When a goalkeeper is in a penalty situation, they can't wait until the ball is in the air before choosing whether to jump left or right -- a well-placed penalty kick will get past them," Diaz said. "As a consequence, you see goalkeepers jumping before the foot hits the ball. My question is: Are they making a choice better than chance (50/50), and if so, what kind of information might they be using to make their choice?"

Diaz tested 27 potential indicators of kick direction -- 12 drawn from sports literature and 15 derived from a computer analysis of the kicks -- and identified five as reliable indicators of the direction the ball will go.

In the second part of his work, Diaz also showed that four of the five early indicators he identified are used by people who are able to predict the direction of the kick before the foot strikes the ball.

Diaz used motion capture technology -- cameras, sensors, and software -- in Rensselaer Associate Professor Brett Fajen's Perception and Action (PandA) motion capture lab to record the movements of three college-level penalty kickers. The technology is similar to that used to create realistic movement in computer-generated graphics.

More than 40 sensors placed on 19 major joints of the body (and the ball) recorded the movements of the kickers as they stood behind the ball, took two steps, and kicked either to the left or of the right side of a goal. Diaz recorded 126 kicks, half to the left and half to the right.

Then he tested the data he collected against the suite of 27 potential indicators.

Twelve of the indicators -- such as the angles of the kicking foot, kicking upper-leg, and kicking shank -- were movements of a specific, or "local," area of the body highlighted by coaches and sports psychologists. Among them he found that two -- the angle at which the non-kicking foot is planted on the ground, and the angle of the hips as the kicking foot swings forward -- are reliable indicators of kick direction.

The 15 indicators identified in a computer analysis of the kicks were so-called "distributed movements" -- patterns of coordinated movement throughout the body. Three of the "distributed" movements proved to be reliable early indicators, none of which appears to have drawn previous attention in sports literature.

Emerging evidence in the study of motor control has pointed to a significant role for distributed movements, Diaz said. He described distributed movement as a combination of movements developed over many repeated attempts to perform a task, in this case kicking in a particular direction.

"When, for example, you shift the angle of your planted foot, perhaps in an attempt to hide the direction of the kick, you're changing your base of support. In order to maintain stability, maybe you have to do something else like move your arm. And it just happens naturally," Diaz said. "If this happens over and over again, over time your motor system may learn to move the arm at the same time as the foot. In this way the movement becomes one single distributed movement, rather than several sequential movements. A synergy is developed."

A distributed movement is complex, but, as Diaz's second experiment indicates, some people may be using it -- however unconsciously -- to inform their judgment as to which direction the ball will go.

In his second experiment, Diaz played an animation of the motion capture data to a group of 31 subjects, and asked the subjects to pick which direction they thought the ball would go. In the animation, each body joint is represented by a dot, and movement of the body is easily recognizable as such. The animation runs from the standing-start until the foot reaches the ball, at which point the screen goes black and subjects pressed a button to the left or right of the screen, indicating which direction they thought the ball had gone.

Among his 31 subjects, all of whom were novices to the activity, 15 were not able to score above chance (50/50), even when given one-half second after the scene to ponder the outcome. Sixteen, however, did perform better than chance.

Diaz then looked for relationships between successful judgments on ball direction and each of the "local" and "distributed" movements he had tracked. His analysis revealed strong correlations between the two "local" and two of the three "distributed movements" that were reliable indicators of kick direction.

"The question is, knowing these potential sources of reliable information, what do people actually use?" Diaz said. "I found four reliable sources that were well correlated with subjects' judgments."

Another finding, he said, is that the 16 successful subjects waited longer than the 15 unsuccessful subjects to make their choices (if the half-second elapsed without a response from the subject, no result was entered).

"There is a clear relationship between response timing and performance," Diaz said.

Diaz said his findings have set the stage for further exploration. He would like to create a training regime to guide subjects' attention toward more reliable indicators of kick direction. He also wants to know if professional goalkeepers would perform better than novices on the task.

Similar studies using video data of penalty kicks among professional Dutch goalkeepers showed that not all professional players are better than novice subjects, he said.

"Only a subset are better than average. I want to know -- what is it that these successful experts are doing better than novices?"

Source:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 See also: How Nerves Affect Soccer Penalty Kicks and Soccer Referees Biased Against Tall Players

Soccer Robots Are Getting Smarter At RoboCup

(Credit: Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)
Robot soccer players from Carnegie Mellon University competing in this month's RoboCup 2010 world championship in Singapore should be able to out-dribble their opponents, thanks to a new algorithm that helps them to predict the ball's behavior based on physics principles.

That means that the CMDragons, the Carnegie Mellon team that competes in RoboCup's fast-paced Small-Size League, likely will be able to out-maneuver their opponents and find creative solutions to game situations that could even surprise their programmers. It's possible that the physics-based planning algorithm also might enable the players to invent some new kicks. "Over the years, we have developed many successful teams of robot soccer players, but we believe that the physics-based planning algorithm is a particularly noteworthy accomplishment," said Manuela Veloso, professor of computer science and leader of Carnegie Mellon's two robot soccer teams.

"Past teams have drawn from a repertoire of pre-programmed behaviors to play their matches, planning mostly to avoid obstacles and acting with reactive strategies. To reach RoboCup's goal of creating robot teams that can compete with human teams, we need robots that can plan a strategy using models of their capabilities as well as the capabilities of others, and accurate predictions of the state of a constantly changing game," said Veloso, who is president of the International RoboCup Federation.

 In addition to the Small-Size League team, which uses wheeled robots less than six inches high, Carnegie Mellon fields a Standard Platform League team that uses 22-inch-tall humanoid robots as players. Both teams will join more than 500 other teams with about 3,000 participants when they converge on Singapore June 19-25 for RoboCup 2010, the world's largest robotics and artificial intelligence event.

RoboCup includes five different robot soccer leagues, as well as competitions for search-and-rescue robots, for assistive robots and for students up to age 19. The CMDragons have been strong competitors at RoboCup, winning in 2006 and 2007 and finishing second in 2008. Last year, the team lost in the quarterfinals because of a programming glitch, but had dominated teams up to that point with the help of a preliminary version of the physics-based planning algorithm.

"Physics-based planning gives us an advantage when a robot is dribbling the ball and needs to make a tight turn, or any other instance that requires an awareness of the dynamics of the ball," said Stefan Zickler, a newly minted Ph.D. in computer science who developed the algorithm for his thesis. "Will the ball stick with me when I turn? How fast can I turn? These are questions that the robots previously could never answer."

The algorithm could enable the robots to concoct some new kicks, including bank shots, Zickler said. But the computational requirements for kick planning are greater than for dribbling, so limited computational power and time will keep this use to a minimum.

Each Small-Size League team consists of five robots. The CMDragon robots include two kicking mechanisms -- one for flat kicks and another for chip shots. They also are equipped with a dribble bar that exerts backspin on the ball. Each team builds their own players; Michael Licitra, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center, built the CMDragons' highly capable robots. Like many robots in the league, the CMDragons have omni-directional wheels for tight, quick turns. In addition to physics-based planning, the CMDragons are preparing to use a more aggressive strategy than in previous years.

"We've noticed that in our last few matches against strong teams, the ball has been on our side of the field way too much," Zickler said. "We need to be more opportunistic. When no better option is available, we may just take a shot at the goal even if we don't have a clear view of it."

"Figuring out how to get robots to coordinate with each other and to do so in environments with high uncertainty is one of the grand challenges facing artificial intelligence," Veloso said. "RoboCup is focusing the energies of many smart young minds on solving this problem, which ultimately will enable using distributed intelligence technology in the general physical world."

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

See also: Take Your Brain To The Gym and Kids Who Exercise Can Get Better Grades

Huge Study Says Playing Soccer Is Great For Your Health

Soccer is a pleasurable team sport that provides an all-round fitness and can be used as treatment for lifestyle-related diseases. Men worry less when playing soccer than when running. Women's soccer creates we-stories and helps women stay active.

The above statements are taken from some of the results from an extensive soccer research project involving more than 50 researchers from seven countries. The researchers studied physiological, psychological and sociological aspects of recreational soccer and compared it with running. Led by Professors Peter Krustrup and Jens Bangsbo from the Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences, University of Copenhagen, the 3-year project covered several intervention studies involving both men, women and children, who were divided into soccer, running and control groups.

The results from the studies are so remarkable that the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports are publishing a special edition issue entitled "Football for Health" containing 14 scientific articles from the soccer project on April 6, 2010.

Soccer for Health
The researchers studied the physical effects of soccer training for untrained subjects aged 9 to 77 years. The conclusion was clear. Soccer provides broad-spectred health and fitness effects that are at least as pronounced as for running, and in some cases even better.

Study leader Peter Krustrup concludes "Soccer is a very popular team sport that contains positive motivational and social factors that may facilitate compliance and contribute to the maintenance of a physically active lifestyle. The studies presented have demonstrated that soccer training for two-three hours per week causes significant cardiovascular, metabolic and musculoskeletal adaptations, independent on gender, age or lack of experience with soccer."

Professor Jens Bangsbo continues: "The effects can be maintained for a long period even with a reduced frequency of training to one to two times one hour a week. Recreational soccer, therefore, appears to be an effective type of training leading to performance improvements and significant beneficial effects to health, including a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular diseases, falls and fractures. In a number of aspects, soccer training appears to be superior to running training. Soccer training can also be used to treat hypertension and it was clearly superior to a standard treatment strategy of physician-guided traditional recommendations."

The two researchers foresee a great perspective in using soccer as a health promoting activity: "The studies have convincingly shown that soccer training is effective to enhance fitness and the health profile for the general population. Future studies are needed to understand what is causing the beneficial effects of football, how well football can be used to improve heart health in early childhood and how other patient groups such as those with type II diabetes or cancer can benefit from playing soccer."

Soccer creates we-stories and helps women stay active
One of the many aspects of the study was to examine the level of social capital for women gained from running and soccer. Even though both the soccer players and the runners trained in groups, there were significant differences in the way they interacted and what they considered the most important aspects of the sport they were engaging in. The runners were more focused on themselves as individuals, whereas the soccer players developed "we"-stories as they began to see themselves as a team.

From the beginning, most of the women, both soccer players and runners, thought running would be an easier form of exercise to stick to after the intervention programme was over. That turned out not to be the case:
"The most important finding was the difference in social interaction and creation of we-stories between the groups, which may impact the possibilities of long-term compliance. A year after the study, many of the soccer players continue to play soccer, some have even joined an organized soccer club. Not many from the running group have continued their training. This can very well be due to the fact that the runners focused on their health and on getting in shape, whereas the soccer players were more committed to the activity itself, including the fun and not letting down team mates," says Associate Professor Laila Ottesen.

Men worry less when playing soccer than when running
Another study examined the exertion experienced during training for untrained adults and their experience of "worries" and "flow." This study, based on 6 groups of untrained men and women, showed that all groups experienced an overall high level of flow during the intervention, which underlines that the participants felt motivated, happy and involved to the point where they forgot time and fatigue. There was no difference in the level of worry for the female soccer players and runners, but the running men seemed to worry quite a lot more than their soccer playing counterparts.

"The men that played soccer elicited lower levels of worry than during running, 2.8 vs 4.0 on a 0-6 scale, and although they are training at the same average heart rate they do not feel the exertion as strongly as during running" says Associate Professor Anne-Marie Elbe and adds: "Further research is needed to examine why men and women experience playing soccer differently but it could be that the men just have had more experience with football in earlier years than the women."

Documentation for FIFA, Michelle Obama and others
F-MARC, the research unit of FIFA, is a central partner in the project and the research provides scientific documentation for initiatives such as FIFA's newly launched "The 11 for Health" campaign that uses soccer as an educational health tool for children in order to raise awareness and improve health in African and South American communities. Also Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" project aiming at eliminating obesity in American children through diet and sports have recently promoted soccer as a favorable activity.

The research results are also used in Europe, where the research group is directly involved in implementing the results through projects focusing on adults and children, such as "The Open Soccer Club project," "The Soccer at Work project" and the "Intensity in Pupil School Sport project." Sports Confederations, Football Associations, Ministries of Culture and Health and researchers from Universities, Hospitals and Centres for Working Environment are cooperating about the implementation and scientific evaluation of those projects.

Source: University of Copenhagen

See also: Soccer Referees Biased Against Tall Players and How Nerves Affect Soccer Penalty Kicks

Soccer Referees Biased Against Tall Players

In this World Cup year, when football (soccer) passions are running high, supporters might be forgiven for objecting to every decision to award a foul against their team, made by referees. But they might also have a point. Researchers at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University have researched all recorded fouls in three major football competitions over seven years. They discovered an ambiguous foul is more likely to be attributed to the taller of two players.

Dr. Niels van Quaquebeke and Dr. Steffen Giessner, scientists at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University began their research by transferring their insights from decision making in business into the arena of sports. Specifically, they wanted to investigate whether people consider the available information in such ambiguous foul situations in an unbiased, i.e. subconsciously unprejudiced, way.

Based on evolutionary and linguistic research which has revealed that people associate the size of others with concepts such as aggression and dominance, Van Quaquebeke and Giessner speculated that ambiguous fouls are more likely to be attributed to the taller of two involved players. Results indicate that respectively taller people are more likely to be perceived by referees (and fans!) as foul perpetrators and their respectively smaller opponents as foul victims.

To put their assumption to a test, the scientists analysed all fouls recorded by Impire AG in seven seasons of UEFA Champions League (32,142 fouls) and German Bundesliga (85,262 fouls), the last three FIFA World Cups (6,440 fouls) as well as data from two additional perceptual experiments with football fans. For all seasons, leagues, and data collection methods, their analyses revealed the same picture confirming their initial assumption: taller people are indeed more often held accountable for fouls than shorter ones -- even when no actual foul was committed.

An article based on their research will be published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology in February 2010.

Van Quaquebeke said, "We chose football as the context of our studies because the sport often yields ambiguous foul situations in which it is difficult to determine the perpetrator. In such situations, people must rely on their 'instincts' to make a call, which should increase the use and thus the detectability of a player's height as an additional decision cue. Furthermore, the use of referee assistance technology and adequate referee training is frequently debated in association football. Thus, by providing scientific insights on potential biases in refereeing, our work might help officials weigh the options."

Both researchers say, however, that it is not their call how to derive conclusions for football practice.

Sources:   Erasmus University Rotterdam and "How embodied cognitions affect judgments: Height-related attribution bias in football foul calls"

How Nerves Affect Soccer Penalty Kicks

Research by the University of Exeter shows for the first time the effect of anxiety on a soccer player's eye movements while taking a penalty.

The study shows that when penalty takers are anxious they are more likely to look at and focus on the centrally positioned goalkeeper. Due to the tight coordination between gaze control and motor control, shots also tend to centralise, making them easier to save. The research is now published in the December 2009 edition of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The researchers attribute this change in eye movements and focus to anxiety. Author Greg Wood, a PhD student in the University of Exeter’s School of Sport and Health Sciences said: “During a highly stressful situation, we are more likely to be distracted by any threatening stimuli and focus on them, rather than the task in hand. Therefore, in a stressful penalty shootout, a footballer’s attention is likely to be directed towards the goalkeeper as opposed to the optimal scoring zones (just inside the post). This disrupts the aiming of the shot and increases the likelihood of subsequently hitting the shot towards the goalkeeper, making it easier to save.”

For their study, the researchers focused on 14 members of the University of Exeter football team. They asked the players to perform two series of penalty shots. First, they were simply asked to do their best to score. The researchers made the second series more stressful and more akin to a penalty shoot-out. The players were told that the results would be recorded and shared with the other players and there would be a £50 prize for the best penalty taker.

The players wore special glasses which enabled the researchers to record precise eye movements and analyse the focus of each footballer’s gaze and the amount of time spent looking at different locations in the goal.

The results showed that when anxious, the footballers looked at the goalkeeper significantly earlier and for longer. This change in eye behaviour made players more likely to shoot towards the centre of the goal, making it easier for the keeper to save. The researchers believe that by being made aware of the impact of anxiety on eye movements, and the affect this has on the accuracy of a player’s shot, coaches could address this through training.

Greg Wood continues: “Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot to it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process. Training this strategy is likely to build on the tight coordination between eye movements and subsequent actions, making for more accurate shooting. The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practicing. Do you think other elite performers don’t practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure”.

Source: University of Exeter: Anxiety, Attentional Control, and Performance Impairment in Penalty Kicks.