The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘soccer’

Brain Injuries and Soccer

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 28, 2011

On Sunday, one of the legends of the soccer world was found dead.

Gary Speed was only 42.  He played for clubs in England’s Premiership for 22 years and holds the record for the most appearances representing Wales for an outfield player.  He had recently taken over as the head coach of the national side and Wales, for the first time in years, had begun to look like a genuinely dangerous team.

But on Sunday, it all ended as Speed took his own life, leaving behind a wife and two sons, aged 13 and 14.

In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the circumstances surrounding the death, but one thing that immediately came to mind upon hearing the tragic news was whether there might be a connection to the string of suicides by football players, boxers, and hockey players who had suffered brain injuries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been documented in autopsies of 20 or so football players who died young, including Dave Dureson, the Pro-Bowl Chicago Bears safety, who shot himself in February.  And there is more general research that shows that people with acquired brain injury are significantly more likely to demonstrate suicidal behaviors than those in the general population.

How might this relate to Gary Speed?

Well, Speed was, as the Guardian noted in its obituary, “an exceptional header of the ball.”  Expertly meeting a gun shot of a cross with his forehead and guiding it in his chosen direction was one of Speed’s special talents.  And he demonstrated that talent for longer than almost anyone: indeed, there are only two players, Ryan Giggs and David James, who played more games in the Premier League.

Although football and boxing have been getting most of the attention lately, we have known for years that there is evidence of chronic traumatic brain injury in professional soccer players.  Indeed, when researchers from the Netherlands looked at a population of professional soccer players in the Netherlands in 1998, the found that they

exhibited impaired performances in memory, planning, and visuoperceptual processing when compared with control subjects. Among professional soccer players, performance on memory, planning, and visuoperceptual tasks were inversely related to the number of concussions incurred in soccer and the frequency of “heading” the ball. Performance on neuropsychological testing also varied according to field position, with forward and defensive players exhibiting more impairment.

We will never know for certain why Gary Speed decided to take his own life, but my hope is that attention will be given to the possibility that the effects of his chosen profession may have contributed to his death.  At present, no one is writing about the role that brain trauma might have played in the tragedy on Sunday, but maybe they should.

In the end, soccer may not be the “safe” alternative to football that so many parents (including my own) have long assumed it to be.

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Why Goalies Often Dive To The Right

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 31, 2011

APS Press Release:

In the quarterfinal of the 2006 Soccer World Cup, England and Portugal played for 90 tense minutes and 30 minutes extra time without a single goal being scored. This led them to a penalty shoot-out; as one by one, players went against the opposing team’s goalie. After four shots by each team, Portugal was ahead 2-1. Portugal’s star Cristiano Ronaldo shot to English goalkeeper Paul Robinson’s left, but Robinson dove right. Portugal scored, won the game, and went on to the semifinal.

When Robinson dove to his right, he was making a common choice for our right-oriented brains, according to a new study which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The researchers found that, in World Cup penalty shoot-outs, goalies tend to dive right when their team is behind and they have a chance to save the game for their country.

Many studies have found that people and animals that want something tend to go to the right. When dogs see their owners, they wag their tails more to the right; toads strike to the right when they’re going for prey; and humans are more likely to turn their heads to the right to smooch their sweeties.

Marieke Roskes, who cowrote the study with Daniel Sligte, Shaul Shalvi, and Carsten K.W. De Dreu of the University of Amsterdam, thought of looking at this phenomenon in another arena: the soccer field. “I was sitting with my coauthors in the bar and we were talking about soccer and about research, which we often do on Friday afternoons,” she says. They thought of looking at how goalkeepers move in penalty shootouts, when they’re going after a big win.

In a penalty shootout, there are very different assumptions for the shooter and the goalkeeper. it’s extremely difficult for the keeper to defend the whole goal against one man, so nobody really blames him if the ball goes in. But he can win glory if he saves a ball. “The goalkeeper is the only person who can regain the chance to win the game,” Roskes says. “So he has the chance to become the big hero.”

The researchers examined every penalty shoot-out in every World Cup from 1982 to 2010 and found that most of the time, goalies are equally like to dive right and left. But when the goalkeeper’s team was behind, he was more likely to dive right than left. In an experiment, the team found that people who are told to divide a line in half tend to aim a bit to the right when they are both thinking about a positive goal and under time pressure—just like the goalies.

“It’s quite impressive. Even in this really important situation, people are still influenced by biological factors,” Roskes says. She says this suggests that in many situations where people are focused on a positive outcome and have to react quickly, they may go right. And, of course, there’s another goal for her and her collaborators: “We’re very hopeful this will help the Dutch national team to win the next World Cup.”

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For more information about this study, please contact: Marieke Roskes at m.roskes@uva.nl.

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