Scientists score with their heads

Academics find the back of the net with their World Cup-related research, writes Paul Jump

June 10, 2010

Science communicators took advantage of an open goal this week as newspapers across the nation clamoured for any football-related story ahead of the World Cup, which starts on 11 June.

In an event organised by the Science Media Centre, a group of academics talked about the medical, aerodynamic and psychological science associated with the soccer tournament.

The panel were sensible enough to ignore invitations to predict who the South African conditions would favour. And Andy Harland, senior lecturer in sports technology at Loughborough University, was not naive enough to criticise any of the players who have lined up to attack the new adidas ball over its allegedly unpredictable flight. Dr Harland was involved in putting the prototype through aerodynamic tests.

"There isn't a player who can kick the ball in exactly the same way twice," was all he would say. "Our robot can."

The hacks were initially keen to hear from Peter Malliaras, senior clinical lecturer at the Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, about the rise in metatarsal injuries - the bane of England players in recent tournaments. But when he said they were not actually rising, attention turned to Greg Wood, a PhD student from the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter, who spoke about how to handle the anxiety of penalty shoot-outs - England's other Achilles heel.

Mr Wood studied a group of university footballers as they took penalties, raising their anxiety levels by offering them cash incentives for success and publicising their success rates among their peers.

He found that anxiety made them focus on the goalkeeper - which, in turn, made them more likely to strike their shot directly at him.

Some of the science writers were clearly outside their comfort zones when Mr Wood referred to former Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek's arm-waving exploits during the 2005 Champions League final - with one having to ask for the spelling of his name.

But the journalists were equally mystified why Mr Wood had not sent his study - being published by the Journal of Sports Sciences - to the England camp, complete with his advice to penalty takers to ignore the goalkeeper and focus on where they want to hit the ball, while always remembering that the odds are stacked in their favour.

He sheepishly agreed to distribute a PDF of his article to let the journalists do the publicising for him. A score draw, then.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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