Monday, 10 May 2010

Does Colour Matter?

Researchers at the University of Chichester have found that footballers were more likely to miss a penalty if the keeper was wearing red.

40 university footballers took dozens of penalties against a keeper who saved 46% of them when wearing red, 31% in yellow, 28% in blue and 25% in green. They suggest that the colour red might have an unconscious influence on the perception of failure, causing strikers to perform worse.

The colour of footballers’ jerseys came to prominence in 1996 with Manchester United’s infamous grey kit. Having lost three games and drawn one whilst wearing the grey kit, Man Utd were 3-0 down at half time against Southampton. (Sir) Alex Ferguson ordered the team to change saying the players couldn’t see their team-mates against the background of the stands. There was an improved performance in the second half, but they still lost 3-1.

In 2008, Petr Cech started wearing a bright orange shirt which in theory would distract the opposing striker. In the 1990s, Mexican keeper Jorge Campos designed his own brightly coloured kits with the same purpose. However, these theories weren’t obviously effective in practice, so it could be that elite players aren’t distracted in the way that lesser players might be. The most popular colour for goalkeepers in the Premier League to wear is green, and none wear red. So is there any evidence that red is an advantage at a professional level? Actually, there is.

In 2007, Attrill, Gresty, Hill & Barton found that red shirts were associated with long-term success in English football. Across all league divisions, red teams had the best home record. No significant differences were found in away matches, when teams wear their away kit.

They also found that in all but one city (Sheffield), the team playing in red has been more successful since 1946 than the other available team playing in a different colour. They speculate, however, that in recent times the spending power of clubs might be a more significant factor in their success than shirt colour.

A brief survey of some major football European cities seems less conclusive:


Real (white); Getafe (blue); Atletico (red + white stripes)


Barcelona (red + blue stripes); Espanyol (white + blue stripes)


Inter (blue + black); AC (red + black stripes)


Roma (red); Lazio (blue + white)


Sampdoria (blue); Genoa (red + blue halves)


Juventus (black + white stripes); Torino (red)


Anderlecht (white); Brussels (red + black stripes)


CSKA (red + blue); Dynamo (blue); Spartak (red + white stripe); Lokomotiv (red)

What about international teams? Hill & Barton (2005) looked at the Euro 2004 Championships. They found that all teams that wore red in some of their matches, but not in all, had better results when they wore red. This was, however, a small sample.

In Germany, the national team’s away shirts were changed from black to red in November 2004 at the request of Jurgen Klinsmann, in the belief that teams in red were perceived as more intimidating as well as more successful. He hoped to use the red away shirt as first choice for the 2006 World Cup, despite the fact that they had less than impressive results in these colours, notably a 4-1 defeat by Italy. In the end, Germany played in white in every game in the World Cup, reaching the semi-finals. In 2010, the away colours changed back to black shirt and white shorts.

In FIFA’s Top 10 ranking, Spain (1st) and Portugal (4th) play in red, and Croatia (10th) play in red and white. But if wearing red has a significant negative psychological effect on ones opponents, one would expect the advantage to be seen in other physical sports, such as rugby and American Football.

Out of the 12 teams in the Guinness Premiership, only one (Gloucester) has a significant amount of red in their home shirt. Out of the 10 teams in the Magners League, only two (Munster and Scarlets) wear red. In international rugby, the most successful colours are currently black, gold, green and blue. And of the 12 teams that made the American Football play-offs this year, only one (Arizona Cardinals) wear red.

There is one area of sport where there is strong scientific evidence that wearing red is an advantage, although it’s because of the effect on the officials, rather than the players. In 2008, Hagemann et al showed 42 experienced tae kwon do referees video clips of 5 different male competitors. Each clip featured one athlete in red and another in blue, and the referees had to score the match. Some time later, they were shown the same clips, but with the colours digitally swapped, so that the athlete originally wearing red was now wearing blue. This single alteration had a significant effect on the outcome, with competitors wearing red scoring on average 13% more points than their opponents in blue. It was dubbed “the Chris de Burgh effect”, and is thought to be due to an assumption by the officials that competitors wearing red are more aggressive.

Professional footballers are less likely to be distracted by the colour of the opponents’ shirts, and more likely to be able to assess the most relevant information in their vision in order to make the most effective pass or shot.

It is 44 years since a team wearing red won the World Cup. If Spain manage it this year, it’s most likely to be down to the skill of players like Xavi, Iniesta and Torres, rather than the colour of their shirts.

Why are boys generally better at throwing a ball than girls?

The answer to this question is not, as you might think, one of strength. It’s one of balance.

Humans have a real problem maintaining balance. It takes quite a long time for us to learn how to stand up and move bout without falling over. An action like throwing a ball is especially destabilising. Throwing with your right arm requires a compensatory activation of the lower leg muscles to stop you from spinning round and falling flat on your face.

How does your brain know which muscles to stimulate and by how much? To start with, it doesn’t know because there are too many variables in the position of your shoulder, elbow and wrist. The brain is programmed to keep us as stable as possible, so to reduce the variations it freezes the joints, so that it can treat the arm as one solid unit. This maintains stability, but at the price of effectiveness, because muscles aren’t very effective when they’re frozen. The only way of getting power is to transfer the kinetic energy from your trunk and legs. This is why when you see someone throw a ball who’s not used to doing it, they look very stiff, they have to put a lot of effort into it, and they may well jump at the same time. Because boys tend to play more ball games than girls, they are more likely to have got past this stage.

Gradually, with practice, the brain works out which combination of muscle stimulation is the most efficient, and starts to unlock the joints. This allows the elastic energy in tendons to be released, so that the ball is thrown further. In the end, the brain works out the most energy-efficient method of carrying out the task. This is an individual thing – different people with different statures and muscle tone shouldn’t come to the same answer.

By this time, the athlete is likely to have developed an effortless, natural-looking style, although it can look slightly unusual in some people, for instance Michael Johnson’s very upright running style.

The ideal is that the person finds their own solution to the problem. Direct coaching, telling someone how to do it, hinders the process of self-discovery. It can give them short term solutions for specific situations, but there’s evidence that skills acquired through self-discovery (implicit learning) are much less likely to fail under pressure than when people have been instructed precisely how to do something (explicit learning).

When people are taught explicitly, their performance in a match situation is likely to be inferior to how they perform in practice. Also, there’s evidence that long-term accumulative injuries can occur from early attempts to acquire techniques which are often anatomically inappropriate for particular individuals. This has been a particular problem for fast bowlers in cricket.

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