Monday, June 29, 2009

What makes a great footballer?

While most fans are in awe of what their football heroes can do with a football, the source of their remarkable skill remains strangely mysterious. Although being in excellent physical condition undoubtedly helps, few people actually believe that intense physical training alone can turn an average bloke into a Ronaldo. Now, scientists from the University of Queensland have decided to study what this "something else" might be. Dr. Robbie Wilson will talk about the details of this study and the results that have been obtained so far in his talk at the Society of Experimental Biology Annual Meeting in Glasgow on Sunday 28th June 2009.

Dr. Wilson believes that this type of research may have applied outcomes for football clubs: "Our analyses suggest that unambiguous metrics of a player's skill components should be used to help in the selection and identification of new talent. Our studies could help to streamline selection criteria and efficiency by providing a rank ordering of individuals based upon competitive one-on-one tasks. In addition, the relative importance of each type of skill component could be tailored to each player's position and the club's immediate and future requirements."

Members of the semi-professional University of Queensland Football Club (UQFC) were recruited as experimental subjects, and they were made to compete against each other in one-on-one "football tennis" games, which require very similar athletic and skill sets to that required for regular football games. In parallel, the same players were evaluated for overall athleticism and skill in sixteen different tasks. "There was no evidence of any correlations between maximal athletic performance and skill", explains 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".

Interestingly, the researchers are hoping that focusing on footballing ability in humans will also provide them with insight into the role that individual skills play in other species, for example during aggression, prey capture or escape from a predator. Dr. Wilson argues that the importance of skill for the evolution of vertebrate physical performance is currently unknown and largely treated by researchers as a difficult 'black box' to understand. "To develop an understanding of the evolution and function of complex performance traits, we need to investigate the role of individual skill".

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The first goal is the deepest

Can mathematics predict the match outcome?

Jack Brimberg and Bill Hurley of The Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, Ontario, point out that sports commentators will often argue the importance of scoring the first goal and often suggest that a team improves its chances of winning considerably by scoring it. This kind of punditry more commonly arises during playoff games which tend to be played more defensively.

However, although the total number of goals scored in a soccer or hockey match is usually small, Brimberg and Hurley wanted to find out whether that first goal is all important or not. They have done this by calculating the probability of the first-goal team winning at discrete points in the match after the first goal is scored based on the number of minutes remaining in the game. They also take overtime into account to adjust the weighting on their formula appropriately.

Team X is playing team Y. Team X scores first and there are T minutes left in regulation time. They then assume that goal scoring follows the law of statistics known as a Poisson distribution, which for hockey and soccer it does. Scoring in other sports, such as tennis and baseball follow a different set of statistical rules as there are different scoring factors and more "goals" scored in a match.

Therefore, the number of goals scored, N, follows the Poisson pattern and has a probability of a certain number being scored in total by both sides of "lambda". If both teams are playing hard, to win, then there is an equal chance of them scoring after that first goal. However, there are factors such as league position and seasonal performance to take into account, so each of those has a parameter in the final formula.

The formula breaks down as follows: From the first whistle, team X has a 50:50 chance of winning. However, if the team scores at just 5 minutes of play, with 55 minutes left to play in the first period of a hockey match, then the team's chances rise to 7 to 3 (70%). However, if they score the first goal much later in the game, with say, 25 minutes remaining in the second period, then their chances of winning the match rises to 4 to 1 (80%).

Of course, probability and statistics are notoriously difficult to pin down in real life, so it is best to take any such mathematical punditry with a pinch of salt when watching the fortunes or misfortunes of your team. That applies whether you're catching the Toronto Maple Leafs in hockey or your flight of fancy is The Newcastle Magpies in soccer.

The researchers' ultimate aim is not to see sports pundits out of a job, but to provide an interesting example of how statistics problems might be taught in the classroom. The current example requires explanation and understanding of several important topics in statistics, they explain, including the exponential, Poisson, and binomial distributions, probability trees, and the use of conditioning to calculate complex probabilities.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Recovery aid for soccer players

New study finds lowfat chocolate milk is effective post-exercise recovery aid for soccer players

Chocolate milk's 'natural' muscle recovery benefits match or may even surpass a specially designed carbohydrate sports drink

JUNE 1, 2009, SEATTLE – Soccer players and exercise enthusiasts now have another reason to reach for lowfat chocolate milk after a hard workout, suggests a new study from James Madison University presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting. Post-exercise consumption of lowfat chocolate milk was found to provide equal or possibly superior muscle recovery compared to a high-carbohydrate recovery beverage with the same amount of calories.

In this study, 13 male college soccer players participated in "normal" training for one week, then were given lowfat chocolate milk or a high-carbohydrate recovery beverage daily after intense training for four days. After a two week break, the athletes went through a second round of "normal" training, followed by four-day intensified training to compare their recovery experiences following each beverage (with the same amount of calories). Prior to the intense training, at day two and at the completion of this double-blind study, the researchers conducted specific tests to evaluate "markers" of muscle recovery.

All of the athletes increased their daily training times during the intensified training, regardless of post-exercise beverage yet after two and four days of intensified training, chocolate milk drinkers had significantly lower levels of creatine kinase – an indicator of muscle damage – compared to when they drank the carbohydrate beverage. There were no differences between the two beverages in effects on, soccer-specific performance tests, subjective ratings of muscle soreness, mental and physical fatigue and other measures of muscle strength. The results indicate that lowfat chocolate milk is effective in the recovery and repair of muscles after intense training for these competitive soccer players.

This new study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting milk may be just as effective as some commercial sports drinks in helping athletes recover and rehydrate. Chocolate milk has the advantage of additional nutrients not found in most traditional sports drinks. Studies suggest that when consumed after exercise, milk's mix of high-quality protein and carbohydrates can help refuel exhausted muscles. The protein in milk helps build lean muscle and recent research suggests it may reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. Milk also provides fluids for rehydration and minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium that recreational exercisers and elite athletes alike need to replace after strenuous activity.

Nearly 18 million Americans play soccer, according to American Sports Data, and millions more engage in recreational sports. Many experts agree that the two-hour window after exercise is an important, yet often neglected, part of a fitness routine. After strenuous exercise, this post-workout recovery period is critical for active people at all fitness levels – to help make the most of a workout and stay in top shape for the next exercise bout. Sweating not only results in fluid losses, but also important minerals including calcium, potassium and magnesium. The best recovery routine should replace fluids and nutrients lost in sweat, and help muscles recover.

Increasingly, fitness experts consider chocolate milk an effective (and affordable and enjoyable) option as a post-exercise recovery drink. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans drink three glasses of lowfat or fat free milk every day. Drinking lowfat chocolate milk after a workout is a good place to start.