The FIFA World Cup is here! So we will watch hours and hours of soccer broadcasting and will listen to the commentators speaking about… well, often about the body language of the players. They comment on their posture (e.g. “they already look defeated with their slouched shoulders”), about their stance (e.g. “Ronaldo appears to be very confident, with his feet firmly on the ground”) and about the look on their faces (e.g. “you can see on his face that he lost all desire to win”).
We all know that our body language is important when we want to send a message to a receiver. But just how important is our body language for the message that we are trying to convey? In his book „silent messages“, the psychologist Albert Mehrabian noted that the effect of body language is 55% more significant and meaningful to the receiver than our tone and intonation (38%) and the content of our message (7%).
The topic of body language has only recently received scientific attention in the sport context. German researchers provided evidence for the fact that we can identify which team is losing or winning, just by observing the body language of the players in competitive sport matches, for example in basketball, handball and table tennis. The study participants watched television scenes of sporting competitions in which a team was leading highly, leading by a small margin, in a draw, lagged behind by a small margin or lagged behind highly. The participants were not able to observe a cheering audience or decisive game scenes, but were solely shown scenes of players standing or walking around the pitch – and still, about 90% of the study participants could guess the result tendency of the players correctly just by analyzing their body language. Amazingly, facial expressions only play a minor role in this context: the researchers further obscured the faces of the players and let the participants only observe the players’ posture in order to predict the tendency of the result – and it worked just as well! The researchers summarized: slouched shoulders signal submissiveness and defeat, a broad chest signals dominant behavior and a winning situation.
Now let’s make this matter more FIFA World Cup specific and especially interesting for soccer players and people working in the soccer world. In a recent study, German and Dutch researchers investigated nonverbal behaviors in soccer penalty kick situations and their effect on the opponent players. The results showed that nonverbal behaviors influenced the impression and the outcome expectation of the opposing players. More specifically, players who exhibited a dominant body language were perceived positively by the opposing team and were expected to shoot precisely. Contrastingly, penalty shooters exhibiting submissive and negative body language were perceived negatively by both goalkeepers and outfield players: they were considered to possess less positive attributes and less accuracy in their shots and were assumed to perform worse in penalty kick situations.
But does the outcome expectation also influence the behavior of the opponent goalkeeper? It sure does! The same researchers showed that submissive and negative body language of penalty shooters caused the opponent goalkeepers to experience greater confidence because they did not expect a very precise penalty shot. They then adjusted their own behavior accordingly by waiting longer before they initiated their movement, thus increasing their chance of success to save the penalty.
We can conclude that body language plays a crucial role in sports and especially in soccer. So if you are a soccer player yourself, be aware of the nonverbal messages that you are sending, they might give your opponent player an advantage. If you are a sport psychology consultant, assist your players in developing and displaying a favorable and rather dominant body language, especially in tie or losing game situations.
And if you are a soccer fan, what can you learn from this blog entry? When you are watching your favorite team playing in this World Cup, observe their body language –especially in penalty kick situations – and see if you can predict the game outcome. Maybe this blog post can help you make the right call in your World Cup bets: if this is the case, I expect to receive 10% of all your winnings :-).
And if you are not the betting type, play another fun game with your friends: hide the score of the match and turn off the sound of your TV and try to guess the result of the game just by observing the body language of the players. You will be amazed at how accurate your guess will be.