No Need For Scores – Athlete’s Body LanguageGives Away Who’s Winning And Who’s Losing
Christopher Philip

Submissive body language might have been a lifesaver during our evolutionary past and most certainly is in modern animals species. Relying on a savour, the police, military, Mom or Dad or a teacher for children likely wouldn’t have been an option during certain vitally important threat encounters in our evolutionary past. Our body language likely reflects and adaptive mechanism to avoiding conflict and escaping certain devastating punishment.

According to new research. signaling “I give up!” still happens today. Reseachers Philip Furley and Geoffrey Schweizer Institute of Cognitive and Team/Racket Sport Research, German Sport University Cologne have discovered that knowing the score in a sporting match isn’t relevant when you can monitor salient nonverbal cues.

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Their research entailed presenting dozens of “thin slices”, in this case 3 second video clips, of non-verbal body language to adults and children. The clips were taken during breaks in the play from winning and losing athletes participating in table tennis, basketball and handball. Any clip showing explicit emotions such as shame or pride were omitted. As the subjects observed the clips, the scores were concealed from view.

The researchers wanted to know if the subjects could tell, not only if the athletes were ahead or behind, but how far head or behind they were. The results showed a high level of accuracy, even amongst young children ages 4-8. The older children, ages 9-12 didn’t score much better than the youngest set of children, but the adults scored much higher. The predicted scores also turned out to be quite accurate. Interestingly, understanding the game or having experienced players didn’t have any effect on the accuracy of the subjects – all scored well.

The fact that adults where better at reading the players body language suggest that reading others is partly a learned trait, but that very young children are attuned indicates that all people look to the body language of others as vital information. The researchers acknowledge that even the coach is a source of possible information in the assessment.

The research is important especially to sports psychologists who’s job it is to coach athletes on mental patterns for success. One might encourage athletes to keep a “stiff upper lip” when facing particularly difficult situations. This would be key during subjective sporting events such as figure skating, gymnastics, moguls and the like in which judges might be influenced to a large degree by the body language of the participant directly rather than their performance.

According to the researchers, that while backing off in a prehistoric fight and displaying submissive body language would encourage the victor to “stop hurting the opponent,” it might be quite disadvantageous in modern competitive sports. Here, “showing ‘losing-nonverbal body language’ might be highly dysfunctional, as the winning opponent is not likely to hold off.” In fact, the winner opponent might even be spurred to increase pressure. “What makes sense for a primate losing a fight may lead to exacerbating the downward spiral for athletes on the losing side.”

In other words, learning to mask losing body language may provide a better opportunity to recover from a losing position.

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Philip Furley, and Geoffrey Schweizer. The Expression of Victory and Loss: Estimating Who’s Leading or Trailing from Nonverbal Cues in Sports. Journal of Non-verbal Behaviour. 2014; 38:13–29.

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