Research by Dr. Stuart Derbyshire on soccer players’ behaviour and admissions suggests a deliberate strategy of feigning injury for gain.
Under strong pressure to win high-stakes competitions, professional soccer players may change their behaviour to help their team gain an advantage.
In particular, the rules of soccer state that play is stopped if a player is injured. Consequently, players may feign or exaggerate injury nearing the end of matches when their team holds a favourable score, so as to preserve their advantage by running down the clock and wasting time.
To demonstrate that soccer players can successfully feign injury for gain, a study by Dr. Stuart Derbyshire (pictured above) from the Department of Psychology in NUS, in collaboration with Dr. Ilana Angel and Dr. Richard Bushell from the University of Birmingham, reviewed 30 Euro 2008 matches, 90 English Premier League (EPL) matches, and 63 World Cup 2010 matches for the timing and severity of injuries. The matches were divided into six 15-min periods each, and players’ injuries were classified as high, medium, or low severity.
The researchers found that in the first four periods (60-min) of the soccer matches, there were no differences in the number of low-severity injuries sustained by teams with and without a benefit for creating a delay in play.
However, in the final 30-min of the observed matches, low-severity injuries gradually increased for teams approaching more favourable match outcomes. Notably, these teams suffered significantly more minor injuries in the final 15-min of matches, as compared to teams that did not stand to benefit from game stoppages.
In addition, the researchers interviewed seven EPL players and three managers about match influences on players’ behaviour. Four of the seven players directly admitted to “playing up” an injury to gain an advantage in matches by slowing the game. While none of the three managers admitted to instructing such behaviour, one described this tactic as “clever”, another acknowledged that players may play up their injuries to “take the steam out of the game”, and the third admitted to potentially telling a player who had gone to ground to “stay down there and take a breather”.
Dr. Derbyshire commented,
It is often suspected that people will feign injury for gain, but actually demonstrating such is difficult. There are other possibilities, such as the winning team working harder during the match and therefore getting more knocks, but we think the onset of minor injuries at the end of the match, for the team that stands to benefit from stopping play, is fairly suggestive of some conscious decision-making. Plus the players admitted as much.
He added, “We were very lucky to have access to top Premiership players and managers (I can’t say who they were, but it was an all star participant pool) and they were all incredibly gracious with their time and candid with their answers. In an age when so much seems to be managed and controlled, their honesty and willingness to chat about football was very refreshing and I am very grateful to them for that.”
As to whether their work may lead to practical changes in the sport, Dr. Derbyshire said, “Football is a high-speed, high-stakes sport involving physical contact. It is inevitable that players will choose to use the rules as best they can for benefit. But that’s the game (and it is, despite all the money and intensity, only a game), and it is hilarious when a player gets caught obviously feigning an injury! I wouldn’t want to try and manage the game further and lose some of the intensity or the hilarity.”
The researchers are currently broadly interested in whether feigning might be inadvertently encouraged in other situations, such as becoming sick right before a major holiday or test. They are also interested in investigating whether people who deliberately feign pain through acting actually feel some pain when they act, and whether their brain activation during acting is similar to when they receive an actual painful stimulus.
Derbyshire, S. W. G., Angel, I., & Bushell, R. (2016). When pain brings gain: Soccer players behaviour and admissions suggest feigning injury to maintain a favourable scoreline. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:613. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00613