Street football smarts

The successes of the South American teams in the World Cup have led to some speculation that years of street football may be responsible for the fast paced dexterity that powers the Latino players.

The photo is of some lads playing street football in the Manrique barrio of Medellín, Colombia. I took the photo a couple of days ago and it depicts the typical type of informal football that happens in residential streets across the continent.

The game is a great way of developing ball skills as the play is fast paced, the space limited, and the ‘field’ often interrupted by a passing motorbike or pedestrian which the players are just expected to work around. It’s clearly a game which demands quick thinking and improvisation.

But I want you to focus on the left hand side, where you can see the goal. It’s tiny. It’s about a metre wide, about the same high, and the goalie can virtually fill it if he crouches. This is the standard street football setup here.

In these games, much of the skill in scoring goals relies on a combination of fooling the keeper, by tempting him out, followed up with pinpoint accuracy in targeting any small angle which subsequently appears.

However, there’s some evidence from sports psychology which may give us another clue as to why this is useful preparation for more formal football matches: experiments have shown that if you’re playing badly the goal is perceived to be smaller than it actually is.

It’s probably worth pointing out that, as far as I know, this has never been tested specifically in football, but it has been shown in various other sports.

There’s a fantastic discussion of these studies over at Neurophilosophy which I highly recommend if you’re interested in the science behind perceptual changes during sport. This is an excerpt which discusses the effect in American ‘foot’ ‘ball’:

It was found that participants who made 3 or more successful kicks perceived the goal to be bigger than it actually was, whereas those who scored 2 or less goals perceived it to be smaller. There was also a relationship between the subsequent perception of the goal posts and how the kicks were missed: participants who more frequently kicked the ball to the left or right of the target perceived the upright posts to be narrower, whereas those whose kicks tended to fall short of the goal, or to be too low, perceived the crossbar to be higher.

So, if you’ll excuse the punditry for a moment, I wonder whether one of the benefits of street football is that players have informal training of dealing with small goal sizes. In other words, as well being useful training for ball skills, it also helps adapt to any perceptual changes that occur during the match.

Link to Neurophilosophy on performance and goal size.

2 thoughts on “Street football smarts”

  1. So, like with a lot of fields, amount of funding at grassroots != success necessarily. My street football experience as a kid (when we weren’t playing on municipal fields with proper goalposts) usually involved a suitable garden wall as near to goalpost size as wel could find. Maybe we should be swapping out full size school pitches for lots of tiny ones? Viva la peque√±a porter√≠a!

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