When Soccer Imitates Life: Diving in Soccer through a Nuanced Lens of Neuroscience

July 11, 2018

In the midst of World Cup fandom, a number of interesting human behaviours come to light—both amidst players and fans. In watching how it all plays out, I have come to notice and try to explain some of the reactions and tactics that I have seen unfold.

One of the main issues that tends to draw the most intense reactions is diving. While it is a hot button for fans and opposing players, there are a few things to consider.

When it comes to emotions, there is a range of 34 000 emotions that we can have. Most of us don’t; we limit ourselves to 5-10—the ones that we are the most familiar and comfortable with. Emotion is defined as energy in motion, with feelings being how we respond to it.

For a sport as ethno-driven as soccer, a lot is on the line. From an evolutionary biology perspective, environment and culture dictate behaviour. In attempting to bring glory to your country and your family, actions that some may see as appalling over-acting, may serve the bigger purpose of an advantage during the game and lead to victory. Yet, it can also be detrimental in turning people off of the game.

But from the pain science perspective, not every ‘dive’ may be as fake as it seems. From this side, it is not as much about the brutality of the tackle or the extent of the injury, but rather the perceived threat of the attack, which is influential in the response and beyond the control of the individual. Someone with a previous ankle injury, for example, may have a massive neurophysiological pain response that seems disproportionate to the input of the actual contact. Adding onto that the incredible pressure of the situation, and the fact that loss or failure may also be perceived as threatening, and this response may be heightened even further.

Imagine that you have sustained a whiplash injury, for example. You may have basically recovered, but one day you flip your hair in the shower and experience a massive amount of neck pain. Many people experience some form of this scenario, when a relatively innocuous incident “causes” an injury. You may do this small activity repetitively (which may also be a contributing factor), but consider also that the subsequent “re-injury” is also more likely if you are experiencing an increase in stress in other areas of your life, like pressure at work or tension in your relationships.

Considering how ramped up these players are in the intensity of the spotlight and expectations, it would not be unexpected to have hyper-emotional or over-reacted physical responses—not just to physical play, but to trash-talking as well. For boys raised in a cultural subset in which they have been told to toughen up, where tenacity and truculence have been prized, to then be in a situation where millions of people are judging and scrutinizing you—it’s hard to imagine how any one of us would react in the face of failing to perform, when so many people are counting on you. There may be a subconscious protective mechanism also in which if people think you are injured, they may judge you less harshly. But from a performance standpoint, if a player is to ‘get up for the game’, that is going to set his nervous system above baseline and make rationality less likely in any adverse circumstances.

For fans, somehow, rationality is also at a premium. We start to lose ownership of our emotions; we personalize the reffing and the diving. Our brains have implicit blind spots, in what is known as a ‘self- selection bias’, in which we see only fowls that affect our team. We make it political, and start to embody an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. We become radically less responsible for our own behaviour, and begin to identify so much with the team that what they are experiencing comes to mirror our own struggles. Once that self-selection bias is triggered, as it is a closed loop system, it feeds that chain reaction of outrage, or whatever is your pattern, and can take you into default-mode and down the rabbit hole. For example, if you feel unappreciated at work, you feel the ref is not appreciating your team, so you feel there is systemic corruption working against you on both the local and global scale.

Try being able to watch and enjoy a soccer game with compassion for the players—strive for your own vertical development and upgrade your emotional operating system while observing them in action. Put yourself in their cleats and imagine the pressure they are under, and the discipline it has taken to perform at such a high level. Allow yourself to appreciate the unifying aspects of such a global experience, and the simple intention of the beautiful game amidst the complex skills and even more complex political environment. Be detached enough to audit your own responses and practice emotional mastery. And, when Ronaldo scores another goal and takes his shirt off, we all just need to admit that feeling…it’s jealousy.

Dr. Tabrizi is a chiropractor, osteopath and a passionate member of both the local and scientific community, whose goal is to teach that the pursuit of optimal health and wellness is much more than being symptom-free. His practice is rooted in the philosophy of treating the person rather than just treating the illness or ailment. As a result of his interdisciplinary training, Dr. Tabrizi has developed a neuroscience-based therapeutic education approach to treating his patients, focusing on healing illness from a wider perspective, placing equal responsibility on patient as well as practitioner. Dr. Tabrizi aims to educate his patients and provide them with the tools and framework needed to integrate pain management and healthy living into the fabric of their everyday lives.

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