Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Science of Scoring

If you’re a soccer fan, you’ve probably had the experience of watching a goalkeeper allow a shot to slip right by him and into the net (especially if you’re English!). It can be wrenching to watch a trained professional fail to stop a shot that it seems he had plenty of time to anticipate.

But, like most things in professional sports, it’s harder than it looks. And a new study reported on by Seed Magazine confirms it. The article asks a good question: “why are goalkeepers, who are paid millions of dollars to stop shots, sometimes utterly baffled by curving balls?” A paper in the New Journal of Physics measured the trajectory of spinning soccer balls and found that, “when the balls were spinning, they curved in a smooth arc in the direction of the spin. But as the speed of the balls slowed, they began to curve even more dramatically.”

As it turns out, human beings are terrible at anticipating the trajectory of a moving, spinning soccer ball. Given the way that human perception works, keepers are constantly adjusting their position based on how the ball is moving. A quick change in direction (like the one seen here) can fool even the best-trained goalkeeper.

Another paper published in the journal Naturwissenschaften also shed some light on this issue. The study measured how well players are at predicting a soccer balls trajectory, and found that all players – including goalies – are prone to systematic errors.

Aside from being a cool piece of sports science, it’s a great metaphor for the VUCA world we live in. The current environment is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. We are constantly up against our natural limitations when it comes to anticipating curveballs and adapting.

Whether it’s an economic recession, an earthquake, or a well-spun free kick, having the freedom to deal with our innate inability to anticipate is one of the great challenges of our time. It needs confidence, certainty and support to act and react quickly in our new world.

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