Athletes’ Body Language Gives Away the Score

You can tell a whole lot about the score from the wrinkles on a forehead, the slouch of shoulders and the jittering of hands

Wojciech Kowalski

Humans aren’t all that good at making poker faces—and it's not just our faces that give us away, either. You can tell a whole lot about how someone is feeling from the slouch of her shoulders or the jittering of her hands. And it turns out, you can even guess who’s winning or losing just by looking at how an athlete is standing.

A recent study showed adults, young children (4-8 years old) and older children (9-12 years old) a series of silent, three second clips of a handful of athletes, from table tennis to basketball to handball. They removed anything that might be too obvious—no jumping or yelling or smiling—and asked participants to guess whether the athlete in question was winning or losing and by how much. Here are the clips they used for table tennis:

Stimulus material "NVB AND SCORE ESTIMATION": tabletennis

Here’s what the basketball clips looked like:

Stimulus material "NVB AND SCORE ESTIMATION": Basketball

And here are the handball clips:

Stimulus material "NVB AND SCORE ESTIMATION": handball

It turns out that people were generally pretty adept at picking up who was winning and who was losing. “Results indicated that participants could significantly differentiate between trailing and leading athletes in both team and individual sports,” the researchers write. Christian Jarrett at Research Digest breaks down the findings a little bit further:

The older kids were no more accurate than the younger kids, but the adults were more accurate than the children. With the handball, the researchers compared the accuracy of participants who were experienced players, with the accuracy of others who knew nothing about handball - and found they performed just the same. This highlights the instinctual nature of these judgments because they weren't dependent on expert knowledge. However, the fact that adults were superior at the task to children is suggestive of some relevant maturation process occurring during adolescence.

The authors argue that these kinds of submissive and dominant signals—those who are winning making themselves bigger and more assertive-looking than those who are losing, without even realizing it—are a throwback to our evolutionary past. An ape who loses a fight would do well to slink away and make himself small. But that kind of body posturing, while good for fighting primates, isn’t good for athletes. "What makes sense for a primate losing a fight may lead to exacerbating the downward spiral for athletes on the losing side,” the authors write. “This suggests learning to mask submissive body language could be highly advantageous,” Jarrett adds, “something Roger Federer and other cool champions appear to have mastered already.”

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