Rebuttal: Do footballers know what they’re doing?

In a recent article by Jonathan Wilson the author asked the question of whether or not footballers know what they are doing, or more accurately, to what extent are they conscious of what they are doing. The article starts off with Rooney explaining his overhead kick goal against Manchester City a couple of years ago. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Winner asked him about his overhead kick against Manchester City last season. “When a cross comes into a box,” Rooney said, “there’s so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball. You’re asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you’ve got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you’ve obviously got to try and hit it first-time.

“If he’s farther back, you’ve got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it’s obviously about the execution.”

Much of the rest of the article is predicated on the premise stated by Rooney, that is that he is making multiple calculations in his head in a split second. Wilson looks at neurological findings and experiments to show that it is basically impossible to make that many calculations in that little amount of time. This I won’t argue, although it should be noted that athletes do seem to have higher processing speeds than non-athletes.

Wilson then goes into a large philosophical debate about whether Rooney actually is making the decision to make the overhead kick, arguing that since it is impossible to calculate whether he should head it, control it, or bicycle it in a split second and also make the necessary physical calculations then he is not actually conscious of his decision. This opens up a can of worms regarding free will and whether a footballer’s explanation of an action is true or whether he is making some post-hoc argument that fits with his personal narrative.

That’s all fine and good, but I really have to challenge the first premise. Not the one made by Wilson, that Rooney can’t answer that many questions in his head in a split second, but Rooney’s premise: that he is making multiple decisions in a short amount of time.

When Rooney says he has a split second to ask himself five or six questions he is wrong. He has a lot more time than that. Footballers don’t simply react, especially the best ones. They plan ahead and when a teammate has the ball on the right wing ready to cross then Rooney has already made those decisions in his head – he’s just waiting for the ball to come in. It’s not the split second where he makes those calculations, he’s first of all got the flight of the ball to make those decisions, not to mention the fact that before the cross even comes in he’s taken into account his own position relative to the goal and how tight his marker is on him. Those five or six decisions have been calculated already and a certain type of ball in will ‘activate’ one of his modules to react. Yes, the overhead kick itself isn’t Rooney thinking “The ball is this high above my head, now I’m upside down and I need to angle my right foot like this and hit it with this much power with this part of my foot.” At that point he is reacting, albeit not completely without preparation as he’s done a similar move a countless amount of times. The key point is that Rooney doesn’t have to make half a dozen calculations in a split second, he just has to pick the one action that he’s already calculated. If he picks the right one then there’s a chance of a good outcome.

If you watch any decent level football you’ll be able to see a similar phenomenon if you watch the central midfielders. It doesn’t even have to be a professional match, just a decent level intramural or men’s league game. When a central midfielder drops deep facing his own defender or goalkeeper who has the ball, he will swivel his head before calling for the ball. When he does this he’s assessing the pitch, seeing if he’s being pressed, what man is open, which way he can turn, etc. He’s evaluating multiple decisions and when the ball is played to him he knows exactly what to do. No one is saying the midfielder is making an innumerable amount of physical calculations consciously, just that before he even has to play the ball he’s made a few assessments that will lead him to making his final physical action.

The other issue I have with the article is that it seems to paint our actions as being guided by algorithms. Humans don’t really take all the options, calculate them in a specific, discrete way, and then act. We act mainly on heuristics – shortcuts based on experience. When the ball came into Rooney he had already decided what to do based on where the ball was coming in. If it came low, he has faced that type of cross numerous times and so knew how to react. When it came in at that height and that angle he knew that an overhead was the best option based on countless crosses in training and games. He had a myriad of trials throughout his time playing football and had built up a heuristic to dealing with it. Combine that with athletic skill, luck, and Rooney’s probable higher processing speed than the average person, and you have yourself a goal. There may have been numerous factors but Rooney surely meant to do it, and there’s no reason to think he didn’t appraise multiple ideas before settling on that bicycle.


3 responses to “Rebuttal: Do footballers know what they’re doing?

  1. Rooney meant to do it, and there’s no reason to think he didn’t appraise multiple ideas before settling on that bicycle – this sums things up precisely.

    Great athletes do great things – the rest of us watch in awe and wonder.

  2. Great article does bring the logical perspective to things

  3. Hi there! I know this is kinda off topic however I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa?

    My blog discusses a lot of the same topics as yours and
    I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.
    If you happen to be interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!

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