Does Empathy Score in Football?

When you need to perform, emotions either help you, or they throw a spanner in the works. Just ask Arjen Robben who missed a penalty in the final of the Champions League in May. Dr. Gert-Jan Pepping, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane Australia, explores how emotions influence our perceptions and actions. How relevant is empathy in sport?

Pre-match huddle

A pre-match huddle of the Ireland team in their game against Spain during Euro 2012.

By Margriet Bos. For the whole article (in Dutch) click here.

Translated excerpts:

What is your research about?
“I want to know how we can help athletes make decisions, especially if they are under great performance pressure. We know more about the negative effects of emotions when something goes wrong than positive emotions. I am very interested in the latter, and especially in empathy and prosocial behavior – which is about perception and action being directed at the other – and the ability to empathize with the feelings of another. These are important qualities in a team sport. ”

Why is prosocial behavior important for an athlete?
“It allows the athlete to predict what a teammate or opponent will do. We know the effects of positive emotions pretty well in a context where creativity is required. When people experience positive emotions, this broadens their attention so they see more creative solutions to a problem.


Pirlo looking for creative action possibilities in the Euro 2012 match Italy vs Croatia.

I want to know how positive emotions can help athletes to achieve a good result in a social setting in sport. For example, in my research group, we study prosocial behavior in team sports such as football and volleyball. We want to know how athletes already use social emotions in their sport. How do you become sensitive to reading someone’s body language? In taking a penalty in football, does it help if you look at the keeper to read his body language to see where he will go? ”

Is someone simply prosocial or can you influence it?
“My hypothesis is that empathy can promote team sports performance. Together with neuroscientists, we study the brain areas that are involved in empathy. When people experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, chemicals are released which can cause ‘avoidance behavior’ – behavior that can cause you to prefer to get out of the situation that you are in. In social situations where empathy and positive emotions are involved chemicals are produced in our brains that make you focus on the other, and that motivate ‘approach behavior’. Oxytocin is such a brain chemical. This ‘cuddle hormone’ is for instance released during sex, but also when players touch and encourage each other in football. With the youth selections of SC Heerenveen [Dutch professional football club and academy], we, for instance, investigate the player’s preparations when taking a penalty-kick. We had individual players take a series of penalties in two situations: when they are alone and when they are encouraged by their team. We investigate whether the situation matters for the goals scored and the social emotions they show after their score. With a questionnaire, we measure empathy of recreational and elite footballers and volleyball players. And we look at their pro-and anti-social behavior in the field during the game. ”


Cassilas at Euro 2012 saves a penalty in the shootout between Spain vs Portugal.

Have you already seen that it works?
“We have looked at many penalties during penalty shootouts in European and World Championships. This study shows that when you clearly act as a team in that situation and encourage each other and cheer for each goal, you are more likely to win the shootout as a team. So in that situation, positive social emotions definitely seem to be useful in getting a good result. ”

But aren’t football players known for their big egos?
“In sport, you can see the urgency of taking a correct decision immediately: the ball goes in or not. The selection methods that scouts, trainers, and physical educators use, therefore, is often focused on one seemingly good action of a player. So players are now selected in a performance culture in which they are trained to be focused on that one goal of performing those seemingly good actions. My hypothesis is that this creates a selection culture in which other qualities are overseen. Players who show mostly prosocial behavior, are now regularly passed by and left out of the football selection. These players will have a very nice life outside football, but the question is whether the football team they dropped out of will not miss their qualities. That is why I’m so curious how prosocial behavior can help athletes to achieve a good result. ”

Will other areas outside sport benefit from this research?
“What goes for sport, often also goes for daily life. Just look at the corporate culture where performance and focus on bonuses is the norm. Actually, the secret mission of my research is that it will prove that there are many qualities of people we throw away when we remain having a one-sided look at performance and in particular when performing under pressure. When valuing prosocial behavior will become the norm, this would be a much better basis for success as well as for long term physical and mental health. ”

By Margriet Bos. For the whole article (in Dutch) click here.

Gert-Jan Pepping is an Associate Professor in Human Movement at the School of Behavioural and Health Sciences of AUstralian Catholic University, Brisbane, Australia.

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Posted in Football, My own research, Science General, Sport Science
One comment on “Does Empathy Score in Football?
  1. […] psychology of those kids that are selected on these false beliefs (more the possible consequences here). […]

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