Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet (outside of the United States), and the FIFA World Cup is thus possibly the largest mega-event in sports, possibly even surpassing the Olympics in terms of global fan interest.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina, arguably the two greatest soccer players of all time, are both competing in the FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar, which may be the last chance to watch such a remarkable spectacle.
Theories as to why some elite athletes become practically unbeatable, invoke not just physical strength but also neuroscience and psychology.
For example, a research paper entitled, ‘Can Lionel Messi’s brain slow down time passing?’ suggests that elite competitors become outstanding at anticipating their opponent’s next move before they make it.
The authors argue that the key reason why the Argentinian soccer star is difficult to stop is that he makes sure his adversaries don’t have enough time. This is because, so the argument goes, in Messi’s neural system, time passes slower.
These authors argue that if the perceptual time for an elite athlete slows down, they can see more of what is happening on the field of play. Perhaps their sensory systems work faster; more computations per second would, in essence, give Messi a “wider bandwidth” for grasping events on the pitch.
The authors of a study entitled ‘Psychological and neural mechanisms of subjective time dilation shows how certain events can be experienced as longer than others for any set period.
For example, they suggest you try this for yourself: take a glance at the second hand of a clock or watch. Immediately, the tick will pause momentarily and appear longer than the subsequent ticks. Yet, they all last exactly 1 second.
Suppose athletes like Lionel Messi, on the field of play, see the equivalent of the second hand as always running slower than their opponents.
In a study entitled, ‘Ball impact dynamics of knuckling shot in soccer’, published in the academic journal, ‘Procedia Engineering’, how this particular shot is famously exploited by Cristiano Ronaldo in his free kicks was investigated. The flight trajectory of a non-spinning or low-spinning soccer ball may fluctuate in unpredictable ways.
But another study entitled, ‘Mastery in Goal Scoring, T-Pattern Detection, and Polar Coordinate Analysis of Motor Skills Used by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’, argues that it is the dynamic nature of superior skill that distinguishes the elite athlete; the player needs to perform the right action at the right time.
Goal-scoring sequences were analyzed from the moment the player receives the last pass to the moment he scores a goal, and this investigation concluded that both players, Messi and Ronaldo, better anticipate the actions of their opponents, resulting in higher success in attacking.
In a paper entitled, ‘The discovery of slowness: Time to deconstruct Gretzky’s and Messi’s predictive brains’, the Argentinian example, it is argued, was preceded by the astounding case of ice-hockey star Wayne Gretzky.
Between 1979 and 1999, the Canadian ice hockey player broke numerous records. As he was not a particularly impressive physical specimen, when trying to explain how he differed from other players, it would appear that during a match, time froze for him.
According to Gretzky, he considered ice hockey a rather slow game. His unique perception of time allowed him to see scenarios develop. By weaving together his reading of immediate sporting predicaments, Gretzky often predicted what would happen next.
But being able to predict what is going to happen next is not just useful for elite athletes, but is of everyday significance in our daily lives as well.
The authors of a study entitled, ‘Why am I always late? Modeling the cognitive mechanisms underlying anticipatory timing under uncertainty, give an example: imagine trying to swat a fly. Successfully doing so requires being able to predict precisely where the insect will be and when given the fly usually moves faster than you can. In life, you are not spontaneously reacting to some event, but rather you are frequently engaging in anticipatory timing, calibrating your actions for an event you know is coming.
A lot of life is a kind of choreography, where if you are not good at anticipating the move of your protagonist, you are going to collide.
In their experiment, subjects viewed the motion of a ball and then had to predict where it would be when it was occluded from view for a while.
The authors found there was a link between people’s ability to correctly anticipate the ball, which was described as a ‘low-level’ perceptual decision, and some other key aspects of their lives, linked to time judgments, including their tendency to be late, the ability to plan, and starting and completing tasks on time.
The results of this experiment suggested that generally becoming more aware of the passage of time, even as simple as glancing at a clock more often, could help improve anticipation, and this could have knock-on benefits to us in a wide variety of different areas of life if we have generally a problem with timing.
But what if you want to get as good as Lionel Messi with your visual reaction time? Can you make time slow down with training?
A study entitled ‘Sports vision training: A review of the state-of-the-art in digital training techniques’, points out there is a long history of athletes purposefully training under purposefully tougher conditions than they would find in an actual match, to develop.
From altitude training for runners, running through sand, to drag suits for swimmers. More difficult conditions will lead to better performance when athletes return to less arduous competition conditions.
This ‘resistance training’ theory is fundamental to so-called ‘stroboscopic’ visual training.
Strobe lighting in discotheques created visual illusions which enhanced the experience of dancing by interrupting a normal vision.
From the use of strobe lights in otherwise dark settings to digitally controlled eyewear that can be used in natural practice situations, by intermittently disrupting vision, individuals are only allowed to see brief snapshots of their environment. They, therefore, train under tougher conditions of a disrupted visual experience.
The stroboscopic effect, the theory goes, produces better visual skills when athletes return to normal conditions.
The recurring pattern in the lesson of how to become an elite athlete is to create tougher conditions than normal, and the body and brain grow and adapt in response to the challenge, becoming stronger and fitter.
Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and at five foot seven inches he remains one of the shortest players in the FIFA World Championship.
According to the Sportstarthehindu website, if we take a continental average, the European dominance in average height across teams at the current FIFA world cup is massive. The average height of European squads in Qatar is 183 cm. This drops to 180.9 cm for South American teams.
The shortest squads in terms of average height will be from North America, with their average height touching only 180.7.
But it appears that even in sports when physical reality like height can be very important, psychology can compensate.
Maybe time slows down for Lionel Messi because this is how he adapted over many years to compensate for his body’s slower growth, compared to all the other kids.
Raj is a psychiatrist and author of The Mental Vaccine for COVID-19.