Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Soccer-head games

The World Cup is an exciting event that captures global attention. But it also raises some interesting questions about how we know things and what it is that we know--or don't. While soccer players play head games with the ball, science plays head games with the game.

Interesting questions include such things as the apparent phenomenon of momentum shifts such as occur after a goal is scored. Some are due perhaps to the manager's notions of strategy, but this has to do with the collective behavior of 11 guys and how that relates to the behavior of the 11 in the other-colored shirts. But when you need to win and you know 1-0 is not a safe lead, why can't you keep up the momentum?

Another interesting question has to do with whether the tournament winner is the 'best' team. Since goals are hard to come by, referees make bad decisions, and fluke events are so prominent, it is easy to know who the winner is, but what does it mean as to which team is 'best'?

One bad call (and this World Cup has been atrocious in the refereeing department) has collective effects, yet everybody 'knows' at some level that if you had a good game plan it should be a good game plan even if you're down a goal.

Hot and cold streaks have been debated for a long time: do they even exist? Is it only our imagination that the team deflated by bad luck or a mistake collectively changes behavior? Are streaks only identifiable after the fact, rather than being demonstrably (and statistically) real?

Sports represent a good example of complex 'emergent' phenomena. Sports psychologists and coaches obviously haven't figure out how to manage it. Do you reduce it to one or two players and talk to them to keep the higher-level organization as you want it? Do you reduce it to some compound--let's call it 'adrenalin' just as a representative word--that every player needs to sniff to regain momentum? And if that kind of reductionism is relevant, how is it that a goal by the other side reduces the adrenalin of everyone on your side?

In our book, The Mermaid's Tale, we characterize life as being about partially isolated modular units that are in communication with each other by complex signaling systems. Emergence occurs in the development of a hand or feather or leaf, as a result of a hierarchy of such inter-unit communication. A team is like an organ, and seems to respond, develop, change, and function as a result of the partial isolation, but partial communication, among its elements.

In this case the signals are not growth factors like BMP or FGF. They don't seem to be chemical (e.g., they're not pheromones). But what are they? They are visual, but also perceptual in complex ways. The brain receives the information about the changed situation, and then it signals to the cells in the body in ways that change their behavior.

Often the change is detrimental to the organism, which is not the usual effect of signaling. It's very interesting, and relevant to the general problem of understanding complexity.

But one thing is simple: a major sports competition needs competent referees. Too bad that FIFA can't find enough of them.

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