Air pollution impacts footballers’ performance claims study

As a Derby County fan since the 1990s, I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to disappointment and excuses. While people tend to roll their eyes when you claim the balls are too bouncy, there was too much algae on the pitch, or that your kit is too grey, economists in Germany have come up with something they believe could genuinely constitute as extenuating circumstances: air pollution.

Researchers from the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn analysed the form of Bundesliga stars between 1999 and 2011, and discovered an interesting correlation between form – in this case measured by the total number of passes – and air pollution outside the stadium.

While the number of passes is not a measure of physical performance per se, it serves as our preferred productivity indicator since it is related to the speed of the game and, importantly, is highly relevant for a team’s success by retaining ball possession and creating scoring opportunities,” the researchers explained.

“We find that a 1% increase in the concentration of particulate matter leads to a 00.2% reduction in the number of passes.”

In total, 1,771 players from 29 different teams were monitored in 2,956 matches. Hourly pollution data was collected from the German Federal Environment Agency, and if a club didn’t have enough air-quality data near the stadium, it simply didn’t feature.  Across the 12 years studied, the mean particulate matter was 23.8 micrograms per cubic metre, and in 44% of the matches covered, particulate matter was between 20 and 50 micrograms per cubic metre. The latter figure is significant, because it’s the EU’s threshold for particulate pollution – and was exceeded in around 7% of the matches.smog_affects_athletic_performance

The researchers found that performance suffered well below the 50 micrograms mark, but when pollution exceeded it, player performance could drop by as much as 16%. “We find that negative effects of pollution on short-run productivity increase with the individual’s age and are largest for players aged above 30. Moreover, midfielders’ and defenders’ productivity is particularly affected by pollution, players who are more attached to the game and exert a larger number of passes,” the researchers wrote.

The shorter the gap between matches, the more pronounced the effects, and there was also some evidence to suggest that players changed the style of their play to suit the environment: “Our analysis also suggests that players tend to marginally adjust their style of play, given that the ratio of long over short passes slightly increases with the concentration of particulate matter,” the economists wrote.

At the very least, it’s certainly more plausible than blaming the team’s relegation on the removal of a Michael Jackson statue from outside the stadium.

The researchers believe that the study could provide some interesting insights away from the world of sport to other professions, to assess whether greater environmental regulations could improve productivity for those of us who see exercise as a chore rather than a vocation.

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Images: Ronnie Macdonald and Shirokazen used under Creative Commons

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