The role of nonverbal behavior in competitive situations, with Philip Furley

A talk with Philip Furley, who has done a lot of research on behavior and psychology in sports. A transcript is below. Topics discussed include: how an athlete’s body language can influence teammates, opponents, and even judges; behaviors and strategies of penalty kickers and goalkeepers in soccer; some specific behaviors from the recent World Cup; collective displays of team unity (like the “Haka”); the difficulties of finding behavioral patterns in sports; thoughts on making practical use of Furley’s research findings.

Podcast links:

Some resources mentioned in our talk, or related to it:


Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better. To learn more about it, go to 

In this episode, I talk to Philip Furley, who’s done a wide range of interesting sports psychology-related research. He’s done so much interesting research related to the role of nonverbal behavior in sports, it was honestly hard to decide which topics to focus on and which questions to ask. Here are some of the topics we talk about. 

  • We talk about positive and negative body language in sports and what effects that can have on one’s teammates
  • We talk about celebratory body language and how that can influence the perceptions of other people, including judges
  • We talk about some behaviors and strategies of penalty kickers and goalkeepers in soccer
  • We talk about some specific behaviors from the recent World Cup games
  • We talk about the challenges in finding general behavioral patterns in sports. 
  • We talk about anxiety and the role it can play in sports 

And along the way, Furley and I talk about various ways someone might make practical use of his research findings

I want to give a big thank you to Alan Crawley, who I’ve previously interviewed on this podcast and who goes by the online handle Sin Verba. It was Alan’s idea for me to ask Furley for an interview, and Alan also came up with most of the questions you’ll hear me ask, because he’s much more familiar with Furley’s work than I am, and also because he’s a lot more familiar with the game of soccer. So thank you for all that, Alan. If you’re interested in learning more about nonverbal behavior, I highly recommend checking out that talk I did with Alan; it was one of the more popular episodes of mine lately. And if you’re interested in sports-related psychology specifically, just a note that I’ve done quite a few sports-related and game-related episodes in the past. 

Okay here’s the talk with Philip Furley…

Hi, Philip. Thanks for coming on.

Philip: Hi, thanks for having me.

Zach: So maybe we could start with talking about your interests a bit. What is it that’s driven the various kinds of research you’ve done in the sports field and elsewhere?

Philip: Yeah. Okay, I didn’t really get into the stuff we’re gonna be talking about till a bit later in my scientific career. I started off my PhD in 2009. That was more on cognitive topics like how you can control your attention in various sports settings. And then in Germany, after you finish your PhD, if you want to become a professor you have to do something called the Habilitation. And there I got very interested the social psychology of sports, and that’s when I started to research into this nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication, body language stuff. What I noticed is a lot of people talk about that in applied settings; sport commentators. But then when I had a look and reviewed the literature, not that much research had been actually done in the field of sports. I mean, it was a very mainstream topic in general psychology, but within the field of sport not that much research had been done, which was a good starting point for me to get started in this field of research.

Zach: One of your areas of research has been the body language of players, sports team players, and how that can affect their teammates or opponent players, for example, by communicating confidence or lack of confidence. Can you summarise? I know that’s probably a big ask, but can you summarise your views about the role of body language plays in sports?

Philip: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s hard to quantify it. There are several things we were interested in our research; first of all, the first thing is how body language is affected by various situations in sports like for example the current score line, how it is going at the moment for the team, for the player, and if other people can recognize this just based on the body language. And then in turn, how this again might affect other players, opponents, spectators, and then again in the long run, how that might again come back to affect sports performance. These were sort of the questions that we were looking into. And we’ve got some answers to these questions, but what we find very clearly is that nonverbal behavior, the body language, the facial expressions, they are very much affected by various things that are going on in sports.

One thing we had a look in a lot of different situations… So, players change their body language if they’re currently doing well, if they’re leading, or if they’re currently trailing. This is something that we’ve always found in all the experiments we’ve done. We’ve had to look at that in soccer, in tennis, in table tennis, in handball and all sorts of different contexts. And this is something that we can clearly show. The body language is affected by how it’s going so if you are not doing so well, this shows in your body language, and if you’re doing well, this also shows again in your body language. And people– observers– who are not especially trained in drawing inferences from nonverbal behavior body language can make accurate inferences. If you show them brief video recordings or photos, they can say, “Okay, this guy is leading, this guy’s trailing,” and also by how much they are trailing. Someone finds quite a contingency between the nonverbal behavior and the current scoreline. In further experiments, we could also show that this can have an effect on other players. For example, if you put athletes in hypothetical scenario and tell them to look at this player and how likely they are gonna play well or play poorly against this player, then they are a lot more confident playing against somebody whose body language is from images where they’re currently trailing, as opposed to where they’re currently leading. To give you one example of a line of research we’ve been doing…

Zach: To take a specific example, in one of your studies on baseball, you discovered the importance of holding your head high. Could you talk a little bit about that specific finding?

Philip: Yeah, this was an experiment we did with actors. They use the so-called point light technique there that we just put markers on joints of people and then we manipulated the body language they were doing. This was a follow up experiment from the research that I’d been talking about before. And then if we manipulate the body language to resemble the body language of a trailing athlete, that sort of looks a bit more submissive as opposed to dominant, then you could clearly tell that the observers form very different impressions. So if you showed these point light images to observers, also to athletes, then they had a negative image of the athlete that was sort of looking downwards, that was sort of collapsed, didn’t have a lot of body tension. And they were also a lot more confident to be interacting with this athlete. For example if it was a pitcher, then they were a lot more confident that they would be able to hit the ball to hit a good strike at the baseball.

Zach: One thing I’ve wondered is how would you implement this in a real-world setting. So let’s say you were a basketball coach, let’s say, and your team had been losing for a while in the game, if you could give advice to the team, would you suggest that they change their body language? And how would you suggest they do it? Would you suggest maybe they just avoid expressing negative or losing appearing emotions or gestures? Or would you suggest they maybe fake some nonverbal confidence and things like this?

Philip: Yeah, exactly. It’s not an easy question to answer and one doesn’t want to encourage unnatural and bit freaky gestures and body language. What you do find in a lot of our research is that the body language is sort of automatically affected by what’s going on. And you can get sort of into a downward circle that it’s going poorly, and this shows in your body language. And then this might affect your teammates and boost the confidence of your opponents. This is something that we can simulate in the experimental research that we’ve been doing. And of course, applied work, wants to look how you can interfere in a way with this negative cycle. So being aware of what’s going on is of course a first important step. And then I think it’s important to sort of… If you notice that things are going poorly and you’re losing tension and this shows in your expressions, then it’s maybe important to take a deep breath, step back and refocus; maybe use some positive self-talk to get out of this vicious circle if you want [that you sort of say, okay.] Kind of a fresh start, gather yourself, and then maybe take a deep breath and try to get into a more positive posture. Because for knows, there are all these feedback loops. It’s not a one-way street so that only that their situation affects your nonverbal behavior, but also the other way round. There’s feedback from your body and if you sort of intervene here and try to adopt an upright posture, chin up, and gaze up, then I think you can have positive influences on your body language. But it’s not that trivial. This is something that you do have to probably work on, that you do have to train. You have to notice when something like that is occurring, and then try to sort of break out of this and get re-refocused.

Zach: Right, like you were saying some people would think, “Oh, I’m going to fake having really positive body language or whatever,” and I think what you’re pointing to, it would be strange to fake that. It would come across as artificial so that they’d be avoiding the obvious… You know, it’s almost like taking the advice of having a positive mindset and that will naturally leak out to your body language, I would think so.

Philip: No, exactly. And simplistic messages like that is something that I don’t go for. I know this is something difficult that’s on my mind, my goal as a scientist is trying to understand what’s going on and then giving some helpful advice that might actually help. So we’ve also looked into the question whether you can distinguish between post expressions, post body language, exaggerated body language, and body language that’s actually affected by circumstances in sports. And people are very good at detecting these differences, which would speak against sort of just trying to fake it and act too dominant, too confident.

Zach: Right, that makes sense. Do you have a sense of how big an effect we’re talking? I think that’d be a lot of people’s question. You know, it’s probably like in the scheme of things. It’s a smaller percentage, but still that can be significant. Because in a lot of games, you are talking about a very close game. So I’m curious, do you have a sense of, you know, the difference between a team with very bad beaten body language who really lets it show, versus a team that’s more cognizant of these things? Do you have a rough guess of how big of a percentage it would matter?

Philip: Yeah. I’m not gonna give you a percentage, I don’t think I can sort of answer that with the methods that we have in science. I mean, you see all these messages that a lot of the stuff that’s communicated is most of it nonverbal. I’m not really sure how they came up with these percentages, so I can’t really speak to a percentage. As you were was saying, I think it’s very important. It’s one of these many variables that has an influence. And they’re not isolated, they belong to the whole toolbox. And I think this is one that hasn’t been addressed enough by research, and that applied coaches and sports psychologists can do a lot with. So they’re considered very important, but sort of in combination with different things. You have to get into the right state, this is likely gonna affect your body language and nonverbal behavior in a positive way. And if you notice that if you’re in a good state but your body language can still be improved, this is something else you can work on. This is another thing that you should pay attention to.

Zach: Apart from the nonverbal, have you done any research or seen any research about the role of verbal encouragements or how people talk to each other? Has that been part of your work?

Philip: Not really so much of my research. Recently, we were asked to contribute a chapter on communication and a big part of that was nonverbal communication. And yes, obviously what people say to you, what coaches say to one has a big impact. It also matters how they state things in a calm, not-too-agitative way. These are things that have been studied, but not so much by me and my students.

Zach: You had done some research on surfing and how surfers’ body language can influence observers and judges. Could you give a talk a little bit about what you found with that research?

Philip: Yeah, this was more of an applied question, not so much the basic research I had been talking about before. I’m very interested in in the sport of surfing, I got into surfing myself when I was going to school in San Diego. I’m not very good at surfing but I started to follow it quite actively. the contests’ broadcasted out here in Germany via the internet, and so I’ve been following it quite a bit as a spectator. And one question that arose there was that it’s always one to three surfaces who are competing against each other. And then the two best waves they serve are scored by a judging panel, and then they get points for the waves. What then often happens is that a surfer gets a first good wave, and the other surfer has already two good waves so he needs another score to beat the other surfer to progress in the heat. This is kind of the format that exists. And then they’ve got a limited amount of time that they have to get the two best waves in a heat. And then the scenario actually always occurs that one surfer needs a certain score to beat the other surfer. What you then often see is that the time runs out so the surfers take off on a wave, and then at the end of the wave they show some very interesting nonverbal behavior in the surfing situation– they call them claims– they show some victorious nonverbal behavior like punching and doing fist pumps and this kind of stuff, and they do that towards the judging panel. And something that they always said in this commentary is that these nonverbal celebrations affected the judging panel. That they didn’t really judge the performance, but how they thought they did.

This was a question that I thought we could answer very well with some methods that we’ve been using. So we had a whole lot of video material from surfing contests, and then we could do have this video material judged. We could judge the actual performance and then we could see how much the judging was affected if you showed this additional victorious nonverbal behavior at the end. And we got quite clear answers. We even did a good experimental setup and we could clearly show that both lay people when judging the performance of surfers, they judged more favorably if the surfer celebrated their performance with a certain nonverbal [unintelligible 00:18:08]. But it was quite interesting that also experienced surf judges judged about half a point– which is quite a lot in surfing– better than all these victorious nonverbal behaviors after the wave, in comparison to just seeing that performance without the nonverbal behavior at the end.

Zach: Yeah, that seems pretty huge. And getting back to their question of is it a good strategy to deceptively do these things, it would seem in this case that it would be a good strategy with the caveat, of course, like the other things we were talking about where at a certain point if you’re known for somebody that’s always behaving triumphantly, everybody will know that about you so it would get out that you were often doing that. But it seems like in the context of a specific event, there wouldn’t be much reason to not try to act more confidently and triumphantly after your…

Philip: Yeah. No, I agree sort of up to a point, exactly. Because in these videos, the surfers actually did do something well that they thought they should celebrate. And then the comparison was showing this or not showing this. So the message would be if you do well, I think it’s beneficial to show this. But if you’re doing poorly, I think judges will notice and spectators would pick up on that and you might get a bit of a weird reputation.

Zach: Right, you’re a phony. Yeah, you’re just a faker. You got to use it within reason, basically. You have to use it judgmentally where like, ‘You could have actually been proud of that.’

Philip: Exactly, that’s what I would say. That’s a good way of summing it up. So if you’ve done something good, it helps. It can help to show that to people around you who are watching, but within limits. If you’ve done sort of okay or not so well, it wouldn’t be advisable to try to fake it.

Zach: Yeah, then you just get viral videos of yourself doing very bad performances and celebrating. Right?

Philip: And could end careers, I think. [laughs]

Zach: What about when it comes to some of the similar kind of displays that some teams do? For example, the New Zealand Rugby team does the haka, and there’s other teams that do collective exhibitions of unity; hugging themselves, chanting before a match and things like this. Have you done research on how those things affect or intimidate rivals or affect performance?

Philip: Yeah, not directly. I mean, some research touches into that. I think the haka is a very good example. It’s very impressive and it’s something that’s grown culturally in the natives of New Zealand. Things like that have a long tradition in all sorts of cultures with two effects, with two intentions. First of all, to psych one up oneself, to sort of get the team ready. It’s a pre-performance ritual that gets you pumped up, ready to perform, ready to fight in these matches. On the other hand, it has the effect to try to intimidate scare the opponent. And if it’s something that’s grown with these cultures with the All Blacks in New Zealand, it really is very impressive and I’ve got no doubt that it has intended effects and that it does help the team. But again, I don’t think it’s enough to say, “Okay, New Zealand does that, we should start this as a team ourselves.” It has to be authentic, it has to be believable, it has to suit the team that’s showing it. And there’s all kinds of research showing that pre-performance routines can increase arousal, can increase performance. So I think teams are well advised to try to train something like that to, to engage in things like that. And if it’s something like the haka, it’s likely that it could also have the effect of scaring the opponent, intimidating the opponent, lowering their confidence. And we’ve done some research, or there has been some research that has shown that the way that for example, tennis plays into the court does affect confidence levels of the opponent if they come in very confidently. Also from my own sporting experience, I can remember looking at some teams, looking at some plays and thinking, “Oh god, how am I supposed to beat them?”

Zach: [chuckles] What do you think the intimidation– because it seems like there can be a few different routes of intimidation there. I mean, one of them is just feeling like, “Oh, the other team gets along better. They’re tighter knit.” And that can be intimidating. Do you think that this kind of social perception that they’re closer and have more in common, is that part of the intimidation?

Philip: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting point. I would believe so. There’s some very interesting research; I always wanted to try to sort of do something in sports with that that actually shows that things like having rituals where teams move together, that this increases team cohesion. That if they do engage in something like the haka, moving very synchronously, this in fact does lead to a bigger belonging to the team. Sort of less ‘me’ and less ‘I’ in team.

Zach: Like brainwashing. Kind of like group cohesion, actually. Yeah.

Philip: Yeah. I think it’s quite likely. I don’t think it’s been been shown but I think it’s a very feasible hypothesis that this would increase team cohesion. Again, if people actually feel that sort of, ‘I’m really proud of this team, I’ll do everything to help this team,’ I’m pretty sure opponents will notice that as teams that are very close together, functioning very well as a team. Opponents are bound to observe that.

Zach: So, you’ve gotten a good amount of attention for your football-related work, aka soccer-related work. Maybe you could give a summary of the most important work as you see that you’ve done the area of football.

Philip: Football, of course, is something that’s very big in Germany. Often the actual sport isn’t what I’m so interested in, but sort of using it to test theories in psychology. We’ve done a lot of research on football penalties, but mainly because this is a very good situation I find to study body language, study nonverbal behavior. First of all, it’s quite static. Environments are very controlled environments; two players playing against each other, but you can monitor both the goalkeeper and the penalty taker very closely. You can see what’s their facial expressions, the body language, and it’s got a very clear outcome. It’s a very easy-to-study environment, much easier than studying 11 on 11 soccer. So this is one of the reasons we’ve done so much research here. So we’ve looked at several things, so maybe I’ll stick with work on nonverbal behavior that we’ve done on body language. Here, in combined work with some other European scientists, we were able to identify one kind of nonverbal behavior that’s clearly related with being not so successful that shows that you’re anxious. And this is something that we’ve called ‘hastening and hiding’ behavior. You can see that quite often in situations where a lot of pressure is on the performer, and they show behavior of sort of trying to get out of this situation as quickly as possible. In the soccer penalty kick situation, you can see first of all before very important shots like in penalty shootouts when you have to score in order to keep your your team in the shootout, you find that you can monitor this hasting and hiding behavior. This usually shows in the penalty taker. When he’s placed the ball on the spot, he turns his back towards the goalkeeper and walks back and then turns around again. So he turns his back towards the goalkeeper, which we say he’s sort of hiding a bit in front of the goalkeeper, and then the hastening comes. That when the referee blows the whistle– so there’s always a signal in the penalty situation– then the player sees that a bit like starting shot in 100-meter dash, and they immediately initiate the run-up. And both of these behaviors-

Zach: So that’s hastening, as opposed to taking their time with the shot.

Philip: Exactly. Then sort of waiting a bit, looking at the goalkeeper… And you can find that both turning this back and initiating a run up immediately when the referee blows the whistle, this is associated with poor performance. We’ve also done more research that this creates negative impressions in observers, in goalkeepers, and has various ways of negatively affecting the performance. But maybe this hastening and hiding, we haven’t only looked at that in the penalty kick situations. We can find quite a few sporting situations like free throws in basketball, performance in darts has always been in these self-paced situations. This hastening usually leads to more negative performance. These are the two behaviors that you could show across a whole bunch of penalty takers, that this seems to be a general pattern that is negatively associated with performance. Often, you find that players show individual things that distinguish only within that player between when they’re performing successfully, as opposed to performing better. So we don’t find very many general behaviors that always are associated with negative performance. It’s something that’s quite individual, so it makes more sense studying that within a person. This is something that we are doing at the moment because we have been successful finding a facial expression of success, finding a body posture of success, or body posture of failure. This is something that seems to be quite individual and something that we couldn’t find. So in science, you’re always looking for these general laws, but this seems to be something that’s quite individual.

Zach: Yeah, I guess it gets into, you know, these things are often so much more complex. Like, there’s multiple ways to be anxious, there’s an anxiety that can cause you to rush something and then there’s the anxiety that can cause you to prolong something. There’s different ways it can play out.

Philip: Completely. This is something that was a bit frustrating at the beginning because that’s something that we were looking for. But just as you were saying, there are these well-known videos, at least in Europe with Zinedine Zidane actually throwing up before important penalty but then scoring an amazing penalty. Which is clearly a sign that he was feeling very anxious but he still could pull it together and perform well. So it’s not as easy as I would like to have it sometimes, that you can find, “Okay, this kind of behavior is going to lead to that.” That’s something that we haven’t found.

Zach:Yeah, that’s actually something I was talking about with Alan Crowley who helped me write these questions who researched some of these questions and was more familiar with your work. We were talking about some athletes, some high performers of any of area of sports or otherwise will be more likely to be very calm under pressure, but then there’s some people that the anxiety is what drives them to perform well. So the spectrum, like you said, it’s not easy to pinpoint like, what mental state will lead to what success or failure. But I’m curious, do you have a sense? Because I would guess that the people that are more unnaturally calm under pressure would be more likely to be overrepresented in high-performing sports, or athletes. But I’m curious, do you think that bears out? Or do you think there’s just as many people in sports who are successful that are anxious and driven by the anxiety?

Philip: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think it would be very similar to the normal population. At least this is something that one hears from applied sports psychologists that a lot of very high perfomers, they sort of dreaded very much important performances coming up. But they can still do very well in these situations. They do feel the nerves, they do feel this arousal anxiety, but can somehow keep it together. And some people in some situations can’t. I don’t think it’s something that elite athletes would be different to the normal population. Obviously, the ones that are the absolute best, they are at the absolute top because they succeed in the situations when it matters the most. But it’s hard to pinpoint by ‘that is the case’.

Zach: So when it comes to the hastening and hiding behaviors of, let’s say, penalty kickers, I’m curious, would that be a situation where you would advise avoiding those behaviors? Or is it maybe another case of where you know, those people are anxious so they’re probably going to have the outcomes of anxiety no matter how they pretend to perform?

Philip: Yeah. I mean, those are things that you also see a lot less now. The first person who actually spoke about that was Norwegian sports psychologist Geir Jordet who we’ve also done some research together with, we sort of followed up on his work. He also works with several national teams and since this has been published about 10 years ago, it’s become a lot less than you can see that in the top penalty shootout. So people seem to become aware of that and this is something that they train, that they try to avoid that this is something that is not beneficial to performance. So it makes sense to try to build that into your pre-shot routines, don’t show this behavior so you can control these things, and like that, you sort of have things you can focus your attention on when you’re in a very stressful situation that you can’t control and that have been shown to be negatively linked to performance.

Zach: So would that mean in the case of hastening, would that mean that players are no longer rushing as much and they’re taking their time more than they did before? And is that helping their performance?

Philip: Yes, this is something that you do see that people in these high-pressure situations, they do work on routines, that they’ve got a planned concept in their mind that they focus their attention on. And the good thing about that is that it focuses their limited attentional capacity on something that they can control. Put the ball down, face the goalkeeper, take five step back backwards, referee blows the whistle, take three deep breaths, and then strike the ball in a certain corner. These are things you can control as the positive aspect that you don’t sort of focus on what might happen when I miss the shot, on various ruminations, and it also helps to control these aspects of your nonverbal behavior. So it’s likely to have beneficial effects in these situations.

Zach: When it comes to goalkeepers, one paper suggested that staying in the middle is the optimum strategy, another article suggested that goalkeepers should distract shooters, and I think you suggested that waiting longer to react may be helpful. In your opinion, when it comes to goalkeeper strategies, do you have opinions on that area?

Philip: Yeah. Those are all strategies that have been published in good journals. I mean, that’s always what happens. Experiments, they focus on one or two variables, and then maybe lead to a recommendation that doesn’t take all the variables in play into account during an actual match. Staying in the middle, that’s, I think, a study of [Michael Bailey] a couple of years ago that shows that in the soccer penalty situation, goalkeepers show something like action bias. Because not acting in a situation like that would be something that is socially not wanted, so they tend to always jump into one corner. And that’s why penalty takers can exploit this by shooting in the middle, and you can increase your chances by waiting in the middle. So this can be a strategy that is helpful in some situations. It should certainly be part of the goalkeepers’ repertoire. You should not always dive, but sometimes also stand in the middle. I think that would be good advice. Then there’s a lot of other research. For example, we did some research that shows that drawing attention from the penalty taker towards yourself by waving your arms or doing some kind of behavior draws attention towards you. And then there are studies that show that when attention is fixed onto the goalkeeper, then the aiming behavior, the shots are also tended to be placed a little bit closer to the goalkeeper. So strategy where you draw attention of the penalty taker. Then it makes sense to wait a bit longer because it’s not so likely that a very accurate penalty is gonna happen right next to the goal posts, then you can increase your chances by waiting a bit longer and then trying to save the penalty like that. There’s also other research that was done that was initiated by Rich Masters who’s now in New Zealand, that could show goalkeepers can also stand a bit off centre, sort of they can move themselves a tiny bit off centre, so that it’s hardly perceivable by the penalty taker. And then they can’t really say that the goalkeeper’s off centre, but they implicit notice something. And yeah, statistically significant they shoot more towards the corner with more place, and then the goalkeeper exploiting that and the diving to that corner can be a good strategy.

Zach: That’s interesting.

Philip: So there are all these indications from research which goalkeepers can try to exploit in their behaviour. One important thing that one has to look at and we’ve also done some research in this area is that there’s two different strategies penalty takers usually take. The goalkeeper-dependent one, looking what the goalkeeper is doing and then shoot to another corner. Or the goalkeeper-independent one, sort of pre-determining where you’re going to shoot and strike the ball as hard as you can. And if you hit it properly, then the chances of the goalkeeper are not so good. So the goalkeeper has to try to identify which strategy the penalty taker is likely to take. First of all by studying this penalty taker, which is his preferred strategy? And then their behavioral cues that indicate which strategies he’s going to take. For example, run up speed, his run. If he runs up a bit slowly, then it’s more likely he’s going to do the keeper-dependent strategy. I mean, this is all something that goes very fast. But these are little bits of information that can sort of help to increase the chances of saving a penalty kick. So if you see that penalty taker is gonna take a keeper-dependent strategy, then it’s advisable to wait as long as possibly, get him nervous so the goalkeeper’s not deciding, and then trying to react to that. These are pieces of information that you can use and if you know a penalty taker usually takes a keeper-independent strategy, then you can try to do this off-centre technique. Stand a bit away from the middle, and then research shows he’s more likely to shoot to the open corner and then jump as hard as you can to the other corner. Like that, you might be able to increase your chances a bit.

Zach: Yeah. Regarding that, I wanted to read a quote from apparently the only goalkeeper that stopped a penalty from Messi during the World Cup. Actually, I’m not sure how you pronounce his name. Szczęsny, maybe. He said, “Now, I can say that I knew where Messi would shoot. But at the time, I wasn’t so sure. Leo looks at the keeper on some penalties and hits hard on others. I knew that if he was going to hit hard, it would be more to my left. I saw that he was not stopping so I went, I sensed, I defended.” End quote. So he had studied Messi and discovered a bit of a pattern there. But that was just interesting for being related to what you were saying about studying when you can, if you think there’s a pattern there.

Philip: Yeah, and I think that’s a nice anecdote, sort of speaking to that. I think you can find individual cues within a player that would point to likely behaviors he’s going to adopt. Like the one that the Polish goalkeeper recognized in penalties run up. And I think it makes sense studying videos of individual players and then trying to determine patterns in what they’re likely going to do. This makes a lot more sense than having a general strategy over all players. I think these nonverbal cues are much more likely tells if you study individual players. There’s also this nice story that I talk sometimes about when I’m lecturing on this to my students. I think it’s in the biography of Andre Agassi who said he found a tell in the serve of Boris Becker who usually pointed his tongue out before he served the ball. If he pointed the tongue out straight, then the serve was much more likely to go straight. Then when he pointed the tongue out sort of an angle, then he would more serve to the outside. And I think that’s also quite a nice example of how individual players study the mimics, the nonverbal behavior of opponents and can find patterns. But for years, researchers have found very little patterns that always point to a behavioral outcome following a certain number of verbal behavior.

Zach: Yeah, it’s complicated. I’ll throw in there too that I did a previous episode, I interviewed tennis coach Carlos Garfia and we talked a bit about that Andre Agassi-Boris Becker tell. I’ll just throw that in there. But yeah, it’s difficult because there’s so much variety and a lot of cases the practical approach is just to play the most very optimal approach, because all the factors that can kind of break down and you’re left with just, “Well, I should just do the best strategy for this moment, regardless of what the other person is doing or what I think.”

Philip: Yeah.

Zach: So there was a recent controversy over Argentina goalkeeper Martinez during the World Cup. What’s your opinion about– if you know about it– what’s your opinion about his verbal and nonverbal methods of distracting Netherlands and France’s penalty shooters.

Philip: He got a lot of bad press about it and players certainly liked him less. On the other hand, the main goal is to be successful, he was very successful. But this is something that I don’t like to see. It’s borderline unfair what he did, I think. He used behavior that was at the limits of what’s allowed.

Zach: What was he doing?

Philip: Well, he was trying to distract the penalty takers every chance he got. I mean, he did what I was talking about before. Sort of getting the attention of the penalty takers, trying to bring them out of their routines, and very vivid behavior that…

Zach: Was it offensive behavior, or was it…

Philip: It wasn’t actually offensive behavior. It wasn’t showing gestures that are actually offensive, not allowed, that have to be sanctioned. But it was the whole time at the border of what is allowed. Also, of course, when they received the award he was also behaving badly. In general, he performed extraordinarily well, but he’ll only be remembered for this bad behavior that he showed there. It would have been nicer to win without that, I would say.

Zach: It reminds me. In poker, there’s what they call angle shooting, which is a term for things that are not technically illegal in the game but are perceived as immoral by a good number of people and outside the realm of proper game. It sounds like it was in this kind of grey area of, “Yeah, sure. It’s allowed and you might do okay with it,” but people are going to frown on you and look down on you a bit.

Philip: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. That’s what it was. It was not gentleman-like behavior. And this is something that, obviously, sport is very competitive also at the highest level, but you don’t want people wining like that. I also don’t think that was the reason they won, but it was sort of a negative… I don’t know the English word. It had a negative connotation attached to it.

Zach: So in one of your 2016 study, you found that when the nonverbal behavior of the referee is perceived by viewers as less confident when they decide a foul, for example, players were more likely to argue with the referee in contrast with when he called a clear foul when is his body language is more confident. That would seem to say, maybe it would make sense to teach referees to have some confidence in their calls, but like we’ve been talking about, that could backfire because if you do that on a clearly wrong or close call, you might lose respect from people. Do you have thoughts on the practical benefits of that research?

Philip: Yeah. There was several experiments we did in this paper. The first we wanted to check, we thought referees would be a good group to do research on because they actually get trained in this facet of nonverbal communication. They get seminars and nonverbal behavior experts come to them trying to teach them to communicate their decisions in a confident manner. Part of this research was looking into, “Okay, how successful is this coaching?” And then what we did there is we recorded or we took television recordings of referees, and we knew of course the situations that they were communicating and so we could distinguish situations that were absolutely clear, so we tested that and situations that were not so clear. And what we did then, we had people rate the body language of the coaches. And there we found quite clear patterns that when they were communicating ambiguous decisions, difficult situations, the body language was less confident. Sort of speaking in the direction that we do have this automatic tendency when we are not so sure about something, that this shows in our facial expressions and this shows in our body language. This is something that people are equipped with and this comes with the evolution of people. We do communicate how we feeling inside even if you don’t want to. This was the instance of that in this first line of research.

What we then did is recreated a hypothetical scenario, again, then showed different videos of referees who’d just given a yellow card or red card or given a penalty. And then told players, “Okay, this was a 50/50 situation, how likely would you be to contest the call of the referee?” There, you could clearly see if a referee on one of these videos was communicating an ambiguous situation but the people in our study of course didn’t know, they were a lot more likely to argue, to debate with the referee; showing that, okay, we do have this natural tendency of showing how we are feeling inside and this can have negative consequences on the playing field so the referee might be more likely to lose control of the game. Again, I don’t think there are quick fixes for that, I think it’s interesting to understand that, and I do think that referees are well advised to work on this and I’m sure they do. And yeah, but does have to find ways of then interacting with the players even if you are not sure in this situation, by trying to communicate it in a confident manner, but also being authentic and then trying to create understanding in the players– maybe telling them, talking to them why you decided like that. Being human too. I mean, people come with this tendency that they do show that in their body language.

Zach: It gets back to the theme we’ve been talking about a few times where it’s like, you can use some of this knowledge to your benefit in various ways, but you also have to be aware that using it badly will have repercussions for you.

Philip: Yes. Yes. Exactly, because humans aren’t perfect. I mean, referees are getting assistance now from technology, which I think is a good idea. That you can’t see everything that’s going on the pitch, and then if you have methods of reinsuring yourself as a video assistant referee and things like that, that’s beneficial. That will help the referee and they won’t be so often in situations where they made a call that might have been wrong but then they can correct it later. This is likely to cause less friction on the playing field.

Zach: Would you like to talk about any other important work that you’ve done in sports behavior, or do you think we’ve covered a good amount of it there?

Philip: Yeah, I think we’ve talked about very interesting work. I can maybe talk a bit more about ongoing work that we are also doing. We also trying to use a lot of technology now to automatically trace facial behavior during sports competitions and trying to find contingencies between that, and working on automated ways of detecting certain behavioral patterns like posture during game situations. This is something that’s interesting that’s also a lot of fun, but we are still quite at the beginning of that. Also here, for example, I think you mentioned that you also have a poker background. Is that correct?

Zach: Yeah, I used to play for a living and I’m most well known for my books on poker tells and poker behavior. Yeah.

Philip: Exactly. We’ve also played around with that, for example. I mean, there’s so much interesting material you can use in this research. We fuse these facial emotion recognitions on thousands of images from poker players for example when they’ve got a strong hand and when they’ve got a weak hand. I haven’t found any contingencies there that there might be something that’s associated over the players when they are bluffing, in comparison to when they have a good hand from this facial recognition software. This is something that we’ve looked into. We’ve also tried to find facial patterns, for example if a penalty taker scores a penalty or misses a penalty. Also there, we haven’t found much.

Zach: How can people keep up with what you’re doing now?

Philip: I always try to publish the book that I’m doing. That’s always slow, scientific publishing always takes quite a bit of time. I upload all my studies on ResearchGate, at least if the journalists don’t get rid of the articles again due to copyright things. But people can also always send me an email if they’re interested in the research and I can send them copies of the papers.

Zach: If you do ever want any help on the poker-related research, I’ve written some critiques of past poker studies and I’ve also helped people who have done poker behaviour-related studies. So just throwing that out there if you ever just want some help on anything, let me know.

Philip: Yeah, that’d be actually really interesting because as I was saying at the moment was more playing around. We’ve got interested students who wanted to do that and it’s quite easy to get some of the footage. Yeah, I’d be very interested and I’m always looking for interesting avenues for new research.

Zach: Yeah, and one more. I’ve always been surprised that there aren’t more studies involving in poker, because it’s such an interesting and very formal environment to study some very specific behaviors. I think one of the reasons is it’s hard to set up the game and to do your own setup of a game is difficult, it has a few factors there. But yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity for studying very specific situations.

Philip: Yeah, especially the nonverbal behaviour. [chuckles] This is something of course that you link very much with poker. But I find great is that nowadays you’ve got all this video footage. And if you set that up… Well, it’s actually all there and we’ve got tools for analyzing facial behavior, we’ve got tools for analyzing body language. And it’s just interesting to gain a more systematic understanding. At the moment I’m quite confident that you don’t have these universal tells or something. But you can find interesting patterns within an individual depending on the situation.

Zach: I will say– do not want to get too much off on a tangent– but I will say the big challenge with using the footage that’s out there is that one of the most important places to find poker tells is when someone has made a significant bet. And in televised poker footage, the usual editing or directing approach is to cut away from the person who has just bet. So that’s one of the most frustrating things for me as someone who’s made videos. They always cut away at the most interesting part when you want to study the person who’s just made a significant bet, you know? Anyway, it’s not to get off on a tangent, but…

Philip: No, no, that’s good.

Zach: There can be challenges there. I actually said that in my Poker Tells video course because I use a lot of televised footage in that. And I say, “It’s frustrating because I would have a lot of things to show you here, but I can’t because they always cut away from the players.” Anyway, this has been great, Phillip. Thanks for coming on and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Philip: Yeah, thank you very much. It was a lot of fun. And yeah, very good questions.

Zach: That was sports psychology researcher Philip Furley.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at If you enjoyed this episode, just a note that I’ve done quite a few sports-related and game-related episodes. I’ve done talks on reading behavior in American football, in tennis, in mixed martial arts, and a couple episodes on poker tells. 

Thanks again to Alan Crawley, also known as Sin Verba, for his research and help with this episode. 

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