Monday, 15 October 2018

Craig’s understatement of anaerobicity of modern football – and modern sports generally

Although I have, ever since reading the “Notes by the Editor” in the 1985 Wisden possessed substantial nostalgia for sports in the past, those with whom I have communicated on forums have always said that modern players would simply be too fit for older players who were less well-trained.

However, it has always occurred to me that in many sports, especially cricket but also to a considerable extent football:
  1. players play less than they once did (in cricket top players play only three-fifths as much as in the immediate postwar period)
  2. injuries are much more frequent and severe in today’s sports than even in my childhood and especially vis-à-vis the immediate postwar period
  3. substitutions are much more frequent in today’s sports than they were in the immediate postwar years
There is one simple and logical explanation for this apparent anomaly of less play and more injuries with greater fitness. This is that the surfaces on which today’s cricketers and footballers play – due to hotter, drier climates, covered pitches, improved drying and closed roof stadiums – are much harder and possess much less “give” when a body hits the ground. There is also the possibility that more muscular, less fatty bodies would have an analogous effect. However, this hypothesis is not supported by the fact that the trends noted above have been more marked in cricket where body contact is rare than in football where it is a basic part of play.
Pages 52 and 53 of Triple Blue: Jack Oatey, John Wynne and the Whole Damned Thing (published in 2004)
A much more sophisticated explanation for the anomaly noted in the previous paragraph is based upon the distinction between “aerobic” and “anaerobic” sports. “Aerobic” sports, as the name suggests, use O2 as a fuel for the body. Contrariwise, “anaerobic” sports do not use O2 as a fuel but instead break down phosphocreatine and glycogen, which produces energy for the working muscles and allows more intense short-term power.

Neil Craig notes in the attached pages above that “football is becoming more of an anaerobic game” with more intense breakdown of phosphocreatine and glycogen, but in fact he has undoubtedly understated the extent to which this has occurred. According to another page of Triple Blue, the distance of ball movement per football game has more than doubled despite a 20 percent reduction in playing time. However, since the middle 1990s scoring has actually fallen and competitive imbalance increased. This implies that increased ball movement cannot mean longer kicking:
  • if defenders were not outplaying forwards, constant longer kicking would logically mean higher scores
  • if defenders were outplaying forwards to an increased degree, less competitive imbalance would be expected since fewer “inside 50s” would lead to goals
  • there is no evidence for more “inside 50s” with increasing ball movement, let alone proportionately more
An increasingly anaerobic football game better explains the trends in ball movement, scoring and competitive imbalance. Cricket has become more anaerobic to a more marked degree than football with the replacement of much first-class cricket with one-day and 20/20 play. In fact, although neither Craig nor True Blue author Barry Nicholls discusses this, it seems logical that almost all sports have become increasingly anaerobic since the 1950s for one simple reason. That reason being the inherent unsuitability of free-flowing aerobic sports for TV consumption. This is especially true of commercial television as continuous play forbids periodic advertisements. Aerobic sports are also unsuitable for a mass working class with limited time to watch as spectators, and the time involved in their practice is also unsuitable for the working class. The physical dangers of highly anaerobic play are seldom considered when knee and other injuries in football, or strains in fast bowlers, are discussed. However, they are real, and as inevitable a consequence of the dominance of the TV dollar as the anaerobic play that produces them.

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