Monthly Archives: September 2015

Doping in rugby union: a case of papering over the cracks?

By Gavin Williams

Image courtesy of sscreations at

Image courtesy of sscreations at

An average of 7.8 million viewers tuned in to watch events at Twickenham on Friday 18th September as the self-proclaimed third largest sporting event in the world, the Rugby World Cup, began.

In the lead-up to the event – and amidst the current turmoil surrounding other elite sports such as athletics and cycling – World Rugby’s Anti-Doping Compliance manager, David Ho, has boldly claimed that the sport’s anti-doping programme is the envy of sports around the world.

Ho cites numerous reasons for this including an increased budget, the introduction of the athlete biological passport in 2014, and mandatory anti-doping education for players from under-20 level. The results appear to support Ho’s claim with only four positive tests from 2,100 elite samples taken in 2014 – less than one percent.

This however does not tell the full story. The timing of Ho’s proclamation coincided with the news that the 22-cap South Africa hooker, ‘Chiliboy’ Ralepelle, had been suspended for two years after testing positive for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid. And of course, some may argue that the lack of positive results simply indicates that elite athletes who choose to cheat are merely one step ahead.

While this positive test may be one of only a small number of exceptions at the elite level, further investigation of the sport closer to home reveals a slightly more disturbing picture.

Inspection of the UK Anti-Doping list reveals that of the 50 athletes and coaches currently serving bans for an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV), 16 are rugby union players. If we include rugby league, this figures rises to 29. The vast majority of sanctions are for the use of anabolic agents but the more surprising statistic is they are predominantly issued to players at lower levels of the sport. So what are the potential reasons for this?

Research evidence indicates that during the 20th century the stature and weight of rugby union players increased significantly, with body mass increases far exceeding those in the general population of young males during the same timeframe. Since the game turned professional in 1995 this trend has continued. Evidence from 2002- 2011 shows that the average height and weight for elite players in England increased for almost all positions, with significant differences in weight evident for fly half and back-row forwards (Fuller et al., 2013).

An interesting case comparison to demonstrate this is the New Zealand World Cup winning squad of 1987 and the squad of 2015 – favourites to retain the title. In 1987, the average weight was 99.5kg and 79kg for the forwards and backs respectively compared to 113kg and 95kg in 2015.

When accounting for the importance of size, strength and power it is perhaps slightly less surprising that the majority of doping bans are issued to those players attempting to gain entry to the elite levels of the game. The pressures faced by young people aspiring to ‘make it’ to the pinnacle of the sport – including the need for players to become bigger and stronger along with the benefits and rewards – can lead some to take short cuts. These pressures are the precise reasons cited by Sam Chalmers, son of former Scotland and British & Irish Lions fly-half Craig, who received a 2 year ban after testing positive for two anabolic steroids at a Scotland under-20 training session in 2013.

So, in returning to David Ho’s comments, one factor above all else is clear: while there may or may not be a problem at the elite level of the game, alongside rigorous testing procedures, sanctions and campaigns, education must begin at the junior level for all players so that they are aware of the inherent dangers and consequences of doping in the sport. Only then perhaps can rugby address the issue of doping at all levels.

Another penalty kick to touch…

By Martin Rhys

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans


Last week I drew attention – not that it needed drawing – to the way Japan spurned the offer of a kick at goal to draw a match against South Africa with the final whistle about to blow.

It worked perfectly for them. They went on to score a try and make the biggest rugby headlines ever and more admirers amongst neutral rugby fans than probably any other national side in the World Cup.

Last weekend, another team were three points behind with just minutes left on the clock. The referee blew for a penalty. They had a metronomically accurate kicker who hadn’t looked remotely like missing anything all night. Three points and a draw were there for the taking – a formality, a foregone conclusion.

Just like Japan, they spurned the kick and went for touch.

They lost.

The team of course was the host team, England. The opposition was Wales. Now, putting aside for the moment my unfettered delight at the result and the way in which it was achieved, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the way in which the same decision at pretty much the same point in two matches had such dramatically contrasting consequences. I wonder how much of it was to do with the effect the decision had on the opposition.

When South Africa gave away their penalty, they were certain that they had thrown away their narrow victory and would have to put up with a draw. No other eventuality crossed their minds at that point. Japan had played out of their skins, yes, but after all there was a certain world order and Japan would respect that and be grateful beyond their wildest expectations for a share of the spoils. When Japan kicked for touch, it hit home very directly that Japan believed they could win and that belief of Japan’s had an intimidating effect on the Springboks because they hadn’t for one moment seen it coming.

When Chris Robshaw turned down a definite draw and ordered Farrell to go for the touchline, Wales must have been delighted. Rather than wonder like the Boks what on earth was going on, the Welsh reaction would have been more like,

‘Oh, you really think so, do you? Well, let’s see, shall we?’ Or words to that effect…

Not long before that penalty, Wales had lost another three backs to injury to take their total to six, and in the face of that cruel depletion had scored a try where a scrum-half playing on the wing had cross-kicked to give the other scrum-half a chance to pick up and score. Which he did.

For probably the first time in the match, Wales were full of themselves. The men on the field were defying the odds of cruel injury and a chariot-ridden Twickenham, and believed that they could do it.

It was absolutely the wrong time to challenge them to defend a try. They would have died rather than concede.

Two almost identical decisions on what to do with a last-minute penalty. One spot-on. The other so very wrong.

For more Rugby World Cup related articles, visit the OpenLearn Rugby World Cup Hub.

Siblings in the scrum: long history of brothers makes rugby a family affair

By Jessica Pinchbeck

It’s well known that family plays a key role in a child’s initial socialisation into sport and his or her continued participation. This family involvement is certainly evident on a Sunday morning at my local rugby club where siblings of both genders and all ages participate in a range of activities. Add to this the fact that as many of the mums and dads are former players who now help with coaching and refereeing, with a few grandparents thrown in as well, there can often be three generations of the same family involved.

The level of family involvement in the 2015 Rugby World Cup appears to confirm research that family influences a players’ introduction and experience of the sport in a variety of ways – from taking up the game to sibling rivalry driving performance. Being an England fan I was already aware of the two sets of brothers in the England squad – Billy and Mako Vunipola and the brothers Ben and Tom Youngs (whose father Nick was a former England scrum-half).

Tom and Ben Youngs, whose father also played rugby for England.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Then there is Scotland and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie. Interestingly it was Jonny, the younger sibling, who first took up rugby, sparking Richie to then follow suit.

Scotland’s siblings Jonny and Richie Gray.
Jeff Holmes / PA Archive/PA Images

The Ireland squad features brothers Dave and Rob Kearney. Rob has said that his passion for rugby was strongly influenced by his father’s love of the sport though he also acknowledged the important role of mothers in today’s game – if his mum didn’t want him playing the game he wouldn’t be doing it.

What all these sets of brothers have in common is their closeness and the bond between them, as well as a healthy element of sibling rivalry. Dave Kearney explains this relationship: “If there’s someone with you it’s easier. It’s competitive too. You’re working hard against each other and trying to get the best out of each other. It was good having someone you can work with and push on.”

Owen and Ben Franks are the latest in the line of 43 sets of brothers who have played for the All Blacks over the years.
Reuters/Nigel Marple

New Zealand has a long history of brotherly participation with 43 sets of brothers having played for the All Blacks at different times. However for those brothers lining up alongside each other this figure drops to nine. This year Ben and Owen Franks make up the fraternal component of the 2015 squad. Once again it was their father who was instrumental in their rugby career, training the duo from a young age. Like the Kearney brothers, sibling competition also plays a key part and Owen revealed that: “Ben would try to bait me into fighting him because I was so much weaker and smaller but as I got older I could start to compete a little bit more.”

Springboks brothers Bismark and Jannie du Plessis.
REUTERS/Howard Burditt

Canada also join the brotherly club with the inclusion of Phil and Jamie MacKenzie as do the Springboks featuring Jannie Du Plessis and Bismarck Du Plessis. The Du Plessis brothers have spoken openly about their strong relationship and bond and even made their Springboks debut together in the same game. Their closeness is magnified by their working, living and playing together and their unified goal of playing in a World Cup final watched by their father.

Potential record breakers

At the top of the list is Samoa, which is fielding three brothers: George, Tusi and Ken Pisi, in the same squad. If all three appear on the pitch at the same time they will create Rugby World Cup history. George explained his feelings of brotherly love: “When Ken was small, Tusi and I used him for tackling practice … Later, whenever we were on opposite sides in a game, I had this extra-special feeling of just wanting to smash him.”

Samoa is fielding three brothers in this year’s World Cup: Tusiata, Ken and George Pisi.
Reuters/Paul Childs

Samoa are no strangers to family ties and the Tuilagi brothers Henry, Freddie, Anitelea and Sanele have all played internationally for Samoa and brother Manu played for England. Brother Alesana Tuilagi, a winger in the Samoan 2015 squad would therefore also contribute to the history books if he makes his Rugby World Cup debut.

The family connections continue still beyond brothers, with other family links in the competition including Ireland’s Luke Fitzgerald whose father Des played for Ireland, Welsh back Ross Moriarty who is following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who both played internationally for Wales, and the England player Owen Farrell whose father Andy, a former England player, is also part of the England coaching staff. Rugby, it seems, truly is a family affair.

Jessica Pinchbeck, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An age-old rivalry decided by modern scientific advances? Hitting the peaks of performance

By Gavin Williams

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Saturday represents the 127th International match between England and Wales, in what is the most significant game of the Rugby World Cup so far and undoubtedly the most significant match-up between the two nations in over a decade. At this point in the tournament, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A win could ensure one foot is firmly placed in the quarter finals but a loss ensures a must-win game against an in-form Australia XV who have just won the Rugby Championship. Of the 126 International matches between the two, England have won 58 and Wales 56.

The potential impact of home advantage is well documented, but Warren Gatland’s side have won twice at Rugby HQ since 2008, so the Twickenham fear-factor felt by Welsh teams of old is one not shared by the current group. Others have commented on the psychological impact of kit colour, and this may bode well for Wales as red has been shown to be associated with greater success. Debates will rage about the respective starting XVs, what they mean for the style of play adopted and how each will attempt to manage the game. These debates will extend beyond kick-off, at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening and continue well after the final whistle sounds.

At this level of the sport, what is clear however is the fine margin which differentiates between success and failure. This is encapsulated in a term, marginal gains, often associated with British Cycling and Team Sky and coined by Sir Dave Brailsford who describes it as “… the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of … and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

So how does this relate to Saturday’s game?

The search for these marginal gains and the extra edge to enhance performance explains the reason behind the intense – and somewhat gruelling – training camps undertaken by both teams in preparation for the tournament. The phrase attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” certainly cannot be directed at either camp in advance of the tournament.

Wales held a two-week camp at high altitude in Switzerland, employing a ‘live high-train low’ (LHTL) methodology. There were training camps in the heat of Doha where the squad continued to sleep at high altitude, in Colwyn Bay, north Wales and finally at their oft-utilised camp in Spala, Poland. England meanwhile utilised a two-week high altitude camp travelling in Denver, Colorado, approximately a mile above sea level, employing a ‘live high-train high’ (LHTH) methodology followed with training at their base in Pennyhill Park, Surrey.

Although the specific method employed by both teams differed, the use of high altitude highlights the investment in state-of-the-art training methods to gain an advantage.

But how would this impact on their performance at the Rugby World Cup?

Altitude presents a distinct physiological challenge to the body due to decreased barometric pressure, and thus, decreased partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) – termed hypoxia. It is widely documented to adversely affect human performance in the short-term (West, 1999), and initially lessens the intensity and duration of training that athletes are able to sustain due to the decreased availability of oxygen for working muscles.

Acclimatization to altitude however can result in central and peripheral physiological adaptations that improve performance, perhaps the most important an increase in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This is achieved through a proliferation of red blood cell production initiated by erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone predominantly produced in the kidneys and perhaps more commonly known for its use in blood doping by cyclists, which can enhance endurance performance and recovery.

More traditionally associated with endurance athletes, the potential impact of altitude training for team sports is now being explored (Brocherie et al., 2015).

The use of a LHTH methodology may be limiting as it detrimentally impacts on training intensity so other methods have been sought. Live-high train-low (LHTL), the method adopted by the Wales camp in Switzerland and Doha, is seen as the ‘Gold-standard’ altitude training method to enhance athletic performance (Levine and Stray-Gundersen, 1997). It is increasingly being used by sports teams at the elite level, as it can realise the benefits of increased red blood cell production attained through living and sleeping at higher altitudes without compensating training intensity. It therefore avoids the potential issues encountered with LHTH methods. This is of particular importance for relatively short stays at altitude, like those undertaken by the Wales and England camps.

Furthermore, in an intermittent sport such as rugby, increased red blood cell count and enhanced oxygen-carrying capacity can promote recovery between the bouts of exercise, which may have an impact during the latter stages of the match. This of course may influence the tactical approach with the sides seeking to employ a high-tempo game, keeping the ball in play for long durations to tire their opponents.   The Welsh squad is renowned for the emphasis placed on fitness levels while the commentary team during last Friday’s opening game against Fiji highlighted the importance of keeping the ball in play for the English side. It could well be, then, that the side which is better prepared physically will emerge victorious as the impact of fatigue on decision making and the ability to stick to the game-plan may well have a significant impact on the outcome.

So off the back of a strenuous summer of training, which team will be savouring the fruits of their labour? By 9:45 p.m. tomorrow evening, we will find out.

Kevin the Kiwi

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

Without doubt Sunday afternoon was the most stressful of my married life……. The All Blacks going into half time a point down to Argentina changed my husband from the usually pretty relaxed Kiwi I married into someone who actually started to shout at the TV.

I guess it started when the Haka singing Kevin the Kiwi arrived from my parents in law last week and all talk and planning of our social life over the next 6 weeks was adapted to ensure that all games could be watched in full.

Kevin the Kiwi  (Picture by Candice Lingam-Willgoss)

Kevin the Kiwi
(Picture by Candice Lingam-Willgoss)


While both from an academic and personal perspective I am aware of the passion and reaction that is often associated with a sporting contest on the international stage, I was still left wondering why it means so much? There is such a strong emotional connection between fans and teams that tears of joy or sadness are common place at many games – Argentina being a great example.

What causes this emotional link between athlete and fan? Even I felt ‘something’ watching New Zealand play (and not just the worry of a potentially grumpy husband for the next few days). Some findings report this connection is developed as early as when children are 9 years old in that “they’re capable of developing an emotional, long-term attachment to a sport, team, or particular athlete”. This level of attachment may also be permeated into adolescents and adulthood by the concept of basking in reflected glory. As human beings we want to be successful and that in turn means being associated with success and as such phrases such as ‘we won’ or ‘they didn’t stand a chance against us’ are common place following your own teams victory.

While these are more psychologically driven explanations of fandom, other scientific explanations reveal that it could be the pleasure seeking side of us that craves success as whenever a fan’s team experiences a win, that individual’s “pleasure centers” will be ignited via a surge in dopamine.

What is clear is that there is unlikely to be one clear reason why people love sport or why individuals feel so connected, this is likely to be different for different people one of the leading sports-fan psychologist in North America, Daniel Wann sums this up nicely – surmising that there are potentially eight different motivations for why people love sport:

“People like sports because they get self-esteem benefits from it. People like sports because they have money on it. People like sports because their boyfriend or girlfriend or family member likes sports. People like sports because it’s exciting. People like sports because it’s aesthetically pleasing. People like sports because, like the theater, it is a venue for emotional expression. People like sports because they need an escape from real-world troubles. People like sports because it provides a sense of belonging, a connection to a wider world.” 

So perhaps for me, my connection was because of my husband, whatever the reason I know that an All Blacks win guarantees a happy home!

The Best Rugby Result Ever?

By Martin Rhys

I’m old enough to remember Wales thumping up cricket scores against Japan during the 1970s. Phil Bennett the diminutive Llanelli outside-half would waltz through the Japanese defence at will, thrilled to be playing against somebody his own size for the first time since he was eight.

He wouldn’t have been so thrilled this week. How times have changed. Emphatically no longer the whipping boys of world rugby, Japan turned the tables good and proper on a rugby super-power, the mighty Springboks.

And it wasn’t a case of putting up a good show as gallant losers either. They actually beat the two times world champions, matching them for power and speed and whacking them for spirit and pace.

So much about the victory was superlative that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Probably at the end.

Three points behind with the clock going into red. The referee blows for a penalty to Japan. The penalty is easily kickable, particularly for a man who has barely missed a pot at goal all afternoon. Kick this penalty and they draw with the world champions. What a result!

They kick to touch…

Now come on! Who amongst you – after 80 bone-shuddering, lung-vacuuming, soul-wrenching minutes – would not have taken the chance of a draw against South Africa? And a much more than honourable draw, a draw which would have made headlines across the rugby world as the mighty Boks were humbled. I’d have taken the three points. Be honest, so would you.

Not Japan.

They were after bigger headlines, headlines which would turn the Boks’ humility into humiliation. They went for touch, won the lineout, and for over four interminably red minutes spread and twisted the South African defence until the hint of a space was enough for Hesketh (not the most obviously Japanese of names but who cares!) to make the line.

Consider for a moment the amount of belief in yourself and your team that went into that decision to go for a win. I can’t think of many nations in that David v Goliath position who would have done the same. Yet it was simply the emotional and indeed logical culmination of the belief and spirit which they had shown throughout the match. Close-ups of Japanese forwards during a lineout were nothing short of awe-inspiring and even scary. They would permit nothing to be an obstacle to completing the goal they had come to achieve. That goal defined them. For 85 minutes that’s all their lives were about. It was what they had to do.

(A short diversion here – read last year’s Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It will repay you mightily and add to the insight into the Japanese psyche that you glimpsed in this match.)

As for the World Cup, it couldn’t have had a better result at a more perfect stage of the competition. All the preliminary matches with the no-hopers acting as cannon-fodder for the big boys, the matches nobody is remotely interested in watching? Well, Japan changed all that!

Rugby – A Blow to the Head, a blow to the sport?

Tonight on BBC Panorama “Rugby and The Brain – Tackling the Truth” the Chief Medical Officer of the World Rugby, Martin Raftery, will announce plans to alter the laws of the game to limit the risk of players suffering concussion. He will confirm that there will be a specific focus on tackling. Only a few days ago, The Telegraph reported that “Jonathan Thomas quits with epilepsy caused by multiple concussion”. Following mild seizures and memory loss that he believes was the result of sustaining multiple concussions, the Worcester forward and former player for Wales, announced that he was retiring from rugby on medical advice. He is not alone, in the media this year, it has been reported that a number of high profile rugby players such as Rory Watt-Jones (Cardiff Blues) and Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster and Ireland) have had to retire from the sport due to concussion related injuries.

Rugby World Cup (Land Rover MENA) Creative commons license Downloaded from

Now in light of those stories, with the Rugby World Cup underway and all the excitement that has already been ignited, the pragmatic and perhaps more curmudgeon-like souls amongst us may turn our attention to the dangers associated with a sport that kindles our national passions. Of all the injuries that can occur in rugby, concussion is now the number one cause of missing matches through injury at elite levels.

Concussion can occur in any situation where a blow to the head occurs, such as in road traffic accidents (RTA) or as a result of a work-related accident, however, its incidence is becoming increasingly common in athletes who are prone to knocks to the head as part of their sport. Certain sports are more susceptible than others such as: rugby, NFL football, boxing, ice-hockey, rugby, football (soccer), equestrian sports, cycling, and diving. It is so topical an issue that in December a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Will Smith will be released simply entitled “Concussion”. In the United States there has been a prolonged debate about the health dangers of NFL football following the mounting evidence that repeated concussions can lead to degenerative brain disease (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE]). CTE is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterised by a diminished ability to think critically, slower motor skills, and can lead to volatile mood swings. Unfortunately, at the current time CTE can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem. These risks alongside the large financial settlements that have been awarded to former NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions should make us ponder whether rugby may be the next sport in the concussion spot light and whether the risks associated with rugby comprises a price worth paying.

But it is not all doom and gloom, although researchers have found that concussions in rugby are common, it has been found that concussion accounts for 29% of all injuries associated with illegal play, but only 9% of injuries sustained in legal play (Gardner, Iverson, Levi, Schofield, Kay-Lambkin et al., 2015). Accordingly, Roberts, Trewartha, England, and Stokes (2015) investigated collapsed scrums and collision tackles, and found that injury prevention in the tackle should focus on technique with strict enforcement of existing laws for illegal collision tackles. Furthermore, World Rugby is taking a proactive stance on concussion identification and management heading towards “a cross-sport and society approach to concussion to ensure consistency of research, education, prevention and management strategies to further protect athletes and members of the public”.

Sports such as rugby carry risks, but through legal play and active pitch side management of suspected head injuries, we can but hope that this World Cup is remembered for exciting play and home nation success rather than media reports of players with serious head-related injuries.

Concussion in Sport will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness module coming soon.


Are we any good at sport?

By Ben Oakley

Team sports dominate the general public’s perception of sporting success. The UK proudly looks forward to supporting all four of its national teams in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But, if some, or all, fail to qualify for the final stages of world or European Championships – as happened with the football teams in 2008 – there is collective gloom at our demise. After all, many team sports were developed in Britain – so shouldn’t we be good at them?

We tend to judge ourselves by success in team sports which are closely linked to national identity: football, cricket and rugby. Although national teams can do well in cricket and rugby, these are essentially not seen as ‘world’ sports since they reflect colonial dissemination – we should do well, given the small number of nations who play these sports professionally (less than 15). Consider the data on registered rugby players in England (340,000), Wales (73,000), Scotland (49,000) and Ireland (97,000) compared to top ranked New Zealand (148,000). Click to see this infographicExternal link 10 from World RugbyExternal link 11 for more information and statistics.

In global football, on the other hand, England’s recent achievements are lamentable and reaching the last four (last achieved in 1990) of the World Cup seem a distant past. The rhetoric in the build up to such events is astonishingly optimistic but the hope often belies reality. But in terms of the Premier League football commercial ‘product’, we are world beaters with it surpassing the American football equivalent (NFL) in 2012 for global broadcast and sponsorship revenues.

Two England Rugby players

Creative commons image Credit: By David Barkhausen [CC BY-SA 2.0External link 12], via Flickr Creative CommonsExternal link 13

But what of other sports? Britain has a more diverse range of sports than many other countries, and with some esoteric examples such as Octopush or ‘underwater hockey’; we should celebrate this plurality.

From 2000-08 the UK’s Sporting Preferences survey asked some 2,000 British people in which sports they would ‘most like to see British teams achieve success’. Athletics and football easily topped the polls, depending when the survey was undertaken. Swimming came next followed by tennis, gymnastics, boxing, rugby, cricket and other sports.

The public then, does also particularly connect with Olympic sports, and we are very good at them as the 2012 Olympics showed. The trouble is such sports have got harder and harder to win as more nations have been formed in the post-1989 democratisation era. In addition, many nations such as China have entered the ‘sporting arms race’ to gain recognition. This means, rightly or wrongly, more and more is being spent on nurturing sporting champions, including sophisticated methods for nurturing those who show promise. Sadly though, British celebrations of the Olympic Games have recently got a lot harder with the loss of BBC’s control of broadcast rights for the Games from 2022, being sold to Discovery, owner of satellite channel Eurosport.

In the increasingly competitive Olympic environment, Great Britain is excelling, with Olympic squads in sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing dominating the world stage and our Olympic athletes’ behaviour contrasting strongly with that of some footballers. The British team arrive at the 2010 Winter Olympics, led by Shelly Rudman

Creative commons image Credit: S. YumeExternal link 14 under CC-BYExternal link 15 licence

However, winning margins at this level are tiny with, for example, five of Great Britain’s gold medals in 2004 won by a total margin of 0.545 sec. A wobble here, an incorrect body position there or a failure to use a new training aid can mean second place rather than first. The role of sport science and psychology in understanding these small performance margins is immense, and people’s interest in this subject, as well as blossoming employment opportunities following the 2012 Olympic legacy has underpinned the success of The Open University’s degree in Sport, Fitness and Coaching16.

Great Britain has enhanced its Olympic rankings with the use of National Lottery money with the National Lottery Act being specially amended in 1997 to make this possible. There have been dramatic improvements in results in the 20 years since the nadir of 1996 when only one gold medal was won (15 medals in all): the improvements have been by a factor of four with 60 medals (20 gold) anticipated in Rio 2016. There is also evidence to suggest that national sporting success does matter to those in power. Indeed in 2002, government economists searched to find economic links between sporting success and productivity and GDP. They concluded that the ‘feel good factor’ alone was worth the use of public money to help achieve success.

So, we might be better at sport than we think. In fact we ought to celebrate all success, regardless of how well we do in the team sports which so often dominate

This article originally appeared on the OpenLearn website. Click here to read the original article. OpenLearn also has a Rugby World Cup Hub containing many more interesting articles.

Home or Away – can kit colour make a difference at the Rugby World Cup?

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

With England’s opener tonight against Fiji marking the start of the 2015 tournament, and the rugby gaze of the world firmly focused on the UK somewhat surprisingly England will not walk out in their white home kit. World Cup regulations state every stadium must be treated as a neutral venue and as such a coin toss decides who is given the ‘home’ honour and who the away. Somewhat ironically England find themselves in a pool with Fiji who are the one other side in the tournament whose jersey is also white. While the England team don’t appear too concerned about this, there are a number of psychological factors that can potentially come into play where kit colour is involved. Could this switch to the red – traditionally associated with the Welsh, actually be an advantage to England?

Colour has long been thought to influence human mood, emotion, and aggression as well as being recognised as an element of signalling in competitive interactions in many non-human species (Hill and Barton, 2005).  Colours have been found to contain certain unique psychological properties and can have a strong impact on our emotional feelings. (Hemphill, 1996; Wright n.d).  For example, Red is viewed as a powerful and physical colour, masculine in nature that can stimulate and raise pulse while also carrying with it negative links to defiance and aggression.  Blue on the other hand is viewed as the colour of the mind and with that comes connotations of efficiency, logic, coolness and comfort. Valdez and Mehrabian (1994) also found that individuals were likely to attribute emotional characteristics to colour even at a young age (Zentner, 2001).  These early findings lead us to consider the impact that colour may have in sporting contests.

Research by Hill and Barton (2005) investigated the link between uniform colour and match outcome in a number of different combat sports (boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling) at the 2004 Olympics, where competitors were randomly assigned either a blue or red uniform. Interestingly their findings revealed that that for all sports there was a consistent and statistically significant pattern that showed a greater frequency of winners wearing red than blue.  Conclusions can subsequently be drawn, based on earlier colour research, that this success is related to the psychological responses that individuals have to colour, in particular the perception that red is associated with dominance in the eyes of the opponent. Hill and Barton (2005) further suggested that this enhanced win rate could be reflective on an innate response to perceive red as a signal of dominance, however they did further surmise that colour would only really determine outcome in relatively even contests.

While there seems to be evidence that colour does impact performance within individual sports, Attrill, Gresty, Hill and Barton (2008) were keen to investigate whether colour also has an impact on performance in team sports. They examined the colour red and its associations with long term team success in English football.  Their investigation revealed that English football teams wearing a red strip had been champions more often than would be expected on the basis of the proportion of clubs that played in red.   This finding was also supported by Greenlees, Leyland, Thelwell and Filby (2008) who focused their investigation on Football penalty takers’ uniform colour.  Their study revealed that penalty takers wearing red were perceived by the Goalkeepers in two key ways: 1. that they would possesses more positive characteristics than those wearing white and 2.  And that their chance of successfully saving penalty kicks from them was lower than those wearing white.

While research in sport has predominantly focused on the colour red, some earlier research by Frank and Gilovich (1988) examined black uniforms and links to aggression.  Black is a colour frequently associated with death in many cultures, and can psychologically be associated with something menacing (Kaya & Epps, 2004).    Findings revealed that when teams (NFL and ice hockey)  were wearing black there was a significant increase in the number of penalties awarded against them, which was attributed to both social perception (biased judgements of referees) and self-perception (increased aggressiveness of players themselves even though they are wearing and not seeing the colour).  What is clear is that whether down to person perception, self-perception or the psychological properties they hold colour does influence the success of team and individual athletes in even contests.  It is clear that this area warrants further research but that it could have implications for regulations that govern sporting attire.

Much of the research that has been conducted into team sports has focused on football, it will be interesting to reflect after this Rugby World Cup whether similar trends are apparent.  In the meantime if you want to keep a check on the success of the teams here is a summary of the home and away kits of the 7 teams with the shortest odds!


Country Home Away Odds
New Zealand Black White 5/4
England White Red 9/2
South Africa Green/gold White 6/11
Australia Gold White 8/1
Ireland Green Black/green 9/1
France Light Blue Burgundy 12/1
Wales Red Blue 25/1

Taken From –


This article is an adapted version of an article that originally appeared on the OpenLearn website. Click here to read the original article. OpenLearn also has a Rugby World Cup Hub containing many more interesting articles.


What learning style are you?

All students vary in their style of learning and whilst some are quite critical of ‘learning styles’ perhaps they might be a helpful concept in which to guide you towards learning experiences that suit your style. Learning styles may be described as characteristic preferences for alternative ways of absorbing and processing information (Litzinger, Wise, & Felder, 2007). This concept was originally proposed by Kolb (1984) who devised a learning cycle, which incorporates four main approaches to learning:

  1. Concrete Experience                             (Feeling)
  2. Reflective Observation                         (Watching)
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation                 (Thinking)
  4. Active Experimentation                       (Doing)

Whilst, to some extent, every student should respond to each of the learning styles, everyone will inevitably have a preferred learning style and respond to this more and it appears that the majority of sport science students tend to lean more towards being ‘active learners’.

Felder and Solomon (2007) have found that a ‘guided discovery’ form of teaching helpful in the long term. Furthermore this style of teaching can promote more mastery and less performance-focused teaching behaviours andmore adaptive cognitive and affective responses than the command/practice style (Morgan, Kingston, & Sproule, 2005). That’s why the activities that we include can be beneficial for promoting more task orientated learning.

A more detailed model has been adapted and developed and these combined styles may help you understand your learning styles even further.

Accommodating           –          Feeling and doing

Diverging                     –            Feeling and watching

Converging                   –           Thinking and doing

Assimilating                 –           Thinking and watching

Kolb's LS

As you can see from the model, Felder and Soloman (2007) further extend previous ideas of learning types. Not only are there ‘active’ and ‘reflective’ learners, there are also ‘sensing’ and ‘intuitive’ learners; ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ learners; ‘sequential’ and ‘global’ learners; understanding which learning style you might be beneficial for you.

If you need a bit of assistance, then take an ‘informal test’ to see what learning style might suit you best (remember to take these results with a ‘pinch of salt’).

Allow 10-15 minutes