Skill not athleticism predicts individual variation in match performance of soccer players

Robbie S. Wilson, Gwendolyn K. David, Sean C. Murphy, Michael Angilletta, Amanda C. Niehaus, Andrew H. Hunter, Michelle D. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Just as evolutionary biologists endeavour to link phenotypes to fitness, sport scientists try to identify traits that determine athlete success. Both disciplines would benefit from collaboration, and to illustrate this, we used an analytical approach common to evolutionary biology to isolate the phenotypes that promote success in soccer, a complex activity of humans played in nearly every modern society. Using path analysis, we quantified the relationships among morphology, balance, skill, athleticism and performance of soccer players. We focused on performance in two complex motor activities: a simple game of soccer tennis (1 on 1), and a standard soccer match (11 on 11). In both contests, players with greater skill and balancewere more likely to perform better. However, maximal athletic ability was not associated with success in a game. A social network analysis revealed that skill also predicted movement. The relationships between phenotypes and success during individual and team sports have potential implications for how selection acts on these phenotypes, in humans and other species, and thus should ultimately interest evolutionary biologists. Hence, we propose a field of evolutionary sports science that lies at the nexus of evolutionary biology and sports science. This would allow biologists to take advantage of the staggering quantity of data on performance in sporting events to answer evolutionary questions that are more difficult to answer for other species. In return, sports scientists could benefit from the theoretical framework developed to study natural selection in non-human species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20170953
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1868
StatePublished - Dec 13 2017


  • Evolutionary sports science
  • Motor skill
  • Performance
  • Soccer
  • Sport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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