The Daily Telegraph recently reported — in their “Science News” section, notice — a story headlined “Secret of match success: Suits for the dugout, tracksuits for training”. According to the byline, “sports coaches who wear suits on match days and tracksuits on training days are more likely to get the best out of their teams, according to new research”. The story is illustrated with a gallery of professional football managers wearing suits and/or tracksuits. Overall, readers would be forgiven for assuming that the study in question involved: (a) data on the clothing habits of successful and unsuccessful sports coaches; (b) data on differences between attire of coaches across match days and training days; (c) data on the success of teams in terms of their sporting performance; (d) data on the full range of other measurable factors known to contribute to the sporting success of the teams in question; (e) some statistical analysis of the associations among (a), (b), and (c), while controlling for (d); and/or (f) a study sample comprising real coaches and real teams. Hmmm. Actually, the study referred to had none of those features.
Some hint that this is the case arrives in the opening sentence of the story itself: “Sports scientists at the University of Portsmouth studied the effect a coach’s appearance had on the players’ impressions of their competence.” From this, we can begin to tell that we are actually considering a study of players’ ratings of managers’ competence, rather than actual objective competence data per se. The story goes on to quote the lead researcher, who describes the outcome of the work as having established that “coaches wearing a suit were perceived as being more strategically competent than those wearing sporting attire. However, when wearing sporting attire, they were perceived to be more technically competent than those in a suit.” Got all that?
In other words, the study found that players rate coaches differently when they wear suits or tracksuits, focusing on “strategic” issues in the former case and sporting issues in the latter. Leaving aside the need for more information on what is meant by strategy in this context, this pattern of findings might not be altogether surprising (after all, players may simply be reminded of sporting issues when their coach is wearing sporting attire). However, the study is not actually of Premier League footballers and their coaches. In fact, it doesn’t involve real players or coaches at all.
In the study, published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology, a convenience sample of 97 diverse participants (described as “male and female athletes and non-athletes”) were asked to look at four mocked up photographs showing either a fat or a thin man wearing either a tracksuit or a business suit (for some reason referred to in this study as “academic clothing”). That’s it. No professional sportspersons providing ratings of their own professional coaches, no actual sporting or coaching performances taking place, no prospect of statistically linking attire to actual competence. And yet somehow, the Daily Telegraph were able to conclude (with pictorial allusions to professional coaches such as Fabio Capello, Diego Maradona, and Arsène Wenger) that “sports coaches who wear suits on match days and tracksuits on training days are more likely to get the best out of their teams.”
News reporting of psychological research is often sensationalized and slightly silly, especially when applied to popular topics like sport. So I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised. However, the very fact that sport is such a popular topic means that, for many readers, stories like this are the only exposure they ever get to academic research in psychology. Therefore it is a pity when reasonable psychological research studies are presented in ways that appear, even to a casual reader, to be slightly iffy. Poor reporting of behavioural research on sport helps neither the reputation of psychology as an academic discipline nor the cultivation of readers’ scientific literacy.
The fact that this story appears in the Daily Telegraph’s “Science News” section is particularly troubling. They way it is written suggests that, when reporting science news, the Telegraph attaches little importance to the basic principles of scientific research, the nature of empirical methods, or the use of data to support rational inferences. And while the study reported on is certainly science, it is not clearly news.
An own goal perhaps? (I’ll get my coat…)
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.