Since sport emerged from the coronavirus pandemic’s peak, it has inadvertently engaged in an ongoing experiment examining exactly how athletes adapt when playing in empty stadiums. And the early indications are unexpected – the world’s best athletes have improved.
Football players are kicking dead balls more precisely than they did before the pandemic.
When they play in front of 80,000 people it is much more difficult
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta
Without the distraction of screaming fans, one part of their games seems to have improved: shooting.
And Premier League stars are not alone, with National Basketball Association (NBA) players making a higher percentage of their free throws and hitting corner three-pointers at unprecedented rates.
This is one of the first pandemic effects on sports.
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NBA and football stars were, like many of us, stuck inside for several months.
These athletes apparently had little to do but shoot in their driveways and gardens.
And even after further relaxation of lockdown measures, when they returned to their team facilities, they were technically limited to individual workouts and skills development.
An anticipated consequence of this was when they could play with their colleagues, they had never focused so much on honing their technique and toning their muscle memory.
The study suggests these sports stars had made the most of their time off.
Although these results could be written off as statistical anomalies from a small sample — mere days in the NBA and only a couple of months in European football leagues — there are explanations for the trends that could make them sustainable for as long as games are played behind closed doors.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta believes there is a simple explanation for the advantage of playing in empty stadiums.
He said: “When they play in front of 80,000 people it is much more difficult.”
The impact of subtracting tens of thousands of rowdy fans was far more pronounced in football than the NBA.
This was particularly evident the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A, which happen to be the European leagues with the longest breaks this season.
Players spent almost two months under lockdown orders entertaining themselves with push-ups and target practice, returning to action with honed precision.
They were more clinical from the penalty spot and more accurate from long range.
And they rediscovered a skill that had only paid off once every 16 games this season pre-pandemic: scoring direct free kicks.
Free kicks that find their way into top corners of the net are a rare and spectacular occurrence.
Most of the time, a free-kick that looks dangerous is not. It sails high over the crossbar, collides with the human. Wall or simply dribbles into the goalkeeper’s hands.
Even the Premier League’s finest free-kick takers converted only six percent of their attempts this season before the pandemic, according to data from the analytics company Opta.
That changed after the restart, with free-kicks hitting the back the net 10 percent of the time.
There were 10 goals in just 92 games compared with 16 in 288 before lockdown.
Liverpool star Trent Alexander-Arnold had a backyard just long enough for him to curl shots into an oversized plant pot from the patio.
His months exploring the outer limits of his home turf paid off. He was responsible for two of the 10 goals.
He said: “Obviously, I’ve been practising a lot.”
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