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Soccer: How Women Play Differently From Men

After watching the U.S.A.'s decisive win over France in the Women's World Cup semifinals, you may find yourself talking about the action and athleticism of the players, the drama in the game and how this team is making soccer "fun" to watch again.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

After watching the U.S.A.'s decisive win over France in the Women's World Cup semifinals, you may find yourself talking about the action and athleticism of the players, the drama in the game and how this team is making soccer "fun" to watch again.

And if you're used to watching men play, you might also notice a change of pace. While both men and women soccer players compete on the same fields for the same amount of time and with the same rules -- the women's game has its own style and speed.

Perhaps most notably, the game stops much less often -- probably because women soccer players are far less likely to fake falls. As a result, play follows a smoother flow.

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"After the first women's World Cup in 1991, referees who were accustomed to the men's game reported being more fatigued after reffing women's games," said Anson Dorrance, coach of the women's soccer team at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "I thought that was a wonderful statement about the way women play the game."

"Any time a male player is nicked, there's rolling around, grabbing body parts, trying to sell the ref on some egregious fall to get a yellow card" or other penalties for the opposing team, he added. "Women play the game with greater personal integrity and honor."

Theatrical falls have become so common in top-level men's soccer games that the antics may now seem as normal as corner kicks and throw-ins. But sports medicine physician Daryl Rosenbaum, who works with both the U.S. soccer federation and the soccer program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, started to become suspicious after repeatedly running onto the field to check out downed players, only to discover they were fine.

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To investigate, he and colleagues started by reviewing video footage of 89 men's soccer games from four tournaments. The researchers counted a total of 980 supposed injuries. But, they reported last year in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, only about 7 percent of those qualified as definite injuries. A "definite injury" was defined by either visible bleeding or withdrawal from the game.

On average, the researchers found, an average of more than 11 supposed injury events happen in a typical men's game, accounting for more than seven minutes of stopped play. Next, they turned to the women's game.

After analyzing footage of 47 women's games from two tournaments, Rosenbaum and colleagues found a rate of fewer than six supposed injury events in a typical women's game -- a rate of about half of what they saw in the men's games.

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Of those claimed injuries, the researchers report this month in the journal Research in Sports Medicine, about 14 percent met the criteria for a definite injury -- meaning that women who do go down are twice as likely to be truly injured compared to men who hit the ground.

"Look how often women pop right back up when they run into someone," Rosenbaum said. "They continue through contact, and we found they are more likely to just keep playing."

The ability to stay on their feet isn't the only feature that separates the women from the men.

Physically, women tend to be smaller. And even for a given body size, their lungs are smaller than men's are, said Andrew Lovering, a respiratory physiologist at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

Lung capacity limits exercise performance by determining how much blood and oxygen can get to the muscles. As a result, women can't sustain the same speeds over the same periods of time as men can. So, even though games in both leagues are the same length, the women's game is slower and less explosive.

"Women are more likely to fatigue because of the amount of work the respiratory system has to do," Loverling said. "The game is 90 minutes long. It's not a short game."

For fans, Dorrance pointed out, slower games are easier to follow. Even better for reluctant American viewers, women's soccer games have the potential to be higher scoring than men's matches.

Because of their smaller size, there is more space on the field for women to work with, giving them more options to attack. And with smaller athletes trying to defend a goal designed for men, women strikers have that much more room to shoot for. Woman are not as good in the air, Dorrance added, so individual players who are particularly skilled at headers and other aerial maneuvers really stand out.

You might also notice, in the game against France, in particular, a unique essence or spirit that tends to be missing from a typical men's game.

"There is a lack of cynicism in the women's game, so there is less blatant fouling and less violent fouling," Dorrance said. "I think a fan that really loves watching the game itself in its purest form will appreciate the way most of these women play."