What soccer can teach health researchers

(Edmonton) Make no mistake, Alex Clark and Lionel Messi were not separated at birth.

Both might be stars in their own right, but Clark, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, realizes he's not about to woo stadiums of crazed soccer fans like FC Barcelona's all-time top scorer.

"It would probably take you about five seconds of watching Lionel Messi move the ball to work out who is the more talented soccer player; however, a lot of would see us as very similar," says Clark, noting they're both male, under 5-foot-11, have brown hair and are top performers in their fields.

"From a health perspective, the current approaches we are using to look at complex interventions would not be able to pick up the difference between Alex Clark and Lionel Messi."

And therein lies the problem, adds Clark, who used the soccer analogy in a new paper published Dec. 17 in the . The paper was co-written by nursing peer—and fellow soccer fan—Lorraine Thirsk and researchers from the George Institute for in Sydney, Australia.

Though the analogy is intentionally absurd, Clark says the lessons to be learned from soccer are real—and can help save lives. Whereas health research focuses on what is readily quantifiable, soccer fans and announcers appreciate the that make Messi the player he is, and a host of other intangibles during a match—from field conditions to injuries to opponents to coaching and managing.

"Our health research needs to tap into these 'Messi intangibles' when we are evaluating treatments and interventions. A simplistic trial is not going to do that," Clark says. "That's why you end up with some studies that say a program is successful and some studies that don't. And decades of research is published like that, with contrary findings and no understanding of why."

Thirsk says many of the questions health researchers ask are the equivalent of asking, "Does Messi score goals?" or "Does Manchester United win?" Researchers can try to evaluate whether a diabetes self-care management program works, but it doesn't explain other factors such as differences in population, individual behaviour, education and other intangibles.

"Those are factors that are much more difficult to count and observe," she says. "What we should be asking is what works for whom, when and why."

Embrace failure, say researchers

Researchers also need to learn from failure, Thirsk and Clark say. When Messi has a bad day on the pitch, fans and announcers are keen to ask why. "In health-care research, negative findings either don't get published or are spun into positive findings," Clark says.

"Sports fans love failure because failure gives you a really concerted effort to work out, 'Why are we not winning? What on earth is going on?' In , we see denial, methodological changes to hide failure or just spinning," adds Clark, noting research shows 40 per cent of studies have negative findings that are spun into positives because of a scientific culture that looks down on failure.

"That raises deep questions about our scientific culture. We need to embrace those hard questions and reflections to learn from and create research that is of higher quality, is more useful and is more likely to benefit people in Canada and elsewhere in the world."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

EA FIFA soccer videogame scores record launch

Oct 03, 2012

US videogame titan Electronic Arts on Wednesday announced that "FIFA Soccer 13" scored a sports title launch record by selling more than 4.5 million copies in the five days after its release.

Recommended for you

Study reveals state of crisis in Canadian foster care system

3 hours ago

A new study of foster care in Canada led by a researcher at Western University reveals a shrinking number of foster care providers are available across the country to care for a growing number of children with increasingly ...

Researchers prove the benefits of persimmons for diet

5 hours ago

Alba Mir and Ana Domingo, researchers from the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Valencia, under the supervision of professors Miguel de la Guardia and Maria Luisa Cervera, from the same department, ...

User comments