Members in the Media
From: The New York Times

Why Does Every Soccer Player Do This?

Goals in soccer games can be few and far between, which helps explain the delirious nature of most scoring celebrations. Some players yank off their jerseys or drop to their knees and glide across the turf in glee. They all often end up at the bottom of a pile of jubilant teammates.

Then there are the players who are presented with a goal-scoring opportunity and, for whatever reason, fail. When this happens, they all do the same thing: raise their hands and place them on their heads — apparently the universal gesture to signify, How in the world did I miss that?

If you’ve followed the World Cup this summer, you’ve most likely seen it dozens of times, by players from every position and every country.

Lionel Messi has done it, and so has Cristiano Ronaldo. France, Belgium, England and Croatia have all advanced to the semifinals, but their players, too, have struck the disappointed pose. It has nothing to do with soccer and everything to do with the human psyche, according to zoologists, psychologists and others who study such things.

The gesture signifies that “you know you messed up,” said Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “It’s going to tell others, ‘I get it and I’m sorry, therefore you don’t have to kick me out of the group, you don’t have to kill me.’”

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As you point out, the action of clasping the back of the head appears with remarkable regularity whenever footballers miss a shot at goal. I discuss this in “The Book of Tells”, where I call it the “cradle” gesture. I argue that it’s a self-comforting and regressive action, which owes its origins to the experience that we’ve all had as babies — the sensation of a parental hand supporting the back of our head and offering us a feeling of security. When footballers cradle their head, they’re therefore doing for themselves what their parents or caregivers once did for them and they’re instinctively recovering those feelings of security.
There are a few other points worth making:
Firstly, as you mention, the cradle gesture is very common. In fact there’s a good chance that it’s universal.
Secondly, it’s not restricted to football — for example, when Usain Bolt did a false start in the final of the 100m at the World Championships in 2011, he performed exactly the same gesture.
Thirdly, spectators also perform the cradle gesture. In my book there’s a photograph which shows the massed ranks of Liverpool United fans after one of their players has missed the goal — some fans are doing the cradle, others have their hands over their eyes and others still are clasping the top of their head. I’ve called the latter the “helmet” gesture, since its prime purpose appears to be self-protective rather than self-comforting.
Finally, it’s worth noting that when people try to lord it over others they occasionally adopt a dominance posture with their hands behind the back of their head. I’ve called this the “catapult” gesture. It looks uncannily like the cradle, but it’s prime purpose is to expand the chest and make the upper body appear wider. It’s therefore a disguised threat signal — an interpretation that’s reinforced by the fact that the hands are positioned in preparation for an overhead punch. So when your male boss assumes this posture in your presence, he’s not trying to comfort himself — he’s showing you how big and imposing he is, while positioning his hands in preparation for a blow, symbolic or otherwise,to the top of your head!

Peter Collett. “The Book of Tells: How to Read People’s Minds From Their Actions” (in Canada the title is “How To Tell What People Are Thinking”).

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