Science or lame excuse? Can shirt colour really impact performance?

16th Apr 2021

Earlier this week Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskær hit the headlines for claiming that his sides poor run of home form was due to the players blending into the background as all the banners around the pitch are red.

It is not the first time that Manchester United have been at the centre of attention due to claims about the effect of colour on performance. Exactly 25 years ago the team, then led by Sir Alex Ferguson famously changed out of their grey kit when 3-0 down at Southampton. That year, the team did go onto win the Premier League but four of their six defeats came when they were wearing the grey kit.

Science or lame excuse?

Is there any science behind the ‘colour problem’ or is it simply managers trying to find something to blame?

To fully understand the issue, we first need to know a bit about how the eyes work. On the back of each eye-ball are the nerve cells which are sensitive to light. There are two different types of these cells – rods and cones. Each of these have different strengths and weaknesses which are described briefly in the table below:

Rods
Can work really well in low light
Only see shades of grey
Can detect movement really well
Cones
Need good levels of light to work
Can detect colour
Can see fine details

 

Now the cones are found mostly in a small area called the fovea, which picks up information only from exactly where you direct your gaze. In contrast, the rods are not found in this area at all but are spread more widely so are used mostly by your peripheral awareness.

Impact on the pitch

But what can this tell us about how colour can affect our vision when playing football?

Well, to see a shirt colour (and hence know who is on our team), it is only going to work if we point our eyes directly at the wearer – this allows the cones to see the difference between the red of a shirt, and the red of a banner in the background. If we are relying on our periphery, our rods are not going to be able to tell the difference between these different reds, or see enough detail to easily differentiate between what is a player, and what is a steward, a seat, a picture on an advertising board, etc.

What you might not realise is that our central vision (the part of the world we are pointing our eyes directly at), is actually very small. If you hold your arm straight out in front of you, with your thumb up – the width of your thumb nail is about all your eyes can clearly focus on at one time; everything else will be slightly blurry. You can see this by focusing your eyes on the letters on the left edge of this page. The words will be very clear for you to see. Now, while holding your eyes still, try and read the words on the right-hand side of the page. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, even though you can see that the words are there.

Our peripheral awareness is designed to pick up information that we then direct our gaze and attention directly towards. If your teammates are blending into the background – either because of too much red, or because of a dull shade of grey, then it does make scientific sense that it will be more difficult for you to notice them, and therefore, bring them into play.

Early adopters

Back in 1996, with the grey shirt debacle, Sir Alex was being advised by Professor Gail Stephenson from the University of Liverpool. She worked with the club for 20 years and is most famous for suggesting the change in kit colour but also worked with the players to get their eyes functioning to their highest level. Gary Neville revealed that she helped the players train their vision as well as warming their eyes up before a game.

"It's going to sound really daft this, but one of the great theories around football that was presented at United at the time was that match sharpness was nothing to do with your physical fitness. It was to do with your eye muscles being able to react to things happening on the pitch."

Gary Neville, Manchester United and England

This fits with the science which tells us that the muscles of the eye work in the same way as our other skeletal muscles like our hamstrings and biceps – they can be trained to work faster, more efficiently, and for longer periods without getting tired. Read my previous blog on the eye muscles.

So whilst many had a good laugh at Sir Alex's expense back in 1996 and more recently with Ole - the science does support that shirt colour can most definately impact decision making and vitally, performance.

If you think your team could benefit from the advice of a vision specialist, get in touch and see what Performance Vision can do for you.

About the author

Dr Zöe Wimshurst is a world leader in sports vision and for over a decade has worked directly with some of the best athletes and sports teams on the planet.

Dr Zoe Wimshurst