Diving: How to Apply Signaling Theory to Soccer

Featured / Recent News / Soccer Analytics / August 31, 2015


Robben is ‘The Artful Diver’

The conversation of diving is always lively amongst soccer fans. One side cries, “Cheater!,” to which another replies with the shrug of “Hey, it’s part of the game.”

Objective and unbiased information is desperately needed in the debate, and Great Scott, I’ve found some.

This research article used diving as a means for better understanding Signaling Theory, which is the study of deception in organisms. Here are the five most interesting points.

1) Signaling Theory

In concurrence with Signaling Theory, the researchers found that  “As long as the potential cost of deception is greater than the potential benefit, signallers will refrain from using deceptive signals.”

The implication of this simple idea is huge for the future of soccer. If we, the fans of the game, become fed up with diving, the way forward is clear: a yellow might not cut it.

If we ever wish to exterminate diving, then the potential cost must increase.  First, weigh a potential penalty vs. a potential yellow. Now, change that to a red and recalculate.

It’s risk vs. reward. The reward will remain the same; it’s the risk that we can change


Maybe we need more of these guys?

2) Ref Proximity

“Thus, closer proximity to signals was associated with improved signal detection and discrimination ability by referees”

So, the closer a ref is to a play, the better the call. Another simple point with a possibly big significance.

If proximity plays a role in the ability of a ref, then maybe a second ref is needed. This would have a ref closer to the game at all times.

As with the idea of red card for a dive, I don’t think that I would like to see two refs. Still, if diving is to be curbed, we must change something.

3) Frequency and Success

“The frequency of dives was positively associated with the proportion of dives rewarded by referees across leagues.”

I would have guessed that the refs would reward fewer fouls with more dives. Instead, the opposite is true. The proportion of dives being rewarded with fouls is greater when players dive more.

The researchers found this to be “In contrast to our prediction,” which does not surprise me at all. I cannot wrap my mind around this phenomenon.

We need a way to change this. The frequency of diving should not positively causally relate with the frequency of calls. Any suggestions? Honestly, comment below.

Ivory Coast

Everyone embellishes a little.

4) Non-Referee Observers

“Non-referee observers using television replays have been previously shown to be capable of reliably distinguishing between dives and non-dives, as well as reliably assessing the intentions of falling players.”

This is immensely satisfying as a fan. Watching the replays from home, we are “reliably” able to distinguish between a foul and a dive.

The fact that an objective consensus exists is incredibly helpful for this debate. It is an argument with an end. Most of the time, that is.

The tricky part is that there is no video replay, thank god. Refs are in the moment, calling off the cuff. A video replay would kill the flow of a game, but I must admit that it would increase the accuracy of crucial calls.


Some cultures may dive more than others. Are the Azzurri to blame?

5) Cultural Influences

“Further, the variation observed in discrimination ability by professional referees across leagues could be attributed to real-world cultural pressures…”

So, there was a difference in the abilities as a result of culture. Unfortunately, the researchers never defined “real-world cultural pressures.” I will leave the speculation to you.

Also, the most notable fact for viewers: It is justifiable to prefer certain leagues because of the referring. There is objective evidence for the justification. Furthermore, in the World Cup, each set of refs will have a new host of cultural biases. Something to look for.

None of this information is shocking (except for #3). It is, however, excellent to have a scientific credence behind these commonalities.

The implications of this data aren’t surprising. Nobody likes diving, but nobody wants two refs, replays, or a red for diving.  The real question is the direction that soccer is heading in. Is simulation becoming too common, and if so, what are we going to do about it?

I’ll leave that for next time. For now, let me know your thoughts on how to deal with diving in the comments, and enjoy the ESPN Top 10 dives in sports.

Connor Drake
Playing since I was little, now watching, coaching, and writing soccer, I have had an unceasing love affair with the game. Cleveland is my home.

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on September 3, 2015

Diving is cheating! Please all sign petition to FA/FIFA for action to cut diving out of football. See #stopdiving on Twitter for link to petition or email me jimmybarker58@gmail.com Petition includes a number of suggestions and the introduction covers signaling theory – although I did not know it was called that at the time!!

    on September 10, 2015

    This is to confirm that I just sent you an email. Also, thanks for the comment.

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