NFL, Gatorade and bananas  //  It must have been the bananas

05 Feb 2008 Posted by

Superbowl Sunday has come and gone, and New York Giants played the part of giant slayers by upsetting the New England Patriots, a team that steam-rolled the competition during the regular season, and even when against the ropes always seemed to be able to pull out a win from somewhere. Not in Superbowl XLII however, and Manning (the younger one, amazingly) led the Giants to two fourth quarter scores to win the title.

There are plenty of talking heads and pundits on the web, television, and in print to provide you all the detailed analysis of the game you need. Neither of us have tremendous insight into the game of football, and so we will leave the breakdown to the other guys. However, there is one story that emerged from the Superbowl that does fall within our “playbook”, so we thought we’d spend some time on that instead!

New York coach Tom Coughlin does not read The Science of Sport

Back in October of 2007 we did a series on muscle cramps. In it we looked at the different theories of cramps, looked at the prevailing and perhaps dogmatic theory, presented a novel theory to explain cramps, and finally used the debate around cramps to demonstrate how science and knowledge evolve as new evidence comes to light.

The gist of this debate is that for years cramps have been attributed to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances and deficiencies. We suspect many of you who played youth sports were told, when playing in hot weather, to eat lots of bananas. The hypothesis there is that potassium depletion causes muscle cramps, and it is commonly accepted that bananas are a food stuff that is rich in potassium. So, quite simply, to stave off cramps one must just eat plenty of bananas – elementary school knowledge (or so we thought), and it turns out that even in the Superbowl, they adhere to that same dogma!

So in the big game, late in the first half, the crack Fox TV broadcast team crossed to their onfield reporter, who informed the watching nation that as a result of the high humidity in the stadium (the roof was closed), the Giants players were having problems with cramps, and that the coaches, sharp as they are, immediately had boxes of bananas brought to the sidelines. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the cameras spotted it—a pile of bananas on the Giants sideline!

The first important (though tongue-in-cheek) point here is that Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff clearly do not subscribe to The Science of Sport. . .or perhaps they do, but they missed our series on muscle cramps? The second interesting point is in spite of all of the technology the NFL teams and coaches have at their disposal, all the high-tech strategies they employ, their wealth of human resources—19 coaches for the Giants and 14 for the Patriots—they rely on techniques that are entirely unproven and which no scientific evidence supports.

And then thirdly, and perhaps most thought provoking, is that Gatorade are the Official sports drink of the NFL, and copious amounts of it are available on the side of the field. Yet for some reason, the Giants were not told this – they chose the banana instead of the Gatorade! So calling for the banana backup is an indication that…the Gatorade wasn’t working…? That wasn’t an ad you saw in the Superbowl! Imagine the tagline…“Gatorade appears NOT to prevent cramps. Try bananas instead…”

No, science does not always have the answer

Admittedly, science does not always have the answers. Human performance even in individual events is incredibly complex. One only has to look at our previous post for some insight into will power and motivation to understand that many factors, perhaps too many and too complicated to measure, predict performance.

But it is still fascinating that at what many consider the pinnacle of professional sports—the NFL—the coaching staff turns to bananas during a game to alleviate muscle cramps. This is a sport in which assistant coaches, perched high above, take moving and still pictures, analyse them, and relay information about their opponents down to the coach on the sidelines. It is a sport that makes extensive use of video analysis as players watch hours of game film of opposing teams to “get to know” them and their offensive and defensive formations. They appear to be on the edge of technology. . . or are they? The bananas suggest otherwise, and give hope that maybe there is room for basic science.

In any case, it was a cracker of a game, and in our honest opinion the better team on the day won the match. Somehow the Patriots never really looked like the team that dismantled their opponents 18 games in a row. The Giants found a way to get to them, and came out ahead as a result of their efforts.

Be sure to come back later this week as we move on to Part III of our series on exercise in the cold.

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