With the one obvious exception of a certain Argentinian attacker; no player has had the same impact on the game of football over the last 20 years as Cristiano Ronaldo. The talismanic Portuguese star had dazzled audiences from his early years at Sporting Lisbon, all the way to his sojourn in Italy with Juventus. Now, as we eagerly await his return to the fires that forged him at Manchester United, we figured there was no better time to examine just what makes CR7 so scientifically brilliant
Let’s make this a little more specific, shall we?
We’re going to examine Ronaldo under two broad headings: Physical attributes, and Mental attributes. Once we’ve examined the evidence available we’ll then move onto a case study of how exactly he hits the ball during his infamous free-kicks. Let’s get down to it!
It doesn’t take the most scientific mind of all time to look at Ronaldo and realise he might just have the physical attributes to succeed as an athlete. Immensely lean, strong, and powerful; his physique and physical prowess would arguably lead to measurable success in a host of sports. But what in particular sets him apart? Plenty of other footballers are strong or fast. Why is Ronaldo so different?
First, to try and decipher the mystery of Ronaldo’s underlying success we have to turn to his anatomy. At the age of 33, reports emerged from his medical at Juventus that Ronaldo boasted a body-fat measurement of 7%. The average footballer typically measures at between 10 and 11%. Keep in mind that this is a 33-year old Ronaldo, before pre-season has even begun!
Added to this, the same report revealed that Cristiano possessed a lean muscle mass of 50%. Once again he massively outperformed the average of 46%. These physiological values are phenomenal and place him amongst the most elite in the sport. His values have him being compared biologically to a 20-year old despite playing the game professionally now for almost 20 years. The fact that he’s at the pinnacle of physical preparedness at the age of 33 is only further testament to just how scientifically special Ronaldo truly is.
As the old saying goes, “speed kills.” Research has shown that speed and, in particular, acceleration are extremely decisive attributes in deciding successful outcomes in various team sports. The ability to escape a defender or beat an offside trap due to sheer speed alone is an exceptional talent to possess. When we look at Ronaldo, speed has always been an essential component of his game.
At the age of 26, Cristiano raced professional Spanish sprinter Angel David Rodriguez over a distance of 25 metres as part of a documentary entitled “Cristiano Ronaldo: Tested to the Limit.” Despite losing this race, Ronaldo clocked an impressive time of 3.61 seconds. Rodriguez believes a 100m time of 11.60 seconds would be easily achievable for the pacy footballer. This might not seem extremely fast by modern Olympic standard (thanks a lot Usain), but when we consider that Ronaldo’s technique isn’t quite as perfect as a career sprinter it’s not half bad.
To expand on this further, football incorporates a lot of lateral movements and changes of direction. As such, Ronaldo’s technique will be based with this in mind. When we analyse his body positions, they are actually quite good.
Add in a football to the equation and Ronaldo’s speed becomes even more apparent. He doesn’t slow significantly with a ball at his feet and his change of direction speed is amongst the best in the game. Quite simply, he’s as fast as almost anyone could be when dedicating themselves to competing in a multi-directional sport as opposed to straight-line sprinting.
Ronaldo’s continued speed is also an outlier in that it hasn’t overly dropped as he’s aged. At the age of 34 he was clocked at 33.98km/h at the World Cup; the fastest speed recorded by any player at the tournament.
We simply couldn’t write this article without discussing the incredible science behind how Cristiano jumps. In December of 2019 he almost broke the Internet following his incredible headed goal for Juventus against Sampdoria. Ronaldo rose a ridiculous 2.56m in the air to connect cleanly with the ball and score. Let’s see just how high that is, shall we?
To understand just how he generates this type of jumping power we must turn to the realm of biomechanics.
Biomechanics – the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms.
Ronaldo takes advantage of his above average musculature (a thigh circumference of 62cm definitely helps) to generate over 5G of force on take-off. This, coupled with clever use of movement mechanics such as a perfectly coordinated arm-swing, allow him to elevate spectacularly. He transfers his weight quickly onto one leg using an elongated final stride before rapidly translating all of his horizontal momentum into vertical energy. Maintaining an upright trunk and a solid core; Ronaldo is able to translate these forces extremely efficiently.
Cristiano also makes effective use of some other biomechanical principles during some of his jumps. If he doesn’t jump off a single leg and instead opts for a double-leg jump; he often utilises a “drop jump.” This involves taking a small hop before his vertical jump. What this hop does is activate the Stretch-Shortening-Cycle. The muscles involved in jumping go through a “pre-stretch” and are able to produce more force in the subsequent jump following activation of the stretch-shortening-cycle. The pre-stretched muscles act almost like a spring in how they recoil to produce force. The drop jump also helps Ronaldo stabilise himself and improve his coordination for the impending leap above any opposing defenders.
It’s clear to see after examining all the available evidence that Cristiano Ronaldo is an extremely gifted athlete. His feats have often been dubbed as superhuman and we can definitely see why. Possessing any one of these physical attributes would mark you out for sporting success, but in Cristiano’s case, he possesses all of them.
When examining Ronaldo’s feats with a scientific lens, it’s easy to get caught up in the very quantitative nature of his physical attributes. We can easily measure speed, strength, or power and compare it to other athletes to prove his significant abilities. There is a lot more behind being a transcendent athlete however; so allow us to try and break down some of the more intangible qualities CR7 possesses in as scientific a way as we can.
Throughout the course of his career, Ronaldo had been asked to play a host of different roles depending on the club he was with. At Manchester United he began as a pacy winger tasked with creating for a stellar strikeforce. As he grew as a player, he changed his playstyle and began to operate as more of a primary goalscorer. Following his Galactico move to Real Madrid he transitioned to an out-and-out number 9. His creative numbers dropped, along with his shots taken from outside the box. Finally, as he made his way to Italy with Juventus he rediscovered his creative tendencies by increasing his involvement in build-up play and dribbles completed.
Now, I know many of you didn’t come here for a lesson in football tactics from someone as highly underqualified as me. But, I present this evidence to you as a means to display Ronaldo’s adaptability. Being able to perform to the highest level in world football across different teams, in different leagues, using different systems of play, and in different positions is something that very few have ever done.
To truly understand and appreciate the psychology behind Cristiano Ronaldo would take a doctoral thesis at the very minimum. Numerous topics could be discussed from perfectionism, to athletic identity, even to exercise addiction if somebody truly wanted to make the case.
Instead of trying to quickly blitz through all of these; we’ll look at some pertinent examples that showcase the type of mentality employed by Ronaldo to achieve the gargantuan success that he has.
One of the easiest ways of describing the incredible mental strength Ronaldo possesses is to simply look at research carried out by analytics company SciSports and university KU Leuven. They analysed over 7,000 minutes of match data to study how stress impacts key moments in a game. Following this analysis, it was determined that Cristiano is effectively “immune” to pressure and his performance levels remain at his typical high standard in “every scenario possible.”
We can also look at how he has set up his life no matter where he’s lived across the world. Former Manchester United Head of Performance Tony Strudwick once commented on how everything in Cristiano’s house was “designed for peak performance.” Cryotherapy chambers, pools, pre-packed meals: no stone is left unturned in the pursuit of perfection. This type of preparedness speaks volumes about the mental strength Ronaldo has displayed throughout his career. He has an unerring desire to be the very best and has not relented despite his age and frequent level of success.
Case Study: The KnuckleBall
No true scientific analysis of Cristiano Ronaldo would be complete without attempting to examine the physics behind one of his trademark free-kicks. Ronaldo is one of the key drivers behind the popularity of the knuckleball technique. Typically, free-kick takers used a mixture of sidespin and topspin to attempt to curl or “whip” the ball around or over the wall of defenders and past the goalkeeper. Ronaldo differs in his approach, by instead attempting to hit the ball in a way that causes more unpredictable movement. Arguably the best example was his amazing strike against Portsmouth in 2008.
Despite this technique being popular across a number of sports (cricket and baseball to name a few), it was Ronaldo’s dazzling efforts that prompted a team of French researchers to examine precisely why the technique causes such an unpredictable flight path.
Following extensive testing, the team concluded that the rapid movement of the ball in the air is caused by something known as the “drag crisis.” This is a phenomenon that occurs when a sphere is in flight. There comes a velocity where the wake left behind the sphere and the drag-force acting on the ball decrease sharply. This can lead to a sideways force which causes the unpredictable movement.
To create this with a football, the ball must be kicked at a certain velocity (to engage the drag crisis) and with as little spin as possible. The actual ball used has an impact too. The smoother the ball, the more movement possible because the drag crisis increases. This is one of the reasons that the Jabulani ball from the 2010 World Cup will forever be infamous. It was seamless and, as such, moved massively in the air when struck correctly.
There you have it. A scientific break-down of some of the many reasons Cristiano Ronaldo is as good as he is. We hope you enjoyed our analysis. If you did, please share this article with anyone you think would also find it interesting. Maybe a particular Liverpool fan in your life isn’t happy he’s returned to Manchester to wreak havoc in the Premier League once again. Maybe they need a subtle reminder as to why Ronaldo is so good! With that, I guess there’s only one thing left to say…