Why Do Soccer Players Hike Their Shorts Up Ridiculously High?

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer, dictates equipment rules for uniforms, balls, headcoverings, undergarments, and “celebratory attire,” in an 126-page document. Six pages are dedicated to shorts.

Within the document, there are a number of regulations regarding shorts: the same “dominant color” must be visible from the front and the back, the “Player’s Number” must be one of the front legs, the drawstring must remain inside the shorts—if the shorts have a drawstring.

And while section of the document states that the player’s number must be “entirely visible when the Shirt is untucked and hanging loose over the Waist Edge,” there is no stated limit for short length.

Which matters, because footballers really love to rock a short short. On practice grounds across the planet, professionals can be seen hiking their shorts to Speedo-like proportions. Lukas Podolski, the former Bundesliga star who now plays for Polish club Górnik Zabrze, appears to favor hiked shorts in training. Marcelo, a Brazilian left back, also rocks a hiked short in training though not as much in match play. Fellow Brazilian Neymar is a serial hiker as well. Alexis Sánchez, forward for Inter Milan and the Chilean national team is arguably the GOAT of the double tuck in training and match play, folding both legs up into themselves to create a type of Speedo-diaper. The U.S. has some earlier adopters of this trend, as former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber received's “shortest shorts in the MLS” award in 2014, wearing a pair that appears to distinctly be hiked up.

People are noticing: a Twitter account named “Speedoaddict” admired the hiking of Man City’s Jack Grealish, who will sometimes rock a double-hike, but opted for a single-leg thigh peek during the club’s celebration of winning the Treble—the Champion’s League, FA Cup, and Premier League. Writer and editor for The Athletic Adam Hurrey, has also paid attention to shorts length, and mapped it along with shirt bagginess over the past 160 years in a helpful vibe-based graph he produced in April 2020. (Shorts length does not equal hiked shorts, though shorter shorts are easier to hike.)

Jack Grealish goes for the single hike.

The hiked short is now a fixture on the pitch—and we'll surely see a few during tomorrow's Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. The motivations for going short, however, are not so simple. In, uh, short, this practice highlights not only an aesthetic sartorial decision, but a lesson in performance psychology. It may even provide the necessary edge for your Sunday footy league.

Reasons for hiking up soccer shorts, in whatever varietal the footballer chooses, are multiple. I am told by a professional mental skills coach and performance psychology specialist, Dr. Colleen Hacker, that I would be foolish to determine a singular motivation why footballers around the world hike their shorts. And she knows ball.

Hacker was on the USWNT coaching staff for 12 years, including in 1999, when the U.S. beat China in the World Cup final by just one penalty kick. Today, Hacker still advises teams in the NWSL and the MLS, and also provides her services for several other sports.

In short, she explains her work—distinct from that of a clinical psychologist—is teaching athletes to be self-aware, and function at their highest level without Hacker’s support. This is easier said than done with elite athletes, as Hacker explains through a Robert Hughes quote: “Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize."

In her 12 years with the USWNT, Hacker doesn’t recall seeing the upwardly mobile soccer short. Today, though, she sees them all the time. To understand why a player might hike their shorts, one must understand the game of soccer.

Soccer is an open sport, with “closed” skills within the game, occurring during set pieces like corner kicks, penalties, and throw-ins. As in basketball, a similarly open/closed sport, players often turn to consistent routines before practicing those closed skills—like, say, hiking their shorts.

Perhaps the most famous example of hiked shorts during a set piece is Cristiano Ronaldo, squaring up to take a penalty against Morocco during the 2018 World Cup in Moscow. As he faces the goal, his shorts are pulled up from the outer legs to make his appearance roughly 95% quads.

Ronaldo is the first player of note that Hacker recalls seeing with hiked shorts, and she credits him as the impetus of hiked shorts through passive observational learning—regardless of what footballers might say.

“Once you see it—and if it's an influencer, if it's a person of stature, there's that trickle-down effect. Then we associate that behavior with that persona,” Hacker said of Ronaldo. But asking him why might not yield a satisfying result.

“This is not a knock on humans generally, or on athletes specifically,” Hacker said, “but when we interview people and ask, ‘Why you do X, Y, or Z,’—and this isn't my opinion, this is shown in the literature—there is often a significant disconnect between what we're willing to say, and our actual awareness about why.”

According to Hacker, even if Ronaldo is the genesis of hiked shorts, “You're not going to find a male football player who's going to say, ‘Well, I hike my shorts because I admire Ronaldo and I want to be like Ronaldo. You will never get that answer.”

Several years ago, I actually got something close to exactly that answer. Former FC Dallas defender Bobby Warshaw told me that since his high school days, he tucked his shorts into his sliders (the compression shorts worn underneath) when stepping onto the pitch. “I wish I didn’t,” Warshaw said. “I think it looks goofy.”

That’s because, Warshaw explained, there is a persona associated with hiked shorts—the Ronaldo persona, specifically—that Warshaw didn't identify with. “Not to bash those kinds of players,” he said. “I think you need to have that in you to be someone like Ronaldo.”

There are many things footballers do to feel like footballers, Warshaw said, whether how high you wear your socks, where you place of shinguards, or how you tie your boots. “Why and how hiking up your shorts and tucking them into the sliders makes you feel that way? I don't know. But it definitely does.”

There are also some other, more practical explanations for short shorts. Footballers, as a group, have shredded legs. “I mean, look at what they do for a living,” Hacker said. In the same way that NFL athletes rock capped sleeves to show off their guns, she views the hiking of shorts as a “perceived flex” of physical strength, to signal to an opponent, “you coming for this?” (The seeming increase in thigh tattoos means it’s a waste to leave that artwork covered up.)

Yet another explanation is increased freedom of movement, which feels scientifically unsound to anyone who’s worn soccer shorts, which already feel barely-there. Though some footballers might have a better perceived range-of-motion, “I'm aware of no science to support that,” says Hacker.

(A more practical and innovative uniform decision can be seen on Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, one of the footballers who wears socks torn in the calf area, ostensibly to relieve pressure on those muscles.)

A further practical reason to hike shorts, Hacker says, is to lessen the surface area that opponents can grab onto. When your shorts are rolled up, it will be clear to the official if a player tries to yank them in an attempt to slow you down.

Neymar tests out the double tuck.

Whatever the reason, Hacker says, pulling up one’s shorts in soccer is “an immediate, 100% controllable behavior that athletes can do to pair with certain situations.” She points to Ichiro Suzuki, who tugged his leading sleeve up before each pitch, as an example. In soccer, hiking up shorts can be a way to cue the body and mind, as a grounding exercise before a free kick.

I decided to test Hacker’s theory out during a penalty shootout in my adult recreational soccer league not long ago. It worked, in that I scored after hiking my shorts way up high, though I did not ask the keeper if my move distracted him. When I tell Hacker about my experiment, her response checks out. “If for one billionth of a second you get the keeper thinking about you or your shorts, rather than what he has to do: who wins the game within the game?”

Though hiked shorts can be seen on many elite players, and really every pitch where the game is played, there’s an exceptional exception to the rule. Not all real ball-knowers are near ball-showers. And Hacker pointed to one of the best to ever do it as a counter-example.

“Look at Messi's shorts,” Hacker said. “They're culottes, for God's sakes.”

Originally Appeared on GQ