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Penalty kicks are all in the mind

January 19, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Soccer shootouts are won and lost on psychological responses to pressure.

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On a summer evening last year, more than a billion pairs of eyes were fixed on footballer David Trézéguet as he stepped up to take his penalty for France in the shootout against Italy to decide the world championship. A supremely talented goal-scorer, he inexplicably crashed his kick against the crossbar. France lost.

Fast-forward six months, and psychologists say they have explained why: the pressure got to him. Their results indicate that the psychological burden of a penalty shootout is the most important factor in whether or not a player scores more so than skill, fatigue or experience, which are so crucial in other areas of the game.

That's the reason why some of the world's most gifted players have come a cropper in this pressure-cooker situation, says Geir Jordet, a sports psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and a member of the research team. "Players prepare for the physical aspects but not the psychological aspects," he says.

Best of five

The format of a soccer shootout is simple: each team picks five players, who take turns to take shots from the penalty spot. Whichever side scores the most of their allotted five wins; if scores are tied, further 'sudden death' penalties are taken until one side gains a lead.

Jordet and his colleagues analysed 41 shootouts, comprising 409 penalty kicks, from the World Cup, European Championships and Copa America between 1976 and 2004. They evaluated the effects of the players' position (forward, midfield or defence) and level of fatigue (number of minutes played before the shootout) on their chances of success.

These things made a difference, but the biggest factor to affect the outcome was the order of the shot, they report in the Journal of Sports Sciences1. For the first kick, when the pressure is relatively low, an average of 87% of kicks were successful. But the rates of success then start to drop, down to 73% for a fourth shot, when the pressure is often higher. The success rates could be partly influenced by coaches picking their best players to shoot at certain times. But that can't account for all the difference, Jordet says.

Players prepare for the technical aspects but not the psychological aspects.
Geir Jordet, University of Groningen
The results are even more dramatic for the highest-pressure situations. When missing a kick means defeat for the entire team, the success rate plummets to 52%. But when a successful kick guarantees a win, 93% of attempts go in.

Feeling lucky

The result makes sense, says Jordet. After all, these are the world's top players, paid vast sums of money for their footballing abilities, so you would expect them to be able to hit a target the size of a barn door from a few metres away. Psychology is a strong remaining factor.

Some players and coaches still believe that a penalty shootout is a 'lottery', with luck playing the largest role in deciding the outcome. But this view is counterproductive, Jordet argues. The worst thing for a player's psychological position is to believe that a miss on their part would have disastrous consequences, and that they have no control over the situation.

In another study2, Jordet and his team interviewed professional footballers from the Netherlands and Sweden, and found that subscribers to the lottery view were more likely to miss than were those who were confident and believed that their destiny was in their own hands.

Dutch national team coach Marco van Basten has now asked Jordet for his input in coaching the national side, which over the years has had an abysmal record in penalty shootouts.

Don't give up

The complexities of penalties have led some coaches to give up on training for them. Before the 1998 World Cup, England coach Glenn Hoddle declared that his team would not practise them in training because the pressure of a shootout is impossible to simulate. England exited the tournament on penalties.

Jordet suggests that players should rehearse the entire routine, including the lonely walk from the centre circle to take their kick. He also thinks that the media could publish details of players' practice shootouts, to raise the pressure even during training.

He also stresses that players should have a fixed routine to block out thoughts of failure, similar to that used by rugby's Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England to World Cup victory in 2003.

Most recently, Jordet's team has discovered that players who pause for less than half a second before beginning their run-up succeed only 63% of the time, whereas those who compose themselves for longer enjoy an 81% success rate. This hints at the importance of a solid routine to calm the nerves, they say.

"It's about players taking control of the situation," Jordet says.

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  1. Jordet G., et al. J. Sports Sci., 5 . 121 - 129 (2007).
  2. Jordet G., et al. Int. J. Sport Psychol., 37 . 281 - 298 (2006).


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