Scientists have some advice for England players in the event of a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup. Ignore the goalkeeper, pick a spot in the goal where you want the ball to go and aim your kick accordingly – preferably without falling over.
The advice for how to kick the perfect penalty may seem obvious but a study has shown that one of the biggest problems facing players in the high-anxiety situation of a shoot-out is the tendency of the penalty takers to be distracted by looking at the goalkeeper.
The researchers found that when penalty-takers are tense they tend to look at the goalkeeper more than they would when they are relaxed. This leads them unwittingly to target the ball into the arms of the opposing keeper.
“During a highly stressful situation, we are more likely to be distracted by any threatening stimuli and focus on them, rather than the task in hand,” said Greg Wood, a sports psychologist at Exeter University who has studied the eye movements of players while they take penalties.
“In a stressful situation, a footballer’s attention is likely to be directed toward the goalkeeper as opposed to the optimal scoring zones just inside the post. This disrupts the aiming of the shot and increases the likelihood of subsequently hitting the shot towards the goalkeeper, making it easier to save,” Mr Wood said.
Several professional goalies have won fame by distracting penalty takers. Bruce Grobbelaar famously feigned “spaghetti legs” while standing in goal in the 1984 European Cup final against Roma – a tactic used with similar success 21 years later by another Liverpool goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, when playing AC Milan in the final of the same competition.
“By doing distracting behaviour they are attracting the attention of the player,” said Mr Wood. “They may wave their arms up and down, and I’ve even heard of a goalkeeper who does cartwheels on the line – although I don’t recommend that as a tactic.
“The point is, there is a tight link between where we look and our motor activity. If we look to the right while driving a car, for instance, we will tend to veer in that direction. It’s the same principle.”
The study investigated the eye movements of 14 university footballers as they took a series of penalty shots in both relaxed or stressed conditions. The scientists attempted to emulate some of the stress of a real penalty shoot-out by offering a financial reward for the best penalty taker, and competitively ranking each of the players in terms of their scores.
The researchers also analysed the eye movements of the penalty takers when they faced goalkeepers who deliberately engaged in distracting behaviour, such as waving their arms on the touch line as the penalty was about to be taken.
The study found that players under competitive stress were more likely to rest their gaze on the goalkeepers compared to players who were more relaxed. It also found that distracting behaviour by goalkeepers was more successful in the more stressful situation, leading the players to shoot towards the centre of the goal, making it easier for the keeper to save.
“Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot at it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process,” Mr Wood said. Simple.