The science of taking penalties is revealed

Science Editor,Steve Connor
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:42

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 aim 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 towards 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."

Several goalies have won fame by distracting penalty-takers. Bruce Grobbelaar feigned "spaghetti legs" during penalties in the 1984 European Cup final against Roma – a tactic used with similar success in 2005 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," Mr Wood said. "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 penalty shots in both relaxed and stressed conditions. The scientists tried 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.

The study did not look at the phenomenon of professional English footballers ballooning their kicks over the crossbar.

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