World Cup 2014: Penalty shootouts decided by psychology

With the World Cup at the semi-final stage, experts say the shootout may be more psychological than physical, more a test of decision-making ability than athletic skill. So what's the best strategy for the player and the goalkeeper?

Penalty kick strategy for soccer players and goalkeepers

Did the psychological warfare tactics of substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul of the Netherlands make the difference? Krul saves a penalty kick by Michael Umana of Costa Rica, his second save of the shootout. (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

In the penalty shootout in soccer, all the player has to do to score is kick the ball into one of the four corners of a 24-foot by 8-foot target from 36 feet away. For someone who earns a living playing "the beautiful game," it sounds easy.

Costa Rica found it's a lot more complicated than that in their quarter-finals match against the Netherlands on July 5. Two Costa Rican players failed to score in the shootout, resulting in a Dutch victory.

According to British journalist Andrew Anthony, author of the 2001 book On Penalties, the shootout is about "the drama of decision-making."

"It all comes down to that moment as you walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot, which is the walk that they have to do.

"You are walking down a kind of corridor of truth."

He notes, "Life often comes down to these dramatic moments of decision-making, although usually not watched by a billion people around the world."

Indeed, the penalty shootout may be more psychological than physical.

The shootout was introduced as a way of deciding tied games in 1970 and was first used in a FIFA finals tournament  in 1982. Since then, the success rate for players is just 75 per cent.

Anxiety may lead to failure

"Anxiety is the most significant contributing factor to performance failure in football penalty shootouts," according to an Expert Statement on the Psychological Preparation for Football Penalty Shootouts, a paper prepared for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2013.

Costa Rica players watch as Netherlands' Arjen Robben celebrates during a penalty shootout during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match in Salvador, Brazil, July 5. The Netherlands defeated Costa Rica 4-3 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 tie. British experts advise the player to ignore the goalkeeper and pick a spot. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

If an expert statement sounds odd, consider that England has always lost shootouts at the World Cup.

The statement identifies the hurdle the players have to overcome: the penalty shootout is one of the few occasions when they "have sufficient time to think about the consequences of failure."

But the greater the pressure, the less likely the player will score, according to a study based on almost 400 kicks from penalty shootouts held during major tournaments up to 2007. "Players score on fewer than 60 per cent of their attempts when a miss will instantly result in a loss for the team compared to 92 per cent of their attempts when a goal will win the game," according to the statement.

Not a lottery

Anthony says that prior to the introduction of penalty kicks, a tied game was decided by the toss of a coin. As a result, the shootout "has been seen by many footballers as an extension of that," which is why some call it a lottery, a matter of luck rather than skill.

That's a mistake, Anthony says. "You've got to practise, you've got to have it as part of your muscle memory exactly where you are going to put the ball."

And Anthony advises players to have in mind before the referee blows the whistle, where they are going to kick the ball. "Whatever you decide, you should stick to that and not change it. When they try to second-guess the goalkeeper, that's when they come undone."

Dirk Kuyt kicks the final and winning goal for the Netherlands. Players score on 92 per cent of their shootout attempts when a goal will win the game compared to fewer than 60 per cent when a miss will instantly result in a loss for their team. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

The expert statement advises the player to ignore the keeper and pick a spot. That's because "anxiety increases the amount of attention paid to the goalkeeper and increases the likelihood that takers will produce shots that are hit significantly closer to the goalkeeper."

Anthony advises the player to kick it inside the post.

Stats indicate an 88 per cent success rate on shots aimed top right. However, shots aimed dead centre succeed 83 per cent of the time, because the goalie almost always dives left or right — but Anthony says shooting down the middle requires nerves of steel. Shots aimed at the lower part of the net succeed only 72 per cent of the time.

Pressure not on the goalkeeper

So the player makes their decision, visualizes their successful shot, takes their time both placing the ball on the spot and starting their run after the referee's whistle — but there's still a goalie.

Paul Dolan, former Canadian national team goalkeeper and now goalkeeper coach for Canada, says in a penalty shootout, the pressure is almost all on the shooter. When he was between the posts during a shootout, he says he 'never felt the pressure.' (Canada Soccer)

Paul Dolan, former Canadian national team goalkeeper and now goalkeeping coach for Canada, says the pressure is almost all on the shooter.

"When [the goalie] saves it, he's the hero. When he lets it in, it's expected. I never felt the pressure," during the shootout, Dolan says.

What the goalie needs to do is make the shooter doubt themselves, to think it's difficult to score, Anthony says.

That's what Netherlands goalkeeper Tim Krul did in the shootout against Costa Rica on Saturday.

Dutch coach Louis van Gaal sent the taller Krul in as a last-minute substitute for starting goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen just moments before the shootout.

Some spectators may have thought this was because Krul had been stronger in the shootout scenario but Anthony told CBC News that van Gaal wanted to get to the Costa Ricans psychologically, by getting Krul to fill "the space as much as possible with his physical presence, and clearly it worked." He also noted that the third Dutch keeper, Michel Vorm, actually has a better record on penalties than Krul.

Krul, meanwhile, followed standard practice by trying to freak out the shooters. "I just told them I knew where they are going," the goalkeeper explained at a postgame news conference.

Dolan says he thought the referee "might have booked him [for a yellow card] for it, but I guess trash-talking is the way of the day, part of the psychological warfare."

Julio Cesar of Brazil makes a stop during his team's shootout against Chile in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16. If you're the goalkeeper, 'you need to go one way or another, you can't wait until the shot is taken,' Paul Dolan says. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

He says mind games have to be at the forefront of the goalkeeper's strategy. A goalkeeper can look at video and learn the stats on a player's favoured target, but it may be of little use in the actual moment.

"Sometimes you can see in the approach of the player by the shape of the body [where they're likely to shoot], but I often find that by then it's too late, you need to go one way or another, you can't wait until the shot is taken."

Anthony says that as a keeper, "if you can plant any doubt, if you can make the player think about thinking, which is always the worst thing to do before taking a penalty," the goalie has an advantage.

That's why most goalkeepers try to distract the penalty shooter by moving. And an 11-page academic study suggests it helps. In that experiment, a moving goalkeeper made saves almost three times more frequently compared to a stationary goalkeeper.

The researchers explain that the player will focus more on a moving goalkeeper, rather than the target or the ball.


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