Quirks and Quarks

For soccer players, the less brain they use, the better for penalty kicks

The brain activity of soccer players while taking penalty kicks showed that those who miss seem to be overthinking, while those who score activate only necessary motor areas.

Brain imaging done during stressful penalty kicks suggests cognitive activity degrades performance

A soccer player's brain activity is measured as he takes a penalty kick (uToday, University of Twente)

A study that looked at the brain activity of soccer players while they were taking a penalty kick showed why some miss while others score. Those who miss are overthinking things, those who score are going on pure motor control. 

Max Slutter, a Masters student at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, wanted to understand how it could be that soccer players who are capable of pinpoint passing and amazing ball control, could possibly miss a simple penalty kick.

After all, soccer nets are large, and the ball is placed only 11 metres away. Still there have been some classic misses in huge events, including league championships and World Cups.

New research suggests activation of cognitive areas of the brain is likely to compromise penalty kicking success in soccer. So don't think, just kick. (uToday, University of Twente)

No pressure, just score

For the study, 22 volunteers took a total of 15 penalty kicks in three separate rounds. They were wearing functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) headsets. This technology measures brain activity while a participant is on the move.

With each round, the pressure to score increased. In the first round, there was no goalkeeper. In the second round, there was a goalkeeper present, but they made little effort to prevent scoring. The third round was as close to real game conditions as possible, including distraction such as 'trash talking'. 

The volunteers players wore these headsets while they took penalty kicks (Cortech Solutions)

Just do it

Players who were successful under pressure showed most of their activity in the motor cortex of the brain. This is the part of the brain active during movement.

Players who were unsuccessful showed elevated activity in the pre-frontal cortex and left temporal cortex areas of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with long term thinking. The left temporal cortex  is the part of the brain associated with 'coaching' yourself or self-instruction. Slutter thinks this means that the players were likely missing their shots because they were thinking about the consequences, or over-thinking their kicks. 

Slutter hypothesized that soccer players, or anyone who has to perform under pressure, could train their brain to control activation of those regions likely to compromise motor performance.