Just Kick The Ball: The Scientific Secret to World Cup Penalty Shots

By Joseph Calamia | June 8, 2010 1:43 pm

ballIf you relax and concentrate, you’re more likely to make a goal. Seems pretty logical, but researchers at Britain’s Exeter University have tracked soccer players eye-movements to make sure. They have confirmed that players who ignore goalies’ distracting antics are more likely to make the shot.

The latest in the why-Britain-hasn’t-won-the-World-Cup-since-1966 line of research–which has also looked at the ball’s surface (smooth is good but some grooves necessary) and the psychological benefits of playing on your home field (it’s better)–Greg Wood’s study will appear in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Hopefully it will be available in time for the World Cup‘s start on June 11th.

Wood says that goalies can make use of a biological instinct to screw up a kicker’s shot.

“We focus on things in our environment that are threatening. In a penalty kick, that threat is a goalkeeper,” Wood said. “If he (the goalkeeper) can make himself more threatening, he can distract the kicker even more. By doing (certain) behaviors, he can make it so the kicker will kick (the ball) near the goalie.” [AP]

The study tracked eighteen university-level players’ eye movements as they attempted penalty shots with varying levels of distraction from the goalie. It found that the players who lined up the shot, ignoring the chance that the goal-keeper might block it, were more likely to score.

Wood, a psychologist at the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the university, said the main problem was not skill but anxiety levels. “England definitely has a problem with this especially when compared to other teams such as Germany. While Germany wins 80 per cent of its penalty shoot outs, England loses 70 per cent. “If I was giving advice to the England team I would say pretend you are in a practise match, look at where you are going to hit the ball and aim it there. Totally ignore the goalkeeper. Even if he knows where the ball is going he is not going to get to it if it is well placed.” [Telegraph]

Anecdotal evidence has hinted at the same conclusion. Case in point: Bruce Grobbelaar’s 1984 European Cup goal-saving “spaghetti legs” shown in this video.

“The biggest memory I have is the 1984 European Cup final against Roma and my ‘spaghetti legs’ routine during the penalty shootout that won us the trophy,” Grobbelaar said [as quoted in the study]. “People said I was being disrespectful to their players, but I was just testing their concentration under pressure. I guess they failed that test.” [ABC]

As also reported in The Telegraph, the study also concluded that teams that go first win sixty percent of penalty shootouts and that the best uniform color is red, “a dangerous and dominant colour in nature.”

Related content:
Discoblog: Soccer Star Seeks Out Serbian Placenta Massage to Speed Healing
Cosmic Variance: The Physics of Beckham
Cosmic Variance: Yet Another World Cup Post
DISCOVER: The Brain: Why Athletes Are Geniuses

Image: flickr / Shine 2010 -2010 World Cup Good News


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