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The psychology of penalty shootouts

Is a coin toss really fair and what is it about shootouts that strikes overwhelming fear in the hearts of players?

Last updated: 01 Jul 2014 08:48
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Who is under more pressure? The take or the keeper? [GALLO/GETTY]

There is probably no event in sports more mentally paralysing than football’s penalty shootout.

The long walk from the centre to the spot have been described by many as the longest of their lives.
No penalty is made equal: The bigger the stage and the more valuable the prize, the greater the pressure and anxiety.

But what is it about shootouts that strikes overwhelming fear in the hearts of players?

Danny Dichio, head coach at Toronto’s TFC Academy and a former player in the English and Italian leagues, shared with Al Jazeera his agony during one of the finest promotion play-off finals. His team Sunderland was playing against Charlton Athletic at Wembley in 1998. The game went to a penalty shootout after it was still tied 4-4 at the end of extra-time.

Penalty shootout stats

 

While they do remain very similar in open-play penalties, between 77 to 80% across the top European leagues, the shootouts conversion rate falls to 71% for World Cup and 69% for Champions League.

The coin toss isn't a 50-50 event, but closer to 60-40. Numbers reveal that the team that goes first in a World Cup wins the shootout 59% of the time and the team that goes second 41% of the time.

Very similar numbers are applicable to the Champions League, where it's 63% for the team that goes first and 37% for the team that goes second.

- "Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty" by Ben Lyttleton

"I didn’t think I was even going to make the walk up to the penalty, yet alone take the penalty,” Dichio said. “I was so nervous about the whole situation of getting the team up, the club up, so much money on the line. We had a brand new stadium too and there was so much riding on it.”

Compounding the situation was the earlier miss in extra-time, where he felt he should have headed his chance in but tried to bicycle kick it instead.

"I was still thinking about that, the price that miss could be. So stepping up to take a penalty kick, a double whammy was not in my mind at that moment in time."

While Dichio luckily escaped his turn, he's certain if he had stepped up and missed that it would have been the end of his career at Sunderland, as he had only joined the club a few months prior.

Mental strength is key

The pressure at the highest stages of competition is about more than just proper technique. It's also about mental strength. Overthinking, lack of confidence, being too result focused, the inability to cope with the pressure are all factors that interfere with the brain process. The more traffic that races through the mind, the tenser the muscles become and that consequently affects one’s focus and body positioning.

Statistics reveal an interesting set of data to verify that considerable degree of pressure. Ben Lyttleton in his new book "Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty" illustrates that conversions rates significantly drop the higher the stage.

While they do remain very similar in open-play penalties, between 77 to 80% across the top European leagues, the shootouts conversion rate falls to 71% for World Cup and 69 % for Champions League.

Other studies also reveal a drop in conversion rates with each successive kick. This too is largely due to the mounting pressure with each sequential kick that transpires as the stakes increase.

Pressure greater for taker or keeper?

Think of it in terms of the law: the onus is always on the taker rather than the keeper.

Craig Forrest, who was a goal-keeper in England for Ipswich Town, Chelsea and West Ham United said that the suspense differed because the burden isn’t the same.

"It's the one time where a goal-keeper can actually be a hero,” Forrest told Al Jazeera. “The pressure in penalty shootouts is far greater on the shooter than the keeper because they're not expected to score."

It's that expectation that, to some extent, dictates the nerves for certain players. Stopping a shot is more of a bonus for the keeper than anything else. Yet Dichio says simulating these pressure cooker situations in practice or training to develop the mental and emotional coping mechanisms is nearly impossible, especially with younger players.

“We try to create that wild atmosphere of shouting and whistling the opposing team makes to see if they can focus and cancel that out. But there’s a very thin line between adding that pressure and making it sort of comical.”

Art of deception and disguise

Here's what further intensifies the entire dynamics.

There's an arsenal of intimidation tactics the taker and goal-keeper will employ. Takers will usually disguise cues and body language that includes using the eye gaze to misdirect or foot and hip placements to misguide the keeper.

During his career, Forrest discovered tricks of the trade he'd use to provide him with even the slightest of advantages. His specialty was the use of the water bottle that he’d deliberately place in the bottom corner about a yard inside the post.

“You’re giving them a target. I’m not hitting space now. I can actually aim at that guy’s water bottle. It gives them a drawn line from the bottle to the top of the net.”

That brings us to the use of ‘Game Theory’. Keepers and players alike will often study the tendencies of penalty takers and use that to decide if they'll dive right or left with a particular opponent.

But Forrest said the very act of a keeper knowing can compound the situation for the taker because it doubles the confusion.

"It adds even more pressure. He knows you know where he'll go. So will he try something different? Should he go as usual? That's the last thing he wants to be doing is thinking about what I'm going to do."

Coin toss

Recent studies show that certain procedures surrounding penalty shootouts do influence the outcome and provide an unfair advantage to the team that shoots first.

Lyttleton uses research, mainly based on the work of Ignacio Palacious-Huerta, to show that the coin toss and penalty taking pattern aren't as innocuous or impartial as they appear.

Contrary to popular belief, the coin toss isn't a 50-50 event, but closer to a 60-40 toss. Numbers reveal that the team that goes first in a World Cup wins the shootout 59% of the time and the team that goes second 41% of the time.

Very similar numbers are applicable to the Champions League, where it's 63% for the team that goes first and 37% for the team that goes second.

It’s believed the waiting and ‘catching up’ or ‘trailing behind’ that comes with going second contributes to the stress and pressure. That has led some to challenge the current format and introduce something on the lines of the tennis-tie break. So instead of ABAB, it uses ABBA or even ABBA BAAB to cancel out any bias.

While football isn’t as progressive in introducing changes, these findings do alter the simple aesthetics of the penalty shootout, an event far more complex than it appears.

But if it’s about gaining an edge, then a cool head can go a long way in these pressure situations.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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