Its said a penalty shot is the easiest way to score a goal in a football match. Many, however, wouldnt agree. At least not French striker David Trezeguet whose mis-shot in a penalty shootout cost his country the World Cup in 2006. Or Italian forward Roberto Baggio who failed to score a penalty after 120 minutes of a goal-less draw in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil.
Trezeguet and Baggio are not alone. Almost all top players of the beautiful game have experienced this some time or another during their long, illustrious careers.
In a penalty shootout, five players from each team are asked to shoot from the penalty spot, which is 12 yards (about 11 metres) from the goal post. Whichever team scores the maximum number of goals is adjudged the winner.
Scientists analysing World Cup matches found that about 30 per cent of penalties were wasted since the method was introduced in 1982 as a means of deciding the winner in tied knockout matches. Of 186 spot kicks taken, 56 missed the target.
The penalty shootout has become an important part of international soccer matches. In the last 14 World Cups, 10 of the 14 winners have had to win a penalty shootout prior to lifting the trophy, says Greg Wood, a University of Exeter psychologist who specialises in sports psychology. Penalty kicks have accounted for around 35 per cent of the total goals scored in international competitions, he adds.
Obviously, a penalty shootout involves much more than skill and agility. It tests a players ability to steel his nerve and perform in a pressure-cooker situation. Geir Jordent, associate professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, likes to describe it as a psychological game. Shootouts are not decided by great shots but by players who fail because the pressure gets to them, he says.
Even as the world is getting ready for yet another edition of the World Cup, scheduled to kick off later this week in South Africa, scientists present theories to explain why some players choke more than others. The penalty is a duel between the shooter and the goalkeeper, they say, and whoever overcomes the immense pressure of this tiebreak situation emerges the winner.
A recent study by a team of Dutch researchers at VU University in Amsterdam tries to analyse the role of visual attention in penalty shootouts. Their work, which appeared early last month in the journal Human Movement Science, shows that the persistent wish of a player to not miss a penalty may, in fact, increase the likelihood of just the opposite. More important, the study — led by Olaf Binsch — found that when players are instructed to kick away from the goalkeeper, rather than shoot accurately or into open space, they spent less time fixating on their target and ultimately scored fewer goals.
According to Binsch, if a striker has it in his mind that he must not kick the ball to the keeper, the opposite is exactly what he might do. Thats because he fails to disengage himself from his potential distracter — the goalkeeper.
Wood has analysed in detail the role played by a goalkeeper in making a penalty striker misfire. A goalkeeper who can successfully distract a penalty taker, forcing the latter to focus on him instead of where he wishes, can influence shot direction. There is tight co-ordination between our eyes and subsequent limb movements. Put simply, where the eyes look, the shot tends to follow. So if the goalkeeper distracts the penalty taker into looking at him, the shots will tend to be hit closer to him and it becomes easier for the goalkeeper to reach and save, he explains.
A good example of this, according to Wood, is legendary South Africa-born goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who with his spaghetti legs helped Liverpool win the 1984 European Cup by defeating Roma. Grobbelaar distracted two then Roma strikers — Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani — with his antics, so much so that they missed the target, helping Liverpool win the shootout 4-2. To be successful, a penalty taker must ignore the actions of the goalkeeper and instead look at where he wishes to shoot, says Wood.
Woods study, which appeared last month in the Journal of Sports Sciences, also threw light on the effect of anxiety on a footballers eye movement while taking a penalty shot. Using head-mounted infrared eye-tracking cameras, the researchers found that when penalty takers become anxious, they are more likely to look at and focus on the centrally positioned goalkeeper, often leading to a mis-shot.
The optimum strategy for a penalty taker, says Wood, is to pick a spot and shoot at it, ignoring the goalkeeper. Training in this strategy is likely to build on the co-ordination between eye movement and subsequent action, making for more accurate shooting. These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust even under pressure, he says.
So shooters of the world, take note of Woods words. After all, say analysts, theres more than a 50 per cent chance that the winner of the coming championship will have to survive a penalty shootout en route.