How to practise penalty shoot-outs

Footballers should practise taking penalty kicks in front of as large an audience as possible and the results should be published, so as to help recreate the pressure of a real tournament. That’s according to researchers who say the effect of stress is even more important than skill or experience in determining whether a penalty-taker hits the back of the net.

Penalty shoot-outs are often used to decide tournament games that have ended in a draw. Five players from each team take one kick each. If the score remains level after this, one player from each team takes a kick until one side is a goal ahead from the same number of kicks.

Some commentators have declared penalties to be a lottery, but the contrasting track records of penalty success between countries tells a different story – for example, England have lost four of their five penalty shoot-outs at major tournaments, whereas Germany have won five out of six.

Geir Jordet and colleagues at the Centre for Human Movement Sciences in Groningen analysed all 409 spot kicks taken in the World Cup, European Championships and Copa America between 1976 and 2004. They found a higher penalty success rate at the less important European and Copa America tournaments (85 and 82 per cent, respectively) relative to the World Cup (71 per cent), suggesting the pressure of the event was affecting penalty-takers’ performance. Moreover, success was greater for kicks taken earlier in a shoot-out, when the pressure is lower because each kick is not in itself decisive.

There was also evidence that skill plays a role, because forward players, who have more goal-scoring experience, tended to be more successful at penalties than defensive players.

“Psychological variables showed a stronger relationship to [penalty] outcome than any of the other variables” the researchers concluded. “Knowledge about psychology should be used to prepare teams for these contests”, they said.

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C. & Lemmink, K.A.P.M. (2007). Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25, 121-129.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related research.