Taking a penalty in an international football competition must be one of the most tense moments an athlete can face. Even though the odds are stacked against the goal-keeper, the world’s best attacking stars often under-perform. In psychological jargon – they choke.
According to a new analysis of all the penalty shoot-outs held in previous World Cups, European Championships and the UEFA Champions League, issues of timing appear to be crucial to the success or not of a penalty kick. Sports psychologist Geir Jordet and his colleagues have found that, on average, the less time a player takes to respond to the referee’s whistle before running towards the ball to take the penalty, the more likely they are to fail to score.
The researchers say the finding is consistent with the idea that choking is a form of “self-regulatory breakdown”. In other words, an intense threat to our reputation can cause so much distress that we do whatever we can to end the situation as quickly as possible, even if taking this action is harmful to our performance.
A snap-shot of the results reveals that players who took less than 200ms to respond to the ref’s whistle scored, on average, just under 57 per cent of the time. By contrast, players who took more than a second to respond, tended to hit the back of the net just over 80 per cent of the time, on average.
It was a similar story for placement of the ball on the penalty spot, with the players who spent longer placing the ball also tending to be more likely to score, although this trend didn’t reach statistical significance.
The researchers also looked at aspects of timing imposed by the referee. In this case, the pattern of results went in the other direction. For example, players were less likely to score if the penalty was delayed by the referee instructing them to reposition the ball. So whereas a player rushing is detrimental to performance, a referee slowing down the situation also seems to be harmful. This certainly chimes with Steven Gerrard’s account in his autobiography of his penalty miss at the 2006 World Cup: “I was ready. Elizondo [the referee] wasn’t. Blow the whistle! F***ing get a move on, ref! … Those extra couple of seconds … definitely put me off”.
The researchers said their findings should be treated with caution given that some of the sample sizes for some of the conditions were small, and given that this was a retrospective analysis and interpretation of past events, rather than a controlled experiment. However, they concluded that: “short self-imposed times and long externally imposed waiting times accompany low performance” and that referees [should] therefore “make sure that they offer equal temporal conditions for all shooters, by giving the ready signal at the same points in time for everyone”.
Jordet, G., Hartman, E., & Sigmundstad, E. (2009). Temporal links to performing under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (6), 621-627 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.03.004
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