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The Anatomy of a Penalty

4 Feb 2022   ·   

Professor of Philosophy and Metaphysics at Durham University, Stephen Mumford,  in his book Football, the Philosophy Behind the Game (Polity, 2019) explained that part of the secret of this sport is that no one ever knows what is going to happen. That is the beauty of it. Within that uncertainty, he went on, the penalty spot has a special significance. It is the scene of so much excitement, heartbreak, and joy, especially in a penalty shoot-out. This is one of the aspects of the match that players cannot control, according to this professor. The goalkeeper cannot control where the shooter kicks and vice versa, even though some deceiving techniques are used.

‘There is yet no remotely plausible account of the mind in physically deterministic terms that would allow a physicist to predict individuals’ decisions.’   Stephen Mumford, Professor of Philosophy and Metaphysics at Durham University.

Thus, the beauty of penalties would be: ‘no one has full control over what happens in football.’ However, sports science is closer to disproving this conclusion.

Are penalties just luck?

It is true that when two teams have a penalty shoot-out as tiebreaker, millions of people hold their breath. There is an obvious reason for that. The maximum punishment draws the level of the teams. In 2020 a study by University of Cologne analyzed over a thousand penalties in 14 different competitions. They found, according to the results, that the weaker team has 40% chance of winning the penalty shoot-out, a higher ratio than in the official time. That is why penalty shoot-outs have been frequently described as a lottery. Traditionally, a way to predict the result has never existed. However, penalties have been studied for three decades now to try to set some basic premises to debunk the myth of their results being just luck.

In fact, in the last Sports Tomorrow congress of Barça Innovation Hub the relevance these studies are gaining was shown. A research by Lotte Bransen, from SciSports, Predicting football penalty directions using in-match performance indicators, went deeper in the search of ways of predicting results in penalty shoot-outs demonstrating that there is a correlation between the number of good passes of a player during the match, and their chances to score a goal in the penalty shoot-out. For its part, the winning paper by Roy Ibrahim, Bridging the gap between biomechanical research and practice in training the goalkeeper´s diving save, presented a training system for goalkeepers based on an analysis of the muscles used in the most frequent blocks. Regarding penalties, he was able to make goalkeepers cover 43 more centimeters in each stretch.

The psychological factor of a penalty

The study of penalties is a school with strong tradition. In the las two decades, one of the most prolific research professors has been Geir Jordet from Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. From his early works he has agreed on the idea that in penalties, the skills of the player, physiology, luck or fatigue they can experience after two hours of playing can play a role. As it has been mentioned no one knows the direction of the goalkeeper in case they dive. However, in his research he added a much more important factor: the psychological one, stress tolerance. According to his firsts analysis in penalty shoot-outs in top level championships, stress was a more decisive factor than any of the ones mentioned above in the result. In one of his studies based on interviews to the participant of a penalty shoot-out between Sweden and the Netherlands in 2004 Euro Cup quarter-finals, every player confirmed having debilitative emotions, and the only one all of them mentioned was anxiety.

It is proven that fatigue can impact neuromuscular coordination and prolonged exercise can alter cognitive functions which could affect penalty shooting. But no one of these limitations in that situation is bigger than stress. Analyzing statistics, Jordet found out that in the most important competitions, such as the World Cup, is where there are fewer penalties scored. What is more, the chances of success decrease in every shot. When a penalty is more decisive than the previous one, there are more misses. His conclusion was that anxiety due to a perceived high relevance in a tournament was the most decisive factor in a penalty shoot-out in an international championship.

In successive research with colleagues, he found nuances about that stress that could be seen by the naked eye. When there is a ‘choke’ under pressure situations, athletes attempt to consciously monitor and control movements that otherwise are instinctive, damaging the quality of the action. When there is a highly unpleasant emotional distress, people tend to focus on the immediate consequences, and not on the long-term outcomes of what they are doing. If anxiety controls the player, it is possible that their priority would be to end their anguish. They will rush.

Jordet’s team found patterns to identify that process. That self-regulation could be detected in the player’s sight direction when they are moving away from the penalty spot before the run-up. They can start their walk back to prepare their run-up looking at the keeper directly into their eyes, avoiding their look or walking turning their backs to them. In reverse, from the point of view of the goalkeeper, a group of British researchers in 2008 also found that goalkeepers assessed the soother’s confidence through their look. If they avoided contact, they understood that the confidence in their shot was lower. Another way to know if there is lack of confidence is placing the ball in the penalty spot as fast as possible. The player controlled by anxiety would try to finish with the action as fast as possible to end with their emotional ‘choke’. Every single self-regulation action taken, such as finishing as fast as possible, could be used to eliminate negative emotions but it is probable that they damage performance. The evidence is that Jordet discovered that avoiding the goalkeeper’s look and rushing to place the ball are more related to missed penalties than scored ones.

The pressure of self-image

An anxiety attack could be the outcome of a self-regulating response to an ego threat. Failing entails the risk of damaging the image the players have of themselves, which results in a panic situation. He got to this conclusion by analyzing penalty shoot-outs by nationality. Germany, for example, won in 1982, 1986, 1990, 1996 and 2006, while England lost in 1990, 1996 (they beat Spain but lost against Germany), 1998, 2004 and 2006. When facing the maximum punishment, as regards image, some players had more to lose than others; then, their anxiety was higher.

There are many decisive factors in self-image pressure. In the United States, it was defined as the ‘second-year depression’ in baseball. It is a repeated decrease in performance after successful seasons. In international athletes, a similar phenomenon was observed. When they won something important, success turned into additional pressure. In football, Jordet himself identified avoidance and self-regulation systems in players who were awarded prizes such as ‘The best FIFA player of the year.’ Whether it is a thing of self-image or perception of social media threat to reputation, the research found that English players unable to overcome penalty shoot-outs show the highest amount of time of look avoidance, 57% of them turn their backs to the goalkeeper when moving away from the penalty spot before the run-up.

Collective emotions

Besides, we have to consider that emotions are contagious. Scientific literature indicates that positive emotional contagion increases the level of attention, cognition, and performance of teammates. Focusing this aspect on penalty shoot-outs, we can study if collective positive emotion could be useful to reduce anxiety effects and avoid the player’s fall into a downward or avoidance spiral. The outcome was that when a player was happy for scoring, the rival experienced feelings of inferiority and their teammates had feelings of superiority. This would have consequences on the confidence of the next shooters. It was 2.35 times more probable that the rival missed after a scored penalty with a visible celebration. Without celebration, if when scoring the player looked down, there were more chances they were in the losing team. Besides, emotional contagion could be found between matches, and even between championships. Statistically, it has been observed that it is more probable to lose a penalty shoot-out when the previous one was also lost. The negative team record would be another stressful factor if players who were involved in the last failure are present.

From the point of view of umpires, it was observed that when referees take part in the correct positioning of the ball in the penalty spot, there are more misses. It is a coherent statistic with a similar one in NFL. American football discovered that more ball kicks were missed when they were preceded by a time-out than they were performed during the game. Unintentionally and unaware, Jordet, Esther Hartman and Einar Sigmudnstad’s research concluded: ‘Referees could play a part in the outcome of penalty shoot-outs.’

Different techniques of shooting

Shooting methods have been studied. It has been studied if they take into account where the goalkeeper dives, or if they ignore the keepers and place the ball in a spot previously chosen independently of what they do. After analyzing all the penalty shoot-outs of EUFA championships and the World Cups between 1982-2002, they detected that in 90% of the penalties it could be clearly seen if the shooter used one strategy or the other. The general trend showed that between 78% and 85% of the time the shooter did not think about the goalkeeper. This could be, according to the hypothesis, due to a strategy that allows a higher stress control, since waiting for the goalkeeper to move when starting the run-up creates much more uncertainty. At the same time, this information is useful for goalkeepers. Statistics showed that the player who tends to deceive the goalkeeper takes more steps and looks at the keeper more times. If the shot is done without taking into account the goalkeeper, the run-up is shorter and more intense, and the goalkeeper’s presence or look is usually ignored.

A 2010 research from the University of Exeter pointed out that when the shooter goes for a target-directed shot instead of deceiving, the distractions created by the goalkeeper, such as moving their arms or cheering the stand, could disrupt the concentration needed to score. On the contrary, there is no evidence that a player has the ability to completely ignore the goalkeeper even when they are intended to do it. A study published by the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2013 showed that the mere presence of the goalkeeper affects accuracy in players who shoot to a specific quadrant of the target. What is more, it was proven that if the goalkeeper is present the shots are more ‘centered’, this is the shots are directed closer to the goalkeeper than in a no-goalkeeper condition.

Other aspects seem obvious, but they need to be proven. M. López-Botella y J.M. Palao from UCAM confirmed that among specialists, the ones who score 8 out of 10 penalties, who are right-footed players tend to shoot to the right area of the goalkeeper, and the left-footed to the left. Both prefer to shoot in the low areas of the target.

Using ball speed and goalkeepers’ reaction time, another study compared videos of real penalties making use of 3D Studio Max simulations. In the videos analyzed (World Cup 2010, Copa America 2011, and EUFA 2012) the preferred shots of the player by area were: 1 (5,5%) 2 (2,7%), 3 (5,5%), 4 (33%), 5 (15,2%), 6 (11,1%), 7 (16,6%), 8 (5,5%) y 9 (4.1%) In those three championships there were blocks in quadrant 4 in a 19,4%. The figures were similar in a session of 50 penalties in an analysis done in May 2010 with reserve players of CA Peñarol. The blocks in quadrant 4 were 15.8%.

Other theories and studies about penalties

Golf is a similar sport to penalties, in fact, golfers also mention anxiety as the main emotion before decisive shots. These researchers recommended footballers to follow the usual protocols of golf to mitigate stress. For example, facing each hole thinking out loud. There are also studies that tried to debunk common beliefs. In Germany, the popular belief says that the player who receives the foul in the area never shoots the penalty. However, a research published by the Journal of Sports Sciences argued that there is no significant statistical correlation in the success of a penalty if the player who received the foul shot it.

Penalties have also been studied in context. A research carried out by Mikael Jamil from the School of Health and Sports Science Form Suffolk University found significant differences in each league. In the Premier League, the shot with the inside part of the foot scored more goals. In Germany, the instep of the foot achieved success. In Italy, both shots had a similar percentage of success. For Spanish LaLiga, the most frequent shots were the ones in zones 7 and 4 of the image.

There are some studies that have gone deeper in subtle details such as the color of the jersey. Surveys conducted on goalkeepers revealed that red is the most intimidating color. Culturally, it could be linked to dominance and ability. The book Cromorama (Taurus 2019) by Ricardo Falcinelli explains that these differences in perception also happen with appliances. There have been experiments that proved that when there are two identical appliances, one is perceived as better for its color. According to the designer Andrea Branzi, objects are perceived first for their chromatic identity and not for their shape and function. A football study of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health from the University of Chichester analyzed only two colors, red and white. The conclusion was that white could mean a disadvantage. In England, the teams with more victories have traditionally worn red, such as Liverpool and Manchester United. However, in the United States, a similar research revealed that NHL teams wearing black were perceived as more aggressive and overwhelming. So that, depending on the cultural codes of each country, color could mean a slight advantage.

However, goalkeepers tend to pay attention to other details to try to guess the direction of the shot rather than in colors. It was also proven that senior goalkeepers gaze more at the shooters’ trunk, hips, and support leg than young goalkeepers. This proves that goalkeepers learn to establish predictable behavior patterns of the forwards. This is the great paradox of penalties. The more studies and increase in predictability, the more unpredictable they are if sports science develops both parts in the same way: shooters and goalkeepers. Not by chance, in his book Me gusta el fútbol (RBA, 2002) Johan Cruyff highlighted the dualism of this football movement:

‘A penalty, what is it? Goal or not; inside or outside; a shot or a block, in summary, it is a static concept.’   Johan Cruyff.


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