The Psychology and Science of Shoot-Outs

The 2014 World Cup of Football has seen its share of games decided by shoot-outs. As usual The Economist cast both an amusing yet intriguing light upon this nerve-testing aspect of the game:

Time was when an English footballer who missed a penalty in a tournament shoot-out could expect shame and a bit-part as a stooge in a television advert. By the time of the team’s most recent failure, at the European Championship of 2012, botching penalties had come to seem an inevitable national scourge, like frequent rain or delayed trains. But failing at penalties is not an arbitrary affliction. There is a science to it, which offers lessons for other high-pressure situations, too.

Shoot-outs—the first of which, in the World Cup in Brazil, could be on June 28th—demand qualities rarely needed by footballers. The match proper is a team game, but a penalty kick is a lone endeavour. It allows time for agonised thinking, not least on the long walk from the team’s huddle towards the goal. It looks simple, yet the stakes are agonisingly high. A shoot-out, in other words, is a test less of athleticism or skill than of nerve.

Some nations are more jittery than others. A shoot-out was first used as a World Cup tie-breaker in 1982, and a clear pattern is visible. The English are at the bottom, with six losses out of seven shoot-outs in World Cup or European Championship tournaments (see chart). The Dutch, with four losses out of five, are also fairly dire. Conversely, the Germans have won all their four World Cup shoot-outs (in Britain, the notion that the Germans are invincible at penalties is among the few still-respectable national stereotypes). The Czechs are even more proficient: they have never missed a single kick in a penalty shoot-out.

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What explains the national teams’ varying records? One theory is that defeat is habit-forming. The record suggests that players are more likely to miss if they—or even their team—have failed at penalties before. They become fatalistic, attribute the outcome to chance and neglect to prepare properly. As T.S. Eliot might have put it, between the penalty spot and the net falls the shadow.

Another explanation focuses on national cultures. Jon Billsberry of Deakin University in Australia argues that “countries that are collectivist in nature tend to do much better in penalty shoot-outs than those that are individualistic.” Mindful of their public images and anticipating recrimination from a merciless media, English players often buckle: they “contrive completely new ways to miss”, Mr Billsberry notes, such as falling over or hitting the ball with a shin. Research by Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences supports this ego-based theory: star players, he finds, are more likely to miss than less feted ones.

Statistical analysis offers insights into winning habits as well. Players are far more likely to fluff a kick that could have prevented them losing the match (by levelling the score) than one that will secure victory. Mr Jordet has also detected an “emotional contagion” among penalty-takers: when a player celebrates a successful kick by raising his arms in triumph, he makes his teammates more likely to score too—and his opponents less likely. Greg Wood of Liverpool Hope University finds that effective players tend to kick according to a plan, without regard for the goalkeeper’s movement. Most of the time, the team that shoots first in the alternating contest ends up winning—because playing catch-up makes their opponents’ task extra stressful.

Herein lie the lessons of penalties for other types of managers—and for football coaches whose teams face the trauma of shoot-outs in Brazil. When the pressure builds, the key is to concentrate on your own side’s performance, rather than worrying about the opposition. Emphasise positive incentives rather than the costs of failure. Celebrate success. Also, if at all possible, avoid the Germans.

Yes, avoid the Germans; advice with which the Brazilians may concur.

 



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