The best story Tim Krul ever told. Psychological considerations on shootouts in football…

This co-authored article was originally written by  Germano Gallicchio and Julián González.

5th of July, 2014.  Netherlands and Costa Rica play for the place in semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The score is 0-0 after additional time and two teams prepare for the penalty shootout. The Netherlands substitute in their “specialist”: goal keeper Tim Krul. Supposedly, he is perfectly prepared and has studied Costa Rican players’ shooting habits beforehand. Krul saves two penalties and brings his team to the semi-finals (watch the video). As it later turns out Krul wasn’t the presumed specialist, having saved only two penalties in his career up to that moment (see Krul stats). This odd event gave us the opportunity to talk about the effects of psychological pressure over shooting performance in penalties (radio talk show, for Italian and Spanish speakers).

To begin with, let us consider that there are two ways to kick a penalty: so you either are aware of  the goal keeper (keeper-dependent strategy) or not (keeper-independent strategy). First strategy assumes you want to anticipate the direction of the keeper’s dive during the run-up and shoot in the opposite direction. The second strategy is about ignoring the keeper and shoot at one of the upper corners.

Although keeper-dependent strategy may sound like a clever choice, studies have showed that keeper-independent strategy is the best option  (Van der Kamp, 2011). Figuring out the keeper’s dive already during the run-up is quite challenging, especially under high pressure. Additionally, focusing on both the keeper and all the potential targets at once requires a big deal of attention… On the contrary, picturing a single target before the run-up and not caring about the keeper is lower on attentional demands. Furthermore, it has been proved that a powerful penalty shot at the upper corner is virtually unsaveable  (Armatas et al., 2007;  Kerwin & Bray, 2006).

The key question now seems to be: “Is it really that easy to ignore the goal keeper during the run-up?” A study conducted in the Netherlands suggests that it is not that simple (Navarro et al., 2013). In the study, professional footballers had to kick penalties while adopting a keeper-independent strategy under three conditions: at an open goal, with the keeper between the posts and with a keeper who was also informed about the target of the kick. Had the keeper been equally ignored there wouldn’t have been any difference in the shooting performance across the conditions. It turned out though that the players shot more precisely at the upper corners on an empty goal compared to the conditions with the present keeper. The worst performance was measured when the keeper was aware of the target. In other words, the mere presence of the keeper (even when intentionally ignored) affects the accuracy of the shot and this influence is even greater if the keeper already knows where the kicker is going to shoot.

Quite interestingly, Krul declared indeed to have tried to persuade the Costaricans by saying he knew where they would have shot (watch the video), so apparently the Costa ricans shot under the last  condition the researchers proposed to (see above), therefore his substitution could well have been a bluff which turned into a psychological trickery.

But why is it so difficult to ignore the keeper and so deleterious to focus on him/her? A possible explanation comes from the attentional bias phenomenon (Eysenck et al., 2007): we normally tend to devote a certain amount of attention to process threats in the environment. The higher the perceived threat, the higher the amount of attention invested to process it. During a penalty, the keeper is the biggest threat to the realization of the goal. The more the keeper is considered good at saving penalties, the more he/she will be perceived as a threat, so that the kicker’s gaze and attention will automatically be diverted towards the keeper. Just few seconds prior to the kick, parameters such as force and distance are factored in an action plan and it is therefore very important to look and focus on the right things at this time (Vickers, 1996). The end result of devoting more attention to the keeper is that the kick is shot further from the aimed target and more centralized, in turn easier to be saved (Navarro et al., 2013).

What can you do to increase the success rate in a penalty kick? While the last word is not out yet, there are some training protocols which could help you focus on the right things. First, training the shootout under artificially created pressure conditions  (Navarro et al., 2013). Secondly, Quiet Eye training  (Vickers, 2007), which focuses on the acquisition of a higher control of the eye movements during motor planning and execution – more about it on a previous Quiet Eye article on this blog. Finally, ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ( cf, Gardner & Moore, 2007), which offers a solution to dealing with haunting thoughts such as “don’t you dare to pay attention to the goalie” – more about it on a previous ACT therapy  on this blog.

So far, penalty kick is the best possible way to punish fouls inside the penalty area as well as to decide what team qualifies in case of a tie. It is unlikely that footballers would rather be flipping the coin. Antonin Panenka Watch the video, arguably one of the best and creative penalty kickers of all-time has stated:  “So far, penalty shootouts have been used. When or if someone clever comes up with something more interesting, something the players will find more alluring or psychologically more demanding, perhaps we can change the current system.”

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