Why Penalty Shootout Goalies Dive to the Right – Lessons for the Euro Finals
The Neuropsychology of the Penalty Shootout
Will Sunday’s European final end in the theatre of another penalty shoot-out? Such dramas are as much a matter of psychology as of football skill. If the final game culminates in a Spain-Italy shootout, it might help nervy fans to understand some of the science behind it.
The England team was under pressure last Sunday night, not just in defending against the relentless onslaught of the Italians, but more especially when it came to the penalties. Three out of four of England’s recent eliminations from significant tournaments have been on penalties at the quarter-final stage and only Holland has lost as many penalty shoot-outs in the European Championships as England.
The ‘winner effect’ is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders. It applies to humans, too: winning changes through testosterone surges the chemistry of the brain, making people more focused, confident, motivated and aggressive. The England team went into the arena of the shoot-out suffering from the opposite of the winner effect – a sort of loser effect that mentally and neurologically shackled them by its history of shoot-out failures.
Though the Italians have had some infamous penalty stage losses in the World Cup Finals between 1990 and 1998, they managed to shake that particular monkey off their backs, famously winning the 2006 World Cup against France, and succeeding in other more recent shoot-outs, including the Euro 2000 semi-final.
England arguably was on the point of shaking the penalty failure monkey off their backs after Wayne Rooney’s decisive score put them 2-1 ahead, but then Andrea Pirlo stepped forward and humiliated Hart and his team with a cheeky – nay, contemptuously dinky – chip over the spreadeagled goalie.
Ashley Young then stepped forward, his testosterone levels sapped by two things – the weight of his team’s shoot-out failures and by the dominance display by the alpha male Pirlo. It is a feature of people and animals lower down in a dominance hierarchy that their brains become focused on threat and risk more than on opportunity and victory – this is why disempowerment also deskills. Young’s strike against the crossbar was a symptom of a highly-tuned sporting-brain mis-timing because of a history- and Pirlo-altered chemistry.
Ashley Cole’s brain would have similarly mistimed, though at least he struck hard right towards the corner, only to be thwarted by the leftward (from his perspective) flying Buffon. Cole was right to strike right, because while penalty takers kick right and left equally often, goal keepers whose team is under major pressure are more likely to dive right than left, Marieke Roskes and colleagues[i] at the University of Amsterdam have shown. This is because the motivation to win – so-called ‘approach motivation’ activates the left front part of the brain, gearing you for the reward of winning by focusing all your attention on achieving the task in hand – namely saving the penalty. The greater activity of the left side of the brain biases action to the right side, hence Roskes’ finding that in FIFA world cup matches ending in penalty shoot-outs, goalkeepers whose teams were losing dived to the right 71% of the time versus 29% left, while goalkeepers whose teams were ahead dived right 48% versus left 52% of the time.
If Sunday’s final does end in a shoot-out, here is my advice for the penalty taker: if you are ahead, strike right! But of course, it is in the penalty taker rather the goalkeeper where the real psychodrama plays out, hence the frequent nervy, miss-hit shots. If the player steps forward with apprehension in his face, clearly he will more likely to miss, because this is a sign that his mind lacks a single focus and that the possibility of failure has found a corner of his mind to roost in, where its fluttering will disrupt the highly-trained and precious networks of connected brain cells where the kicking skills are stored.
But beware equally of the pop-eyed desperado striding up to the spot – because he may choke. ‘Choking’ can occur when you want something too badly – the greatly heightened anticipation of the victory/reward sends levels of the key chemical messenger dopamine in the brain’s reward network soaring [ii]. Most chemical messengers in the brain have a “Goldilocks’s Zone’ where optimum performance depends on moderately high – not too low or too high – levels. Two much dopamine caused by wanting the goal too much can disrupt the brain’s skilled functioning just as much as the nerves of anticipated failure can. That’s what made the casual insolence of Pirlo’s penalty so effective and so painful.
[i] Roskes M et al (2011) Psychological Science 22 1403-1407
[ii] Mobbs et al (2009)Psychol Sci. 2009 20, 955–962