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Subtle goalkeeping solutions for Englands World Cup penalty shootout problem

“Everyone seems to know the score, they've seen it all before” (Broudie, Baddiel & Skinner, 1996).

Subtle goalkeeping solutions for Englands World Cup penalty shootout problem

One of the inevitabilities in the life of an England fan is fast approaching - heightened levels of FIFA World Cup expectation, shattered by an “oh so near” exit on penalties. England have lost all three of their World Cup shootouts, and have won just one of their four UEFA European Championship efforts. The afterimage of a stunned Waddle, Southgate and Batty are etched onto our collective mind’s eye.

According to a recent BBC Sport report, this summer’s response from the FA is to consider a range of factors around the penalty shoot-out, including: a player’s preference for practicing penalties; a player’s psychological response to the prospect of taking a penalty; how the likelihood of a shoot-out affects extra-time performance; pre-match organisation of who will take a penalty; players’ walk to the spot; and the need for more than one 'go-to' penalty placement option.

While welcome, note the emphasis on the penalty-taker in the contest. There is no mention of the goalkeeper; yet, the keeper, who faces the opposition at least three times or (likely) more, is the player best placed to affect the outcome of the shootout.

Goalkeepers start with a distinct disadvantage - over 70% of penalties have been converted in World Cup shootouts. So, how might keepers go about reversing this trend? Well, history tells us that they have tried, albeit with varying levels of success: Cech did his homework on Bayern Munich’s penalty-takers  (The Guardian, 2012); Grobbelar dished up spaghetti legs to distract his opposition in Rome (Liverpool Echo, 2018); Hope Solo 'iced the kicker', unsuccessfully, by asking for new gloves ahead of the crucial kick of the 2016 Olympic quarter final (Yahoo Sports, 2016); and most keepers come off their line before the ball has been kicked - despite it being a bookable offence (The Guardian, 2018). An exemplar of such tricks of the trade was provided in 2005 by Jerzy Dudek who reportedly utilised all of the above to win the European Cup for Liverpool.

However, the anecdotal evidence portrays a sense of goalkeepers clutching at straws. Psychological science is now offering empirically based and more subtle solutions to the problem.

Stand to the side...but by not so much they’ll notice

In preparation for a penalty kick, professional goalkeepers rarely position themselves at the exact centre of the goal. Analysis of 200 top-flight penalty kicks suggests that goalkeepers intend to be positioned centrally, but stand marginally left or right of centre on 96% of occasions (Masters, van der Kamp & Jackson, 2007). This means that most often a penalty taker will be presented with a side of the goal that has more space. Masters and colleagues went on to calculate that the mean displacement of keepers sampled was about 10 cm. Follow-up lab-based work showed that displacements of less than 10 cm are imperceptible; that is, the penalty taker thinks the goalkeeper is standing dead centre when they are not. Masters and colleagues observational data, validated by lab-based simulations, show that penalty-takers who assume that the goalkeeper is in the middle of the goal have an above chance (approximately 60%) inclination to direct the ball to the side of the keeper that has more space - particularly when the goalkeeper does not give anything away by moving before ball contact (Nӧel, van der Kamp & Memmert, 2015). The findings imply that the goalkeeper, assuming she/he can locate the true centre of the goal, can deliberately influence the direction of a penalty kick by standing slightly to one side by an amount that the penalty taker will not notice.

Make yourself big: The illusion of size

Away from football, Jessica Witt and her colleagues (2012) demonstrated the effect visual illusions can have on golf putting. They projected an array of large circles or small circles around the hole to create the Ebbinghaus illusion that the hole circumference was smaller or larger than real-life, respectively. Poorer performance was shown when the hole (target) was perceived to be smaller. The likely explanation was that the illusion affected confidence. The findings imply that if goalkeepers can make the space (target) either side of them appear smaller by making themselves look bigger, then penalty taker confidence and, in turn, shot accuracy may decrease. With this in mind, van der Kamp and Masters (2008) wondered if goalkeepers’ who adopted the ‘Y’ posture of an amputated Muller-lyer illusion would be perceived as taller than when the arms were pointed downward. Sure enough, participants overestimated goalkeeper height when they adopted the ‘Y’ posture and underestimated height when the arms were pointing down. It would be interesting to find out what misperceptions of height do to penalty taker confidence and penalty kick accuracy.

Perception of size can also be influenced by impression management. In a series of studies, we showed that penalty-taking reputation is correlated with goalkeeper height (Masters, Poolton & van der Kamp, 2010). In one study, we manipulated goalkeeper reputation by showing experienced players either a series of saves made by Jerzy Dudek in the Champions League Final or a series of Jerzy’s failed attempts to make a save. The players who observed only saves began to overestimate Jerzy’s height, whereas, players who observed only failed saves began to underestimate his height. We later noticed from observational data that penalty takers were more likely to kick wide of the goal when the previous penalty had been saved by the keeper; possibly because the save enhanced goalkeeper reputation/perceived height. This might partially explain the success of The Netherland’s goalkeeper, Tim Krul (alongside his other antics: BBC Sport, 2014), who was substituted into the 2014 World Cup quarter-final in the last minute of extra time because of his supposed penalty shoot-out prowess.

Make yourself small: Bigger isn’t always better

After asking players to estimate the height of goalkeepers adopting versions of the Muller-Lyer illusion, van der Kamp and Masters (2010) instructed players to score a goal against the keeper by placing the ball inside the posts and out of the goalkeeper’s reach. They found that goalkeeper posture induced an illusory bias. The ‘Y’ posture resulted in balls (throws rather than kicks) being placed further from the keeper, yet still inside the uprights, than when the goalkeeper made himself seem small (arms pointing downward). The somewhat counterintuitive implication of this finding is that keepers should consider making themselves seem small (by manipulating posture and/or reputation), so that penalty kicks are inadvertently placed closer to the goalkeeper, thus making the kick more savable.

In conclusion

It is important to acknowledge the major part goalkeepers play in a penalty shootout. This summer’s World Cup cohort can learn from the experiences and antics of keepers past, as well as a growing body of empirical evidence. England fans should hope that Gareth Southgate has a plan for Pickford, Pope and Butland should the inevitable happen. If the same knowledge was available to Shilton and Seaman, England might not have been hurting for so long. Still, it “never stopped me dreaming” (Broudie et al., 1996: Three Lions: Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds).

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About the Author

Dr Jamie Poolton

Jamie aims to inform the practice of optimising skill acquisition. His research has captured expert performance characteristics, investigated skill failure and examined alternative skill learning interventions. The findings are discussed across our Sports Coaching degrees and with our external partners.

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