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Shooting for World Cup glory


With England facing Colombia tonight, the prospect of a knock-out game decided by penalties is getting ever closer.

So far two games in this year’s tournament have been decided by penalty shoot-outs, and a sports coaching expert has been looking into the ins and outs of penalty taking.

Dr Jamie Poolton, a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching in Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Sport, has been researching goalkeepers’ techniques that could potentially influence the outcome of the shoot-out.

Talking about his research, Dr Poolton said: “Much of the discussion around penalty shoot-outs focuses on the penalty-taker – who will take the penalty, practicing penalties, penalty taking strategies - but there is little mention of the goalkeeper, yet they are the player best placed to affect the outcome of the shoot-out. They are also the player at a distinct disadvantage, with over 70 per cent of penalties converted in World Cup shoot-outs.

“Since the penalty shoot-out was introduced in the 1970s, there are some memorable examples of goalkeeping capers used to swing the contest in their favour, with varying levels of success: Grobbelar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ in Rome (https://youtu.be/U6vaEngvA2M); Joe Hart being ‘Panenka’d’ by Pirlo in Euro 2012 (https://youtu.be/vFgeIfVFl58); and Jerzy Dudek’s various antics (https://youtu.be/yZ4Uc9OlxHE) to win the European Cup for Liverpool!”

The anecdotal evidence suggests goalkeepers clutching at straws, but psychological science is now offering some informed research and more subtle solutions to the goalkeeping problem.

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

    In preparation for a penalty kick, professional goalkeepers rarely position themselves exactly at the 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 per cent of occasions. Most often a penalty taker will be presented with a side of the goal that has more space. Penalty takers who assume that the goalkeeper is in the middle of the goal have an above chance (approximately 60 per cent) 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. These findings imply that the goalkeeper 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

    If goalkeepers can make the space either side of them appear smaller by making themselves look bigger, then penalty taker confidence and shot accuracy may decrease. Goalkeepers who adopted the ‘Y’ posture would be perceived as taller than when the ‘v’ created by the arms was pointed downward. Participants overestimated goalkeeper height when they adopted the ‘y’ posture and underestimated height when the arms were pointing down.

    In one study, goalkeeper reputation was manipulated by showing experienced players either a series of saves made by  Dudek in the Champions League Final, or a series of Dudek’s failed attempts to make a save. The players who observed only saves began to overestimate his height, whereas players who observed only failed saves began to underestimate his height. 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.

  • Make yourself small: Bigger isn’t always better

When looking at the ‘y’ and inverted ‘v’ the goalkeeper posture induced an illusory bias. The y’ posture resulted in balls being placed further from the keeper than when the goalkeeper made himself seem small with his arms pointed downwards. If keepers make themselves seem smaller, by manipulating posture and/or reputation, penalty kicks are inadvertently placed closer to the goalkeeper, thus making the kick more saveable.

Dr Poolton added: “It’s important to acknowledge the major part that goalkeepers play in a penalty shoot-out. This summer’s World Cup teams can learn from the experience and antics of keepers past, as well as a growing body of experience-based evidence.

“England fans should hope that Southgate has a plan for Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope and Jack Butland should the inevitable happen.”

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