Why some footballers ‘choke’ during penalty shootouts revealed

Why some footballers ‘choke’ during penalty shootouts: Brain scans reveal those who miss are overthinking the consequences of missing the shot

  • A penalty is one of the most pressurised individual events in all of sport  
  • There have been many high-profile misses such as Southgate at Euro ’96
  • Researchers found some people activate the pre-frontal cortex in their brain 
  • This is responsible for long-term thinking and leads to nerves and apprehension
  • People who trigger this region of their brain are more likely to fluff their attempt

A scientific study has found the reason some football players ‘choke’ when taking a penalty kick. 

Brain scans reveal that in the crucible of competition, some people activate a region of their brain called the pre-frontal cortex which is linked with long-term thinking. 

This leads to them overthinking the consequences of their attempt and dwelling on the potential ramifications if they were to miss, and this inhibits their performance. 

The research effectively reveals the mechanism behind the common sporting phrase ‘getting in your own head’. 

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A scientific study has found the reason some football players ‘choke’ when taking a penalty kick. Pictured, the notorious 1996 effort by the now-England manager Gareth Southgate, which led to defeat at the hands of the clinical Germans in the Euro ’96 final

In football, an inherently low-scoring sport, the opportunity to score from 12 yards with just a sprawling ‘keeper to beat is a prized opportunity, but one filled with pressure. 

The enormous personal responsibility falls on the shoulders of one player who is tasked with thrashing the ball into the back of the net. 

But this is easier said than done, and not all are as clinically effective as Alan Shearer, Matt Le Tissier or Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Many high profile misses can only be attributed to the high-stakes environment. 

For example, the notorious 1996 effort by the now-England manager Gareth Southgate, which led to defeat at the hands of the clinical Germans and a missed opportunity to play in the Euro ’96 final.

Others, like Beckham’s slip against Turkey in qualifying for Euro ’04 and Iñigo Idiakez’s fluffed chance in the 2007 Championship play-off semi-final second leg for Southampton against his old club, Derby County, stick in the memory.  

Pictured, David Beckham's penalty slip against Turkey in qualifying for Euro '04 against Turkey

Pictured, David Beckham’s penalty slip against Turkey in qualifying for Euro ’04 against Turkey 

How to score the perfect penalty EVERY time 

Scientists have found the best way for football players to train in order to take the perfect penalty.

According to the findings, waiting until the goalkeeper starts to move and aiming into the opposite corner is a skill that can be improved with training.

While the tried-and-tested Alan Shearer technique of shooting the ball into the top corner might work for some, scientists claim strikers can train themselves to be better at outwitting the goalie. 

The latest research, which was led by Dr Martina Navarro, a lecturer in sport and exercise science, could lend a helping hand to penalty takers.

Dr Navarro said: ‘A successful penalty kick requires that the penalty taker produces an accurate, well-controlled kicking action and at the same time watches the goalkeeper and makes a decision to which side to kick the ball.

‘In other words, it is a defining feature of the goalkeeper-dependent strategy that a conscious decision is made while kicking.

‘This makes the goalkeeper-dependent strategy essentially a dual task.’

Both Beckham and Idiakez were noted dead ball specialists, capable of audacious accuracy and extravagant curl. 

But both, when confronted with a high-pressure penalty kick, failed to even hit the target. The reason for this is not physical, but mental, experts say. 

‘How can it be that football players with a near perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 meters) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 meters?’ asks co-author of the new study, Max Slutter, an MSc student at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. 

‘Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick.’ 

He recruited 22 volunteers to kick penalties and measured their brain activity with a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) headset.

The study is the first to investigate the neuroscience behind choking under realistic conditions outside a laboratory. 

‘We found that players who were able to perform under pressure activated task-relevant areas of the brain,’ explained Dr Nattapong Thammasan, of the University of Twente. 

‘For example, increased activation of the motor cortex was related to performing under pressure. 

‘This seems logical, as movement is one of the most important elements when taking a penalty.’ 

But they also saw that players who felt anxious and tend to miss penalties have their pre-frontal cortex light up. 

The researchers believe the technology, described in Frontiers in Computer Science, can help players by letting them know how their brains are behaving.

They could train themselves to activate beneficial regions in high-pressure moments, such as stepping up to take a penalty while carrying the hopes of a nation.

Goalkeepers are LESS likely to save a free kick if they have a ‘wall’, study finds  

A goalkeeper is less likely to save a free kick if there is a wall of players in the way, according to new research. 

The ten-yard side-by-side barrier is in place to make it harder for the free kick taker to score a goal, but this technique has now been called into question. 

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast found the wall gets in the way of the goalkeeper’s eyesight and slows their reaction time. 

The goalkeeper’s sight is blocked for around 200 milliseconds and their reaction time is up to 90 milliseconds slower than when there is no wall. 

As a result the researchers calculate that with a wall in place the ‘keeper is 13 per cent less likely to make a successful save.  

And it applies to all types of free kicks ranging from the pile drivers of Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo to those who prefer to bend it – like David Beckham. 

Co-author Professor Cathy Craig said: ‘In a nutshell, placing a defensive wall could actually result in the goalkeeper conceding more goals.’ 


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