A scientific study from the University of Exeter in England suggests that penalty shot takers at this year's World Cup in South Africa follow some surprising and unconventional advice to increase their chances of scoring. Exeter psychologist Greg Wood, says the shooters should ignore the goalkeepers.
Exeter psychologist Greg Wood specializes in how anxiety affects visual attention. In a recent study, he looked at the mechanisms behind how anxiety affects players preparing to take penalty kicks in football matches.
For the study, Wood tracked the eye-movements of players preparing to take penalty kicks in shootouts and put the players under "low anxious" and "high anxious" conditions.
"What we found is that when they were anxious, they were more likely to focus and be worried about the actions of the goalkeeper, and look at the goalkeeper quicker and for longer periods of time," said Greg Wood.
Wood says there is a connection between where the shooters look and the motor actions guiding where they aim the ball, because people tend to focus on things in the environment that appear more threatening. For a penalty shot taker, the goalkeeper is the threat, so the study also looked at how goalkeepers could make themselves appear more threatening to increase their success rate.
"So we made him a stationary goalkeeper or a distracting goalkeeper, who waved his arms up and down," he said. "What we found is when the goalkeepers were distracting, they were more likely to induce shots that were hit closer to the center of the goal, making it easier for the goalkeeper to react and save the shots."
But is a goalie attempting to distract the penalty shooter in keeping with standards of fair play?
"Whether it's sporting or not, I think in today's sports, athletes strive to gain any advantage so that they can win," said Wood. "It's not against the rules, so I don't think there is any problem with doing it."
Penalty shootouts could become a key factor in this year's World Cup in South Africa. Since they were introduced in 1982 to settle matches still tied after extra time, 20 shootouts have taken place in seven World Cup tournaments. That includes shootouts in two finals, which decided the champions in 1994 and 2006.
So the best advice, at least from the Exeter study, is for shooters to focus on where they plan to shoot the ball and ignore the goalkeeper.
And just for the record, Greg Wood thinks...
...will win the World Cup. Why was I not surprised?