This is why footballers miss penalties

Science has deduced that players who pretend to stay cool are more susceptible to missing penalties.

Meryl D'Souza July 10, 2016

He was the best player in the world, arguably the best ever to play the sport. He had carried his team to the finals of the tournament with scintillating displays in almost every game. The scriptures seemed to have fallen into place for this football god

Of all the places in the world, it seemed like the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey would be the holy ground where Lionel Messi would cement his legendary status and win his first piece of silverware in a major tournament with Argentina.  

Argentina and Chile’s failure to score in regulation time led to penalties. For the most part, Chile dominated the match, but that didn’t matter. The scores were level and the only thing that was left to do was win the shootout.

When Arturo Vidal missed Chile’s first spot kick, it sent the crowd into a deafening roar. The stars had aligned as Lionel Messi stepped up to take Argentina’s first penalty. Or so it seemed.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner sent his spot kick high over the bar. His eyes welled up before he reached his team at the half-line. Before his teammate lined up Argentina’s second penalty, the tears were rolling. Argentina lost the shootout 4-2.

Before the 2016 Copa America final on June 26, Lionel Messi had never missed a penalty in a shootout. That miss against Chile was his first and enough to force the forward’s shocking resignation from the national team

Fast forward to the 2016 European Championship quarterfinals between Germany and Italy. Germany had not missed a single penalty in a shootout in major tournaments since 1982 - when Uli Stielike was unsuccessful in the World Cup semi-final against France.

When a 1-1 draw in regulation time took the teams to penalties, Germany missed three. They seemed to forget that missing in a shootout was not part of their DNA. Amazingly, they won that match as Italy missed four with Simone Zaza supplying meme-worthy antics.

It may seem incredibly easy to fans and armchair managers to score past a goalkeeper from 12 yards out, but some of the best players in the world tend to miss when it matters most.

If you follow football clubs on Facebook, every once in a while you get a glimpse of footballers scoring outrageous goals. Yet, when the heat is on, the same star players can’t seem to stay in the kitchen. According to researchers from Bangor University, players consistently miss vital penalties because they make the exact error they’re trying to avoid. This is known as “ironic error”.

“More often than not, the player who misses won't have kicked the ball wide of the post or over the crossbar,” explain Recep Gorgulu, a researcher of sport psychology, and Tim Woodman, professor and head of the school of sport at the university. “He'll have kicked it precisely at the left post. Since this is the thing he set out to not do."

The duo went on to explain that when the brain seeks to make the body perform in a particular way, it relies on two processes – an operating process and a monitoring process.

The operating process identifies all the steps required to reach an outcome. For taking a penalty, this would mean “taking the usual number of steps back, thinking of the spot where you want to hit the ball, running up, planting your non-striking foot next to the ball, and scoring where you were aiming,” the researchers said.

At that time, the motioning process works simultaneously and subconsciously at identifying risks. Once those risks are identified, the information is passed on to the operating process with instructions to find more ways to score the penalty.

In a controlled environment, players effortlessly place the ball in the top corner and then go on to practice their celebrations. But in a high-pressure scenario, the brain space required by the operating process to work is consumed by the pressure and becomes less effective.

On the other hand, the motioning process remains unaffected and hence becomes more prevalent and brings up everything that could go wrong into the penalty taker’s consciousness. By attempting to avoid the error, the mind is drawn ever closer to focusing on it.

The study goes on to state that the players most susceptible to ironic errors are those who mask their performance anxiety because their brains are overloaded by statements that limit their behaviour, such as “be cool” and “don’t show you’re anxious”.

How to avoid ironic errors?

A player could use techniques to control his breathing or progressive muscle relaxation – which involves tensing up a group of muscles, holding them like that for a few seconds before relaxing them to their previous state – to avoid ironic errors and bring down anxiety levels. 

Simply rephrasing negative instructions in a positive way could also help. Instead of a player telling himself "don't hit the left post" he should be instructing himself to pick the precise point where he wants the ball to strike the net.

With the 2016 Euro finals tonight, we really hope both France and Portugal’s football teams are paying attention.