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Eggheads solve England penalty-shootout crapness riddle

Football lab-rats in goalie fear stress cycle

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Eggheads in Exeter say they have answered one of the most important questions facing the human race today: namely, why are England footballers so rubbish at penalty shootouts, and what can be done about it.

According to Greg Wood, working towards his PhD at Exeter uni's sports-science department, it's a simple enough matter. When under severe pressure, the human brain tends to focus on things it assesses as possible threats. This means that footballers, stressed up by the fact their team is potentially about to crash out of the World Cup, tend to look at the goalie - the "threat" - more than they should. This leads them to shoot too near the middle of the goal, where a save is easier.

Wood says he has proved this by carrying out research on Exeter footballers shooting penalties while wearing eye-tracking goggles. When relaxed, test subjects didn't pay that much attention to the goalie, and their shots usually went into the outer parts of the goal - making them harder to save.

But then Wood upped the stakes. The players were told that the results would be recorded and shared with the other players and there would be a £50 prize for the best score.

At once, the footballers started looking at the goalie far too much and their shots followed the line of their gaze, tending to cluster in the middle of the net where the keeper could intercept them.

“Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot to it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process," says Wood. "The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practicing. Do you think other elite performers don’t practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure."

Wood and his colleagues' paper, Anxiety, Attentional Control, and Performance Impairment in Penalty Kicks, can be read by subscribers to the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology here. ®

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