The science of penalty-taking

What does science have to say about taking a penalty? Here's a short summary that will maximise your chances of taking a successful penalty kick (no guarantees!).

There have been many high-profile players that have succumbed to the pressures of the penalty kick. Think of Roberto Baggio (World Cup final), John Terry (Champions League final), or even Kevin Muscat (A-League final). Indeed, penalties, especially penalty-shoot-outs, are high pressure affairs that are often game and season-defining events.

But what does the science have to say about taking a penalty kick? I have scoured the scientific literature and come up with a short summary that will maximise your chances of taking a successful penalty kick (no guarantees!).

More after the break

Take your time

Take as much time as you need to place the ball on the spot and before you kick the ball. Don’t be hurried by the opposition, or even the referee’s whistle. Research shows that players who take over one second to start their run-up after the referee blows their whistle score more than 80 per cent of penalty kicks. In comparison, players who commence their run-up immediately following the referee’s whistle score only 57 per cent of the time. So take your time,and don’t be hurried. In the scheme of things, two or three extra seconds to place the ball on the spot and relax at the top of your run are not a big deal.

Be unpredictable

Have at least two preferred spots to place the ball and use them equally as often. Scientific studies have shown that when the goalkeeper has a good idea where you like to place the ball their performance will increase and they are more likely to save the penalty. On the other hand, if the goalkeeper believes that there is only a 50 per cent chance of you going one way or the other they are forced to rely on body language (or a simple guess!) and are much less likely to save the penalty. With more and more goalkeepers ‘doing their homework’ this strategy will serve you well.

Never look at the goalkeeper

Goalkeepers are a strange bunch and will try almost anything to put you off. I’ve even seen one goalkeeper bend himself at right angles in an attempt to puta kicker off his game. The best thing that you can do is to ignore them – literally. Focus only on the spot where you want to place the ball. Research studies have shown that penalty takers who focus on their desired spot place the ball further away from the goalkeeper, kick it at a greater speed, and as a result, scored a greater number of penalty kicks than players who look at the goalkeeper prior to taking their kick. Research also suggests that having a focus on the goalkeeper reduces the accuracy of the penalty kick toward the desired location. So never look at the goalkeeper before you strike your penalty. Keep your focus solely on your ‘spot’.

Kick it with the side of your foot

Many would assume that kicking the ball with the side of your foot, rather than your instep (or ‘laces’) is better because it is a more accurate method. This may of course, be true. However, science shows that goalkeepers are also better able to predict the direction of the ball when you kick it with your instep when compared with the side of your foot. When penalty-takers used their instep, goalkeepers were able to move earlier and more accurately, resulting in a save rate of 28 per cent. When the same penalty-takers used the side of their foot goalkeepers were only able to save12 per cent of penalties. Don’t give the goalkeepers any advantage – use the side of your foot.

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