LONDON - Penalty takers hoping to snatch World Cup glory from their opponents in the final few shots of a match should completely ignore the goalkeeper and focus on where they want to kick the ball, scientists said on Monday.
Highlighting a new scientific study on how anxiety affects players in penalty shootouts, Greg Wood, a psychologist from Britain's Exeter University, said players under pressure needed to work to stay calm and not be distracted by the goalkeeper.
"We are naturally pre-conditioned to focus on things in our environment that we find threatening, and in a penalty competition the only thing that threatens the success of the kick is the goalkeeper, so we tend to focus on him and monitor his movements," he told a briefing in London.
"But instead, we should just look to where we're going to hit the ball... (and) ignore the goalkeeper.
"The control is with the kicker, and he must realise that, get confidence from it, and then align his eyes and let the eyes provide the brain with the necessary information for accurate shooting," he said.
Wood studied university-level soccer players who were fitted with eye-tracking technology and then subjected to various situations that would make them more or less anxious while they were trying to score penalties.
His study, which is due to be published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that the more anxious the players were, the more they focused on the main threat - the goalkeeper - and the more likely they were to shoot the ball at or near him - making it easier for him to save the shot.
Goalkeepers, for their part, tended to focus on the ball or on the lower limbs of the kicker, not at the face or eyes, so there is little potential risk in a shooter focusing on his aim.
Penalty shootouts are likely to come into play in the final phase of the World Cup, which begins in South Africa on June 11.
In the knockout phase, which starts on June 26 and ends with the final on July 11, games which are drawn after extra time will be decided by penalties. Five players from each side take a kick, and then, if the scores are level, a "sudden-death" process starts. Since the format was introduced in 1982, there have been 20 shootouts in seven tournaments.
Wood said his research showed that the more a goalkeeper tried to distract a player - for instance by jumping up and down or waving his arms about, the more likely the kicker was to focus on him and shoot the ball in his direction.
His study quoted the former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who described in 2005 how he thought his distraction techniques had paid off in a big match.
"The biggest memory I have is the 1984 European Cup final against Roma and my 'spaghetti legs' routine during the penalty shootout that won us the trophy," Grobbelaar said.
"People said I was being disrespectful to their players, but I was just testing their concentration under pressure. I guess they failed that test."
Wood said his study backed Grobbelaar's suggestion.
"Whether it is a 'spaghetti legs' routine or simply the waving of arms, it seems that Bruce Grobbelaar was right," he said.
And if jumpy goalkeepers were not bad enough, the negative pressure of a history of poor performance in penalty shootouts is something a few teams will have to battle with, said Wood.
Teams such as England, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Mexico and Switzerland have all lost all of the World Cup penalty shootouts they have had to play in the past.
"When they're going up to take the kicks, this might play heavily on the minds of a penalty-taker," said Wood. "It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."comments