The penalty shoot-out is the ultimate test of nerve and technique. It’s football reduced to its simplest state - ball, kicker and goalkeeper. Given those 3 variables, our number nerds calculate that if you’re a professional player good enough to represent your country, then you should be able to score with a shot from 12 yards out with only the goalkeeper to beat. But those odds don’t always compute. So why does this moment turn the world’s best into park players, with some of them incapable of finding the target?
We get the low-down from Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty and a consultant for Soccernomics.
A legacy of failure
This won’t come as a surprise, but England has the worst record in shoot-outs of any major football nation, losing 6 out of 7 in big tournaments. There are a few reasons behind this wretched record, not least the fact that penalty failure is a vicious cycle: the more you lose, the more you keep losing. An academic study showed that international teams who had lost 1 shoot-out were more likely to lose the next one – even if all the players from the previous defeat had changed.
Some former opponents of England have even admitted playing strategically to create a penalty shoot-out against the Three Lions, knowing their history of failure could create a good opportunity for them.
The penalty record-setters1
The average record of converting penalties during a normal match is 78%, a figure that drops to 74% when a shoot-out comes around. The extra pressure of the shoot-out, added to the fact that players who are not used to the task of taking penalties often step up, is behind this drop.
Germany is at the opposite end of the penalty spectrum to England in terms of penalty success, with a winning percentage of 83% and a conversion rate of 93%, making it one of the most reliable of spot-kick nations.
There are 2 reasons for this. Traditionally, German players excel in 3 areas of the game: technique, practice and mental toughness. The nation has always valued goalkeepers too.
“People in Germany are not so emotional and they see the value of keeping clean sheets,” explained Hans-Jorg Butt, a former Germany goalkeeper who also took penalties. “For us, it’s enough to win 1-0; the role of the goalkeeper is a more valued one in Germany than elsewhere.”
However, of all the competing nations at this year’s tournament, it’s the Czechs that have the best record when it comes to penalties, beating Germany in the ’76 European Championship final, Italy in the Euro ‘80 third-place play-off, and France in the Euro ‘96 semi-final. Their team has converted an amazing 20 out of 20 penalties in shoot-outs.
Putting the odds in your favour
The balance between caring and not caring too much, between trying and not trying too hard, and crucially - between thinking and not over-thinking (especially about missing) - is at the heart of this most pressured of situations.
If nerves weren’t a factor, then every professional would score from the spot. But what their feet do is not the difference between success and failure – it’s how their minds cope.
So is there anything our players can do to tip the odds in their favour? Ben Lyttleton lets us in on his analysis-driven top tips to succeeding in a penalty shoot-out.
TEN TIPS TO HELP PENALTY SUCCESS
1. Win the toss and kick first2
The team that kicks first is 60% more likely to go on to win the shoot-out - in part because the conversion rate for penalties taken ‘to stay in the shoot-out’ drops to 62% in major tournaments, while the conversion rate for penalties taken to win the shoot-out rises to 92%. It shows the difference between thinking about positive, as opposed to negative, consequences when taking a penalty.
2. Don't put your best player last3
You don't want to lose the shoot-out before your best kicker gets a shot at the goal, which might happen if he is placed fifth. Studies that assigned an ‘importance variable’ to each penalty show the first and fourth penalties have the most significance in terms of affecting the outcome so getting the order right is vital.
3. Wait for the goalkeeper to move first4
Across a number of penalty examples over a long period of time, the numbers show this method is a more successful strategy than blasting the ball regardless of where the goalkeeper goes – though technically it’s harder to pull off.
4. Make the kicker wait…5
Studies show that if a goalkeeper makes a penalty taker wait for between 1.7 to 4.5 seconds before the referee blows his whistle, penalty conversion rates drop to 61% in major tournaments.
5. Player status doesn’t matter6
Soccer superstars Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini, Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all missed big penalties at the peak of their careers. Studies have shown that players of ‘high status’ have a worse record in penalties than players who are merely ‘part of the team’. The pressure on these players is greater, and they have more to lose if they miss.
6. Scoring the last goal helps7
Momentum plays a big part in the shoot-out, as the team that scored last in the game has a 62% chance of going on to win on penalties.
7. Body language matters8
Studies show if a player is successful when the scores are level, and he celebrates with both arms extended out, his team is 82% more likely to go on and win the shoot-out.
8. Don’t rush it9
Based on analysis of reaction times from the referee blowing his whistle to the player beginning his run-up, England players waited an average 0.28 seconds before starting their approach. This is quicker than any other nation, and not far off Usain Bolt, whose average reaction time to the starting gun is 0.17 seconds. Waiting just one second can make a big difference.
9. Don't overthink it on the walk10
Overthinking a task can lead to a negative result, so players need to have a strategy for what to think about on the dreaded walk to the spot. Focusing on the process - the routine of execution - rather than the outcome is a good start.
10. Goalkeepers can stay central11
Nearly 30% of all penalties go down the middle of the goal, but goalkeepers only stay central 6% of the time. One international goalkeeper, who will be in action at Euro 2016, told me he dives for penalties as otherwise it looks like he’s not trying.