Exploring the Reasons Behind Missing Penalty Kicks


And it’s a goal! Who does not like to hear this while sitting there praying for your favourite team to win a soccer match? Watching and following the game of soccer is quite fun and many fans take it to the next level as well. And especially the penalty kicks, oh what a sight to wait, holding our breath and watching the player make a goal for his team or just miss it. But what about the player? We all know how anxious we feel like a spectator but how does a player feel in such a situation? Is it a soccer player’s dream or a nightmare to take penalty shots? When the expectations and fears of an entire nation are resting on a player’s shoulders, what makes a simple shot transform into a massive challenge for the player, causing them to choke under pressure. Like this is natural, anybody would relate to it as it feels like you are going for an interview, but deep down, you think about the pressure of getting the job, paying bills, expectations of family and whatnot, instead of just thinking and focusing on your interview. Hence, you lose confidence, and you lose your focus.

The Psychology Behind Penalty Kicks

Soccer’s major scorers like Barcelona’s Leo Messi, are full of amazing agility and ball control. When faced with a goalkeeper who must kick a ball into the goal from just 12 yards out, even Messi has missed about 22% of all penalty kicks he has ever attempted. Although sports psychologists and producers of mocking YouTube clips have well-documented the phenomenon of world-class soccer players missing penalty kicks, or coughing, what ties pressure conditions to these high-profile performance flubs have been less evident.

In soccer, penalty kicks play a crucial role, and they are quite typical and can have a significant impact on a game’s outcome. The significance of penalty kicks grows even more as huge sums of money and many fans are considered. In other words, missing a penalty in a vital match will disappoint thousands of fans and even cost a club, millions of money. The accuracy of the penalty kick is influenced by a variety of technical skills. Aside from technical ability, psychological factors seem to have a significant impact on the result of a penalty kick. Psychological factors including ability, experience, and exhaustion have a significant negative impact on the penalty result. Most research on the causes of missed penalties has conclusively shown that the kicker’s anxiety and the emotional stress he or she is experiencing are the most common psychological factors. 

What is Choking?

Choking is a term used to describe poor performance caused by stress and anxiety, which is common during crucial moments in soccer matches. Anxiety caused by choking under pressure has been linked to poor penalty direction in other sports, including weightlifting, golf, chess, basketball, and tennis. The interruption hypothesis, on the other hand, claims that fear or pressure occupies working memory, triggering a transition from task-relevant to task-irrelevant cues. 

Unlike the self-focus principle, little attention is paid to ability execution, where distractions can be internal or external, as demonstrated by the circles of attention. Both theories are related to the neural efficiency hypothesis, which claims that expert athletes have more productive brain activity than non-athletes, with task-relevant activities increasing and task-irrelevant activities decreasing. Researches demonstrate that although technical skills can affect the effectiveness of the penalty kick, psychological factors tend to have a direct influence on the outcome of a penalty kick. The researchers pointed out that the personality of the player influences resistance to mental pressure, the pressure often causes anxiety, which is a negative factor that affects the penalty kick’s consistency. Anxiety and pressure are two important psychological factors that contribute to choking under pressure errors. Undoubtedly, high psychological pressure plays a large part, but why does this tension result in a missed penalty?  Researchers attempted to address this question by observing the brain activity of football players as they executed a penalty kick. 

The Real Deal

Researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands used a method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to specifically test brain activity in volunteers who were taking penalty shots on the soccer field. Similar to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a new tool for determining real-time brain oxygenation. The optical variations between oxygenated and deoxygenated haemoglobin are exploited in this technique. A headpiece emits near-infrared photons, and a photodetector detects the reflected wavelengths from two types of brain vasculature haemoglobin. The lack of motion artefact, low cost, and versatility in location and patient positioning are all advantages of fNIRS. 

Scientists used this technique to assess the brain activity of 22 participants who kicked penalties. fNIRS uses a headset to monitor brain activity when you’re on the move. The research is the first to look at the neuroscience of choking in real-life situations rather than in a lab. The volunteers attempted to score penalties in a variety of situations, including an open goal, a friendly goalkeeper, and a high-pressure scenario in which the goalkeeper attempted to distract them and a reward was at stake. The findings showed that players who may perform well under pressure stimulated task-relevant brain regions. Increased motor cortex activation, for instance, was linked to high-pressure performance. This makes sense because one of the most critical aspects of taking a penalty is movement. Another part of the brain that was more involved in players who had more anxiety and missed penalties were the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved in long-term thought, so it’s possible that these players were worried about the effects of missing the shot, which affected their results.

According to the findings, people who “choke” under pressure and make errors trigger regions of the brain associated with long-term thought, implying that they were “overthinking” the effects of missing the shot.

The researchers say that their study is the first to look at the neuroscience of choking in real-life situations outside of the lab. They assume that by showing how players’ brains behave, fNIRS technology will help them perform better under pressure. The researchers also believe that players could potentially train themselves to stimulate beneficial brain functions. 

Beyond sports, the technique may be useful in other careers where high-pressure output is needed, such as brain surgery. The researchers concluded their findings in Frontiers in Computer Science, saying that the research findings may influence a broader range of tasks outside the soccer/sports domain, such as in surgery, where motor control under high mental pressure is involved. Surprisingly, the scientists suggest that fNIRS technology may help players perform better under pressure by revealing how their brains are acting. They believe that in high-pressure environments, players should train themselves to stimulate beneficial brain regions.  

Stop Overthinking

Yes, it is indeed true that mental stress can trigger brain regions that are unrelated to the task at hand. Expert athletes, on average, have more productive brain activity, meaning they have more activity in important areas and less activity in irrelevant areas, and therefore have fewer distractions. This is possibly one of the reasons they were more effective at penalties in high-stress conditions than novice players. This concept is explained by neural efficiency theory, and it applies to experts in every area, not just athletes. You will rely on automatic brain functions rather than conscious thought as you gain control over something, which can lead to distractions. The study’s authors concluded that their findings support the neural efficiency hypothesis. Even so, it seems that high-pressure environments will transform someone into a choke artist if our experts are human.

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