Soccer Penalties – Gaining The Winning Edge (Part 1 – Goalies)

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By Dr. Pierre Beauchamp

Dr. Pierre Beauchamp holds a Ph.D. in Sport Psychology (University of Montreal), with over thirty-five years of experience as a sport science consultant and performance coach with the Canadian Olympic Association and Canada’s National Teams for a variety of Olympic Games/World Championships and many International Olympic Committees.

Goalkeepers – Game Theory vs. Sixth Sense

The UEFA Euro semi-finals are right around the corner providing another chance to see one of the most fraught and exciting moments in sport – penalty shootouts. As we covered earlier in the Experts Corner, keepers have around 5 tenths of a second to make a save from the point of the kick, yet it takes around 1 second for a keeper to react perceptually, and physically, to make a save.

“Given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center…yet goalkeepers still almost always jump right or left”

This brings into play the idea that keepers have to plan a save prior to the kick and take their chances with a norm of around 1 in 5 saves being successful. An almost paradoxical approach here is to not move. An analysis of 286 penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide shows that given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. This isn’t uncommon knowledge, yet goalkeepers still almost always jump right or left. Why? ‘Norm theory’ implies that a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action.

This game theory approach isn’t a career recipe for success though, in-depth analysis of penalties shows kickers kick to their weak side just often enough so that the goalie doesn’t always want to jump the same way. Likewise, goalies pick an equilibrium strategy for blocking shots. In the end both sides are adept at levelling out the odds when it comes to a game of rock-paper-scissors.

Instead there are more grounded approaches discovered through sports science research, which could yield a definitive edge. For example, although they don’t realize it, the majority of goalkeepers stand just off center in the goal area, typically 10cm out. Even though this is imperceptible to the shooter, rigorous analysis of penalty recordings shows they are statistically more likely to shoot towards the side with more space. For a keeper who’s already picked a direction to jump, this means they can leverage an advantage by knowing the exact goal center and positioning themselves accordingly.

“The majority of goalkeepers stand just off center in the goal area”

Perhaps the most concrete development technique is honing skills of anticipation, to predict an opponent’s action through reading subtle body language cues. There has been much research done in this area, generally showing that this skill is a key facet differentiating elite soccer players from their lesser rivals. However not many techniques exist to specifically train this perceptual-cognitive ability. Consequently, in the Mindroom, we utilize a four-step process. First, we enhance the athlete’s processing speed utilizing 3D multiple-object tracking (NeuroTracker). Second, we overload the athlete with a dual-task scene form a game situation while simultaneously doing the multiple object tracking. Third, we utilize occlusion video technology and force the athlete to make quick decisions under time pressure. performance success in a simulated environment.

The Mindroom Human Performance Pillars necessary to unlock the potential of elite athletes.

Lastly, we overload the athlete with environmental noise and distractions and measure performance success in a simulated environment. Ultimately, with the time pressure involved, goaltenders for example – develop a sixth sense level of anticipation resulting in both reaction and movement time (i.e., milliseconds) ahead of the shooter – the only sure fire way of beating the odds.

…to be continued for shooters.

You can reach Dr. Pierre Beauchamp by visiting his website: http://www.mindroompsp.com/


Pierre Beauchamp Ph.D. is the President/Founder of Mindroom Peak Sport Performance – a ground- breaking sport science laboratory that has achieved worldwide recognition through the utilization of cutting edge sport science technology to enhance human performance. From Olympic Medals and World Champions, Pierre has a long record of developing excellence. Pierre holds a Ph.D. in Sport Psychology (Un. of Montreal), with over thirty-five years of experience as a sport science consultant and performance coach with the Canadian Olympic Association and Canada’s National Teams for a variety of Olympic Games/World Championships and many International Olympic Committees. 

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