Choking under pressure is far too common at all levels of sport. Choking occurs when players under perform in situations where there is a high degree of importance. In soccer, the highest-pressure situation is the penalty kick shootouts. Individual efforts can often mean the difference between winning and losing a championship. Some players step forward and bury their kicks. Others choke, sometimes missing the goal entirely.
What causes some players for succeed and some to choke during high pressure situations? Drs. Geir Jordet and Esther Hartmen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences addressed this question in a research article published in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Their study focused on the success and behavior of players taking penalty kicks and pressures surrounding their effort.
The investigators viewed video tapes of penalty kick shootouts that occurred during matches played in the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League competitions between 1972 and 2006. Overall, there were 36 shootouts involving 359 kicks and 291 players.
They focused on three key variables that affected success. The first was “valence”, an indicator of the perceived pressure. Many times, the outcome of the match is not directly dependent on the success of the attempt. The shootout goes on whether the kicker is successful or not. For example, the match is neither won nor lost on the first attempt in a shootout. This is referred to as a neutral valence. At some point during the shootout, a player has the chance to end patch with a successful kick. With a goal, his team wins. But with a miss, the shootout continues. This is defined as a positive valence because of the possible positive outcome. On the other hand, players are faced with the situation where a missed kick would end the match and result in the team losing. This is negative valence because of the possibility of a negative result.
The second variable was “avoidance behavior”. Approach looking players placed the ball at the penalty mark then walked backwards, facing the keeper, in preparation for the attempt. Avoidance looking players, placed the ball, turned and walked away with their back to the keeper.
The final variable was preparation speed. This was defined as the time from when the referee signaled the kick to until the shooter began his run-up. This is a time period that can be controlled by the player.
The investigators found several interesting relationships between these variables and success of the penalty kick. In the situation of negative valence, when losing the match was a possibility, players more often avoided looking at the goal keeper and took less preparation time. As for performance, players were far more successful in the situation of positive valence. When making the kick meant victory and a miss meant continuing the shootout, players were successful 92% of the time. However, when faced with negative valence, players made only 62% of their shots. Thus, the possibility of a negative outcome results in more misses than the potential of a positive result. This condition also seems to cause players to alter their approach to taking the shot.
Success in penalty kicks seems to be dependent, to some extent, on how the player perceives the outcome. Most researchers feel that the negative valence situation is more pressure packed. That is, fear of being a goat is more stressful than the possibility of being a hero. This study bears this out. Players are more likely to choke when a miss means losing a match. They seem to respond poorly when they may be punished for failure as opposed to rewarded for success. It is possible that this fear of failure causes players to change the way they approach their shot. Players that choke during pressure packed situations tend to avoid looking at the goalie and when they take kicks quickly after the referees signal. This may reflect a lack of confidence in their ability.
Choking under pressure is a very complex phenomenon. Many, many factors contribute to performance under pressure situations. This study provides a small glimpse into how and why players playing at the highest level sometimes fail.
Jordet G, Hartmen E (2008) Avoidance motivation and choking under pressure in soccer penalty shootouts. Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology, 30:450-457.