Penalty Shootouts, Mostly a Head Game?

Penalty kicks, especially taken during a shootout are high-pressure situations. This is true for both the shot take and the goalkeeper. Success, for each player depends on several factors, physical and mental. Previous posts on the SSO talked about the role psychology plays during the penalty kick. The defending position of the keeper, confidence of the kicker and even jersey color may influence whether or not a shot is saved or a goal is scored. Two new research studies published in the Journal of Sports Science examined other possible factors affecting penalty kicks. These studies show that the goalkeeper’s movements before the shot is taken and the kicker’s reaction after a successful shot may influence shot success as well as the outcome of a shootout.
The first study asked the question, “Does goalkeeper movement before a penalty kick distract the kicker?” A group of university players were asked to take penalty shots while the goalkeeper either remained stationary or moved by waving his arms up and down before each attempt. The goalkeeper was asked to remain in the center of the goal until the ball was struck (that is, he was not to “guess” which direction to move)

A moving goalkeeper resulted in more shots saved. Slightly more than 8% of shots were saved with a stationary keeper while the moving keeper saved about 22%. With a moving keeper, more shots were placed in the center of the goal compared to the non-moving condition. The researchers also found that when the goalkeeper was moving, players found in more difficult to focus on the target or the ball. More attention was directed at the keeper when he was moving.

It appears that goalkeeper movement does indeed distract the penalty taker. Movement results in shots placed more in the center of the target and more easily saved. It should be pointed that this was a very controlled experiment in that players took multiple penalty shots (as opposed to a single shot taken during a shootout) and keepers were given specific instructions as to how to react to the shot. Nevertheless a moving goalkeeper may prove to be a successful tactic.

The authors quoted Bruce Grobbelaar, Liverpool keeper during the 1984 European Cup final. He said that his “spaghetti legs” strategy used during the shootout was not a way to disrespect the opponent but a way to test their concentration under pressure. In the end, Liverpool won and Grobbelaar was right – distracting the opponent does indeed test the confidence of the penalty taker.

The second study asked if the player’s reaction after a successful penalty kick affected the outcome of the shootout. The researchers focused on all of the penalty kick shootout during the 1974-2006 World Cups and the 1972 and 2008 European Championships (a total of 325 penalty kicks). They analyzed the each player’s reaction to a successfully kick. Displays of pride (arms raised, fist pumped, chest expanded), enjoyment / excitement (broad smile on the face) and other reactions such as looking downward were all recorded.

After scoring, 66% of the players displayed celebratory movements with their arms raised. Only two of the players displayed enjoyment with a wide smile. Those who showed the prideful behaviors were more likely to be on the wining team. The reactions most closely associated with wining the shootout were – one or both arms extended over the head, expanded chest and both hands clinched into fists. Interestingly, players who looked downward after a successful kick were less likely to be on the winning team. Thus, celebrations with displays of pride are linked to a successful shootout performance.

The researchers point out two possible reasons for the link between displays of pride and shootout success. First, players displaying prideful behaviors may instill confidence in their teammates and raise expectations of making their shot. This likely translates into successful attempts. Second, attitudes of pride and superiority may make their opponents feel inferior and less confident in their attempts, lowering their expectations of winning the shootout.

Whatever the underlying reasons, displays of pride during a shootout seem to have a positive effect on ultimate team performance. This leads the authors to suggest that penalty takers should celebrate a successful attempt as it may increase the likelihood of winning. However, they emphasize that celebrating with their teammates is the key to enhancing teammate confidence and success. “In your face” types of celebration directed at the opponents or celebrations directed to the audience may not be as effective.

So, are penalty kick shootouts a head game? These two studies suggest that there is a very strong psychological component. Goalkeeper movements before the shot seems to distract the shot taker and increase the probability of a save. Prideful player celebrations with the kicker’s teammates after a successful shot may raise the team confidence level and negatively influence the opponents. Either strategy may enhance the chances of winning a penalty kick shootout.


Wood G, Wilson MR (2010) A moving goalkeeper distracts penalty takers and impairs shooting accuracy. Journal of Sports Sciences. 28:937-946.

Moll T, Jordet G, Pepping G-J (2010) Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootout: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success. Journal of Sports Sciences. 28:983-992.
Posted by Jay Williams, Ph.D. Labels: Current Research, Goalkeepers, Psychology
Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to FacebookShare to Pinterest