# Football penalties: science is on the spot

##### May 10, 2010 by Richard Ingham

Few moments in football are as extraordinary as the penalty, the moment when a dream can crumble or glory is made - and a player is either cursed as a choker or enters the pantheon of legends.

In the nearly 119 years since the very first penalty kick, in a match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Accrington Stanley, the 11-metre (12-yard) spot has determined more and more tournaments, including the 2006 World Cup final.

As the importance of the penalty has grown, so has research. Scientists see it as a duel between shooter and goalkeeper where and psychology can give either side a critical edge.

A mathematical study of penalties at Liverpool's John Moores University puts the death nail into the "blast-it-and-hope" approach.

The perfect penalty, it found, is a ball that is struck high, targeted precisely to the right or left of the goalie, and fast, travelling at 25-29 metres per second (90-104 kilometers or 56-65 miles per hour).

Anything faster than this boosts the chance of a miss because of inaccuracy, while anything slower helps the goalie to intercept it.

Moving swiftly to take the penalty (less than three seconds after the whistle is blown) gives the striker the element of surprise, while delaying the strike by more than 13 seconds makes the keeper unsettled, according to the researchers, who looked at decades of international matches involving England.

Waiting for the goalkeeper to move also boosted chances. However, waiting longer than 0.41 milliseconds caused a scoring chance to be halved. A runup of four to six steps was the most successful approach, while a long runup of 10 metres (yards) was the least.

Seen only through the prism of statistics, the balance in penalties is tilted massively in favour of the taker: between two-thirds and three-quarters of strikes result in a goal, according to various analyses in top-flight European club soccer.

But in a counter-intuitive way, these figures also give the psychological advantage to the keeper. If the penalty succeeds, people will pat him on the shoulder and say hard luck, because few expected him to save it. If he does save it, he will be praised to the rafters. In other words, all the onus lies with the penalty-taker.

This problem was explored last year by a team at the University of Exeter in southwest England, which asked members of the university squad to wear special glasses, recording eye movements, while they took two series of penalties.

In the first series, the players were simply asked to do their best to score. In the second, they were told the results would be recorded and shared with the other players, with a bounty of 50 pounds (72 dollars, 57 euros) for the best penalty-taker.

The more anxious the penalty-taker was, the likelier he was to look at, and focus on, the centrally-positioned goalkeeper. And because gaze control and motor control are tightly coordinated, the player's shot also centralised, making it far easier for the shot to be saved.

"The optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot to it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process," said lead researcher Greg Wood.

Practice is essential, he said. The Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas would train again and again, shooting at a 25-centimetre (one-foot) disc hung 80 centimetres (a yard) from the bar.

"The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty-taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practising," said Wood.

"Do you think other elite performers don't practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? The skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure."

As for helping the goalie, experiments suggest looking at a players' hips during the end of the runup gives a tip as to where the ball will be struck. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong also suggest that if a keeper moves just six to 10 centimetres (three to five inches) off centre, that is enough to tempt the taker into directing the kick to the side of the goal where there is more space.

There are also mind games, such as shuffling or taking time to prepare for the shot, to distract the penalty-taker.

Even clothing colour is thought to be a help: Petr Cech of Chelsea prefers a bright orange strip in the belief that it attracts opponents and make them likelier to shoot straight at him.

That belief is bolstered by sports psychologists at the University of Chichester, southern England, who asked 40 footballers to take dozens of penalties over a week against a single keeper who changed strip. When the keeper wore red, only 54 percent of the penalties scored; for yellow, it was 69 percent, for blue 72 percent and green 75 percent.

Why? Red is associated with danger, dominance or anger, and at times of stress we pay more attention to it in our environment, goes the theory.

## Related Stories

#### Why England's soccer team keeps losing on penalties

Dec 11, 2009

A new study may explain why the England soccer team keeps losing in penalty shootouts - and could help the team address the problem in time for the World Cup 2010. Research by the University of Exeter shows ...

#### Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder, According to New Study

Jun 17, 2009

Eighty-eight percent of the country's top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to a new study published today in Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal ...

#### Probing Question: Is the death penalty on the decline in America?

Dec 17, 2009

In November, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed John A. Muhammad, the infamous “D.C. sniper” responsible for 10 murders seven years earlier. On the eve of his execution, a Washington Post poll found ...

#### Hospitals could be fined millions of pounds even if they reduce infection risk

Nov 21, 2008

NHS Hospital Trusts that are successful in reducing Clostridium difficile risks in line with government targets still have a 50% chance of paying a financial penalty every year, and around a 95% chance of being fined over ...

#### Addiction scientists call for end to executions for drug offenders

Jul 14, 2009

The death penalty for those convicted of drug trafficking and other drug-related offences should be abolished as it is both ineffective as a policy measure and a violation of human rights.

#### What computer science can teach economics

Nov 09, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Computer scientists have spent decades developing techniques for answering a single question: How long does a given calculation take to perform? Constantinos Daskalakis, an assistant professor ...

## Recommended for you

#### One percent of the population is responsible for 63 percent of violent crime convictions

Dec 06, 2013

The majority of all violent crime in Sweden is committed by a small number of people. They are almost all male (92%) who early in life develops violent criminality, substance abuse problems, often diagnosed with personality ...

#### Study: The effects of school board makeup on student performance

Dec 06, 2013

School boards are one of the foundations of the American educational system, yet little research exists on their effects on student performance. A University of Kansas professor has published a study showing that when a school ...

#### Discovery of partial skeleton suggests ruggedly built, tree-climbing human ancestor

Dec 05, 2013

A human ancestor characterized by "robust" jaw and skull bones was a muscular creature with a gorilla-like upper body and more adaptive to its environment than previously thought, scientists have discovered.

#### Ancient 'fig wasp' lived tens of millions of years before figs

Dec 05, 2013

A 115-million-year-old fossilized wasp from northeast Brazil presents a baffling puzzle to researchers. The wasp's ovipositor, the organ through which it lays its eggs, looks a lot like those of present-day ...

#### A sudden interest in math: How teachers can motivate their pupils

Dec 05, 2013

The lack of interest in math or natural sciences is one of the most frequently voiced causes for concern in the debate surrounding education, at least in Germany. It has been seen time and again that pupils lose their enthusiasm ...

##### Bob_B
not rated yet May 10, 2010
Football? Oh, soccer. The sport that is like Irish dancing...no arms.
##### trekgeek1
not rated yet May 10, 2010
So a good kick is up where they can't reach it, way to the side where it's hard to get to, and fast so the goalie can't react, but not so fast that it's beyond your control. WOW!! It all makes sense now. I would've thought straight at the goalie, chest level, and lazily arced. These results seem a bit obvious.

## More news stories

#### Human ancestor was less-chimp-like than thought: study

The last common ancestor of Man and Ape was not a knuckle-walking, tree-swinging hominid resembling today's chimpanzee, said a study Tuesday challenging some long-held theories of human evolution.

#### One percent of the population is responsible for 63 percent of violent crime convictions

The majority of all violent crime in Sweden is committed by a small number of people. They are almost all male (92%) who early in life develops violent criminality, substance abuse problems, often diagnosed with personality ...

#### New research will allow more reliable dating of major past events

Academics have developed a new method which will allow key past events to be dated more accurately.

#### Oldest hominin DNA sequenced

Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence ...

#### Blacks happier at work than whites despite fewer friends, less autonomy

Despite working in more routine and less autonomous jobs, having fewer close friends at work, and feeling less supported by their coworkers, blacks report significantly more positive emotions in the workplace than whites, ...

#### Gene therapy scores big wins against blood cancers

In one of the biggest advances against leukemia and other blood cancers in many years, doctors are reporting unprecedented success by using gene therapy to transform patients' blood cells into soldiers that ...

#### Experts urge US to measure, pursue our happiness

A panel of experts thinks the U.S. government should be more in touch with Americans' feelings.

#### High-tech gene-therapy advances offer hope for patients with hard-to-treat blood disorders

A series of advancements in genetically engineered cell therapies demonstrate early efficacy and safety in patients with blood disorders for whom standard treatments have been unsuccessful, according to data showcased today ...

#### Rare cause of anemia in newborns often overlooked, research suggests

Some babies diagnosed with and treated for a bone marrow failure disorder, called Diamond Blackfan Anemia, may actually be affected by a very rare anemia syndrome that has a different disease course and treatment, say scientists ...