The psychology of missing a penalty

The moments before a penalty kick are incredibly tense, and new research shows that brain activity might be the reason a golden opportunity can turn into a nightmare.

The study team, led by Max Slutter of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, measured the brain activity of soccer players on the pitch and found that people who choked when trying to score a penalty were overthinking the consequences of missing a shot.

“How can it be that football players with a near-perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 metres) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 metres?” asks Slutter.

“Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick.”

The team assessed the brain activity of 22 volunteers using a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which measures brain activity with a headset as the subject moves.

The volunteers attempted to score penalties under different conditions with increasing difficulty: with an open goal, against a friendly goalkeeper and a simulated high-pressure situation which included both a prize and a goalkeeper attempting to distract them.

“We found that players who were able to perform under pressure activated task-relevant areas of the brain,” explains co-author Nattapong Thammasan, of the University of Twente.

“For example, increased activation of the motor cortex was related to performing under pressure. This seems logical, as movement is one of the most important elements when taking a penalty.”

For players who showed more anxiety and a tendency to miss, the pre-frontal cortex was active. This area of the brain is related to long-term thinking, which suggests players were focusing on the consequences of missing the penalty, instead of focusing on the task at hand.

By using the fNIRS during training, the players could potentially be retrained to favour the motor cortex when in high-pressure situations, the authors suggest in their paper, published in Frontiers of Computer Science.

Interestingly, this could also be part of training for other high-pressure situations, such as brain surgery, they suggest.

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