England’s World Cup penalty problems are ‘all in the eyes’

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
england penalty

England were knocked out of the World Cup on penalties in 1998 and 2006 (Photo: Nigel Wilson)

The reason why England struggle with penalty shoot-outs at major tournaments is “all in the eyes”, according to a new University study.

The study, which was conducted by a PhD student at the University of Exeter, revealed that during a shoot-out footballers “are more likely to be distracted by threatening stimuli and focus on them, rather than the task in hand.”

Greg Wood, who conducted the research, said: “in a stressful penalty shootout, a footballer’s attention is likely to be directed towards the goalkeeper as opposed to the optimal scoring zones.”

“This disrupts the aiming of the shot and increases the likelihood of subsequently hitting the shot towards the goalkeeper, making it easier to save.”

The study was carried out by analysing 14 members of a football team, each of whom wore special glasses to record precise eye movements as they each took two penalties.

For the first attempt they were simply asked to do their best to score. For the second, however, Wood and his team told the participants the results would be recorded, shared with their team-mates and a £50 prize given to the best spot-kick taker.

The results showed that when anxious, the footballers looked at the goalkeeper significantly earlier and for longer. This change in eye behaviour made players more likely to shoot towards the centre of the goal, making it easier for the goalkeeper to save.

The researchers believe that by being made aware of the impact of anxiety on eye movements, and the effect this has on the accuracy of a player’s shots, coaches could address this issue through training.

“Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot to it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process,” continued Wood.

“The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practicing. Do you think other elite performers don’t practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure.”

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