The Penalty Kick: 12 Yards Between Glory and Despair

Way back in September 1891, when Wolverhampton Wanderers’ John Heath, in a match against Accrington Stanley, stepped up to take the world’s first penalty, the spot kick was a simple case of hoofing the ball into the back of the net.

The penalty had been introduced a few months earlier to thwart the use of fouls to prevent goals. But the sponsors of this change hardly suspected that penalty-taking would one day become so important it would be elevated almost to the status of science.

So many big matches these days are decided on the 12-yard (10.97-metre) place) place kick that sports physicists, psychologists and bio-mechanicians are often recruited to try to give an edge to striker and keeper.

Statistically, penalty-taking is loaded heavily in favor of the kicker. In World Cup finals dating back to 1982, the penalty success rate ranges from 73 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 1998, the year after FIFA changed the law to let keepers to move along their line. But these figures only tell part of the story.

Penalties are no-lose situations for the keeper, because almost all of the pressure is on the striker—as Roberto Baggio, who catastrophically blew it for Italy in the 1994 final against Brazil, could tell you.

Psychologists can help goalkeepers enhance this advantage in a number of ways.

One of them is in training goalkeepers in body language. Keepers who are alert to the kicker’s eyes, body posture and angle of his feet in the run up can gain as much as half a second in which to move in the right direction.

Scientists at John Moores University in Liverpool showed goalkeepers life-sized video footage of penalties being taken, filmed from the viewpoint of a keeper standing in the centre of the goal.

The film was stopped four times during the sequence — 120 milliseconds before the kick; 40 milliseconds before; at the point of impact; and 40 milliseconds after—and the goalkeepers were asked at each stage to predict where the ball was being placed.

The researchers found that biggest clue was the position of the striker’s hips just before the strike.

‘If the taker’s hips are square-on to the goalkeeper in a right-footed kicker, the penalty goes to the right-hand side of the keeper,’ says the university’s Mark Williams.

‘If his hips are more ‘open’, or angled away from the goalkeeper, the kick tends to go to the left of the keeper.’

University of Greenwich researcher Al-Amin Kassam says keepers can also further improve their chances by playing mind games.

‘This can be done by a goalkeeper employing time-wasting tactics, making himself look as large as possible and moving around sideways on his line in order to confuse the striker as to where he is going to dive.’

But science can also help the penalty-taker, too. A study in biomechanics carried out at the University of Bath in 2004 determined the maximum reach of a goalie’s dive, regardless of his size.

It showed that, if the goalie stays on his line in accordance with the rules, 28 percent of the goal is an ‘unsaveable zone’ that guarantees a score provided the ball is kicked accurately and with reasonable force.

Even if you can’t kick accurately, blasting is still a good option. ‘Hit your penalties as hard as possible,’ advises Kassam. ‘Research indicates that a penalty struck at more than 20 metres per second (73 kilometers, 46 miles per hour) stands a greater chance of hitting the back of the net than a slower one, as a goalkeeper has less time to analyse visual clues and react.’

Simple psychological tactics can also improve the success rate of a team in the all-important penalty shootouts.

A 2000 study found that if the weakest players take their penalties earliest in the sequence, with the strongest last, there is a big improvement in the team’s chances. It also recommended that coaches bring on key substitutes with penalty-taking skills when matches are deadlocked close to the end of extra time.

That said, there is no substitute for practice.

In the days before computers and penalty specialists, the Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas used the simplest of techniques to ensure that he would slot home a penalty. He would hang a disc 80 centimetres (one yard) below the crossbar and aim at it, again, again and again, until he got it right.

Source: New Age Sports

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