10 Psychological Tips for Better Penalty Kicks

Psychology of penalty kicks

Psychology plays an important role in winning football matches and ultimately football titles. “If I could go back in time I’d go to the 2006 World Cup and bring along a mental coach to work with the players on taking penalties. England did have a mental problem with that” – former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson (Little, 2012).

Even resurgent Italy and record-breaking Spain had to successfully navigate the lottery of penalty kicks in order to reach the final of Euro 2012 this past Sunday. It is a well known fact that penalty shootouts are extremely high stress situations (Jordet, Hartman, Visscher & Lemmink, 2007), and too much anxiety can greatly reduce performance. History shows that whichever team can better handle the mental pressure will progress.

The Brain on Penalties

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the area of the brain that regulates decision making and makes us aware of the consequences of our actions. It is extensively connected to other areas of the brain which regulate emotion and as such, it is very easy for us to foresee the potential jubilation of a successful penalty kick or the utter despair of a miss (Korb, 2010).

The area of the brain directly responsible for the actual kicking of the ball is the primary motor cortex (PMC) as it instructs the muscles on where and how to move. The PMC receives input from the supplementary motor area (SMA) which plans specific movements. The SMA, in turn, receives input from the PFC. In a nutshell, the PFC decides what to do, and then delegates the responsibility of doing that action to the SMA and the PMC.

The SMA, the PMC and all the unconscious motor areas of the brain are perfectly able to carry out the assigned duty, as kicking the ball into the corner of the goal is a skill that footballers have practiced countless times in the past. The only thing the PFC has to do is decide where to kick the ball and how hard. No further intervention from the PFC is necessary. However, as mentioned earlier, the PFC can see the consequences of making a bad decision in the heat of the moment. This can lead to second guessing, which ultimately leaves the SMA and the PMC without clear instructions on what to do (recall Ashley Cole’s unsuccessful penalty kick versus Italy at Euro 2012). “Great athletes are able to silence their PFCs under pressure, and just live in the moment” (Korb, 2010).

10 Penalty Kick Statistics and Psychological Strategies 

1. Stat – Scoring percentages tend to drop with each successive kick in the penalty shootout (Keh, 2010)

Strategy – Go into the shootout with the best kickers ready to take the later penalties. It is true that the first penalty can set the tone for the team but there is much less pressure on the first kick, as a miss can be rectified later in the shootout. The first penalty taker also tends to score the highest percentage of kicks which bodes well for the less experienced penalty taker placed in the first kicker position, though this high percentage might be due in part to the current (and in my opinion, misguided) trend of sending the best penalty kicker first.  Consider this: If the third best kicker scores the first penalty then the positive tone will still be set. If the third best kicker misses the first penalty, then the rest of the team can take comfort in the fact that stronger kickers are yet to come. But if the best kicker should miss the first penalty then this might demotivate the entire team. The stats show that strong penalty takers are needed to overcome the increased pressure of taking the final kicks, where successful conversions are much less likely.

2. Stat – “Kick takers in a shootout score at a rate of 92 percent when the score is tied and a goal ensures their side an immediate win. But when they need to score to tie the shootout, with a miss meaning defeat, the success rate drops to 60 percent” (Keh, 2010).

Strategy – (1) If your team needs to score the NEXT penalty to stay alive in the shootout, ALWAYS send the best remaining kicker. Forget about the order that was agreed upon before the shootout started. Sudden death penalties are the toughest, so the best players must take them to give the team the best chances of success.

(2) If at all possible, ensure that your team takes the first penalty kick in the shootout. This dramatically reduces the chances that any of your first 5 penalty takers will face a sudden death penalty (where a miss means elimination) as any miss by your team could potentially be offset by a miss from the team kicking second. Remember, sudden death penalties are extremely tense situations so avoid them at all costs and put the pressure on  the opponents.

3. Stat – In the journal Human Movement Science, researchers found that penalty takers who focused on kicking the ball accurately into a chosen location scored more often than those who were reminded to kick away from the goalkeeper (Keh, 2010).

Strategy – Focus on what you want to DO, that is, taking an accurate shot from the penalty spot. Do not focus on what you DON’T want to do, that is, do not focus on NOT having your shot saved by the goalkeeper. While it might seem as if both situations lead to the same outcome, having a simple positive target in mind makes it a lot easier for us to focus on the task at hand. Visual attention is very important in maintaining focus, so always take a good look at where you want to kick the ball and keep this location fixed firmly in your head. Never change your mind in the middle of the kick as this results in a loss of focus and a significant drop in shooting accuracy (van der Kamp, 2006). Do not concern yourself with the goalkeeper at all. Remember, kickers must try to keep the prefrontal cortex (PFC) quiet (Korb, 2010). So do not think about your kick being saved. Likewise, do not think about your kick not being saved. The word “save” is associated with the goalkeeper and penalty takers already have enough on their plate. Kickers should be living in the moment, focusing exclusively on kicking accurately and scoring.

4. Stat – Researchers found that players told not to miss more than two penalties scored more than those told to score at least three (Keh 2010).

Strategy – Kickers should view their penalty kick as a duty, not as an opportunity for personal success. The sense of responsibility that comes with an assigned duty can greatly aid in maintaining focus on the situation at hand, and frees the kicker from distracting thoughts of possible future glory.

5. Stat –  Studies shows that players who waited longer to kick after the referee blows the whistle perform better (Jordet, Hartman & Sigmundstad, 2009).

Strategy – Kickers must take their time and not rush the kick. Players who rush may be trying to escape a stressful situation rather than focusing on scoring.

6. Stat – The longer the referee takes to blow the whistle, the less likely the kicker will be to score (Jordet, Hartman & Sigmundstad, 2009). In his autobiography, England’s Steven Gerrard describes his penalty miss against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup: “I was ready. Elizondo [the referee] wasn’t. Blow the whistle! F***ing get a move on, ref! … Those extra couple of seconds … definitely put me off.”

Strategy – If the kicker feels as if the referee is taking too long, then he must have the discipline to rid himself of these impatient/annoyed emotions BEFORE taking the kick. These feelings are mere distractions from what needs to be done. To remedy the situation the player should take a few extra seconds after the referee blows the whistle to regain composure and focus.

7. Stat – Of 286 penalty kicks taken, an analysis of the data showed that (1) Goalkeepers diving to the right had a 12.6% chance of saving the kick (2) Goalkeepers diving to the left had a 14;2% chance of saving the kick (3) Goalkeepers who remained central had a 33.3% chance of saving the kick (Bar-Eli, Azar, Ritov, Keidar-Levin & Schein, 2006).

Strategy –  A goalkeeper should remain central to give himself the best possible chance to save the penalty kick. The stats clearly speak for themselves. So why do goalkeepers dive at all if they more than double their chances of success by not diving? The reason is to avoid feelings of guilt and regret due to inaction. As we can see, the issue of maintaining focus and keeping the prefrontal cortex (PFC) quiet again comes to the fore (Korb, 2012).

8. Stat – If the goalkeeper stands off center by 6-10 centimeters, this will influence the kicker to choose the side with more space an extra 10% of the time (Masters, van der Kamp & Jackson, 2007).

Strategy – If the goalkeeper does decide to dive, he should increase his chances of making the save by standing off center and subconsciously inducing the kicker to pick the side of his (the goalkeeper’s) choosing.

9. Stat – Studies show that a player who celebrates openly and actively “ increases the chance that his teammates will score later in the shootout and also increases the likelihood that the opposing player who shoots immediately after him will miss” (Keh, 2010).

Strategy – Once the deed is successfully done, the kicker should show his joy openly. This will encourage his teammates and heap the pressure on the opponents.

10. Stat – A panenka, named after famed Czech footballer Antonin Panenka, is a cheekily chipped penalty (see video below).

Antonin Panenka

Successful panenkas tend to win shootouts. This observation is based on events at Euro 1976 (Panenka), 2000 (Totti), 2004 (Postiga) & 2012 (Pirlo and Ramos). There might be many other examples not mentioned, so please feel free to add any missing shootouts with panenkas in the comment section below.

Strategy – If successfully performed, the sheer audacity of the panenka can completely demoralize the opposition. Speaking of Pirlo and Ramos’ panenka style penalties in Euro 2012, sports writer Pirate Irwin (2012) stated ” Both were seen as being turning points if such things exist in penalty shootouts more for their psychological message in boosting their sides to the detriment of their opponents England and Portugal.” Caution must be exercised however, as panenkas should only to be attempted by supremely confident players. If missed, a panenka can wreck the confidence of your own teammates.

Top Penalties


Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O. H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y. & Schein, G. (2006). Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28 (5), 606-621, DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2006.12.001

Irwin, P. (June 29, 2012). Ramos and pirlo serve poetic justice. Wide World of Sports. Retrieved July 2, 2012 from http://wwos.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8491536

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., & Sigmundstad, E. (2009). Temporal links to performing under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (6), 621-627, DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.03.004

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C.& Lemmink, K. A. P. M. (2007). Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress,skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25 (2) 121-129, DOI:10.1080/02640410600624020

Keh, A. (May 30, 2010). A few things to think about when lining up that kick. The New York Times. Retrieved on July 2, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/31/sports/soccer/31penaltykicks.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

Korb, A. (July 6, 2010). Penalty kicks and the prefrontal cortex. Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 2, 2012 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201007/penalty-kicks-and-the-prefrontal-cortex

Little, T. (June 21, 2012). Sven: My big regret. The Sun. Retrieved July 2, 2012 from http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/football/euro2012/4387501/Sven-Goran-Eriksson-My-big-regret.html

Masters, R. S. W., van der Kamp, J. & Jackson, R. C. (2007). Imperceptibly off-center goalkeepers influence penalty-kick direction in soccer. Psychological Science, 18, 222-223, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01878.x

Plessner, H., Unkelbach, C., Memmert, D., Baltes, A. & Kolb, A. (2009). Regulatory fit as a determinant of sport performance: How to succeed in a soccer penalty-shooting. Psychology of Sport and Science, 10 (1) 108-115, DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.02.001

van der Kamp, J. (2006). A field simulation study of the effectiveness of penalty kick strategies in soccer: Late alterations of kick direction increase errors and reduce accuracy. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24 (5) 467-477, DOI 10.1080/02640410500190841

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