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Behavioural Insights and the World Cup: penalty shoot-outs

10th Jun 2014

In the build up to the World Cup, a host of experts in different fields are offering their views on the best way to succeed in a penalty shoot-out. Here, we review the evidence which we hope will help Steven Gerrard’s team to progress in the tournament.

In summary:

  • Penalty kicks down the middle outperform those to the right or left by 7 percentage points.
  • Penalty takers should not over-think the process. If Wayne Rooney is reading this: go with your gut instinct.
  • Goalkeepers should do the reverse. So if you’re Joe Hart, try to get the penalty taker to think about what they’re going to do (e.g. by pretending to examine an ipad before the player takes his kick).
  • Captains should always elect to go first if they win the toss. This is perhaps the single most important lesson, which will boost Steven Gerrard’s chances of victory by around 20%.

In their recent book Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner review the raw stats on penalty taking. Their conclusion? A penalty kick toward the centre is 7% points more likely to succeed than a kick to the corner (1). Every penalty that has been hit high down the middle in a World Cup shoot-out has resulted in a goal (2). Despite this, only 17% of penalties are aimed towards the centre. Professional footballers, Levitt and Dubner reason, fear the shame of missing in this way above the collective glory it might bring the team. But the lesson for the England team seems clear: aim a greater proportion of penalties (though of course not all) down the middle.

A completely different take on the penalty shoot-out is presented by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. In his new book, Risk Savvy, Gigerenzer presents research on expert decision making. His conclusion is that, if you’re a professional footballer, actively engaging your conscious mind is not as effective as relying on your gut instincts (3). So a good tactic is to avoid walking up to the penalty spot with a plan to execute. This seemed to be the strategy used by Andrea Pirlo, who took an audacious penalty (a chipped shot down the middle) against England in the shoot-out of Euro 2012. In this autobiography he describes how he made his ‘decision right at the last second… As I began my run-up, I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do… It was all impromptu, not premeditated.’ (4)

While England penalty takers should rely on their intuition, Joe Hart (the England goalkeeper) should do all he can to encourage opposing players to do the opposite. Gigerenzer’s advice is to make your opponents think rather than follow their gut. This is what Jens Lehmann, the German goalkeeper, seemed to be doing against Argentina in the penalty shoot-out of the 2006 World Cup. He ensured that the Argentinian football players could see him studying notes before each player took their penalty. The notes contained no information. But they had the effect of making their opponents think ‘rather than follow their gut’. (5)

Alongside advice around how to take a penalty is a small but interesting body of research around the importance of when you take a penalty. Apestiguia and Palacios-Huerta examined 2,820 penalty kicks from penalty shoot-outs between 1970 and 2008 (6). They found that the team that takes the first kick wins 60% of the time. In other words, the coin toss confers a 20% point advantage upon the team that goes first. Most captains seem to know this: in every case that the authors examined, the winner of the toss elected to go first. There was one exception: in Euro 2008, Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon won the toss and decided to go second against Spain. The result: Italy lost.

Apestiguia and Palacios-Huerta reason that it is the psychological pressure of lagging behind that affects the performance of the team that kicks second. Gary Lineker, it seems, supports this view, pointing out that 93% of penalties are successful when they will send a team through to the next round, whereas only 44% of penalties are successful when missing would result in that team being eliminated.

  1. Levitt and Dubner, 2014, Think Like a Freak.
  2. bbc, 2014, What makes the perfect World Cup Shootout Penalty?: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgg334j
  3. Gigerenzer, Gerd, 2014, Risk Savvy. Note that this advice only applies to experts. If you’re a beginner, taking your time in deciding what to do is a better strategy.
  4. Pirlo, Andrea, 2014, I Think Therefore I Play.
  5. Gigerenzer, Gerd, 2014, Risk Savvy.
  6. Apesteguia, Jose and Palacios-Huerta, Ignacio, 2010, Psychological pressure in competitive environments: evidence from a randomized natural experiment
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