Just why do footballers miss penalties?
Often the most unnecessarily cruel part of a cup final, a penalty shootout more often than not results in the pinnacle of drama that can be achieved in a game of a football. It’s a moment where heroes are made and reputations are destroyed. With the recent Olympic tournament ending with a shootout between Brazil and Germany (where Neymar Jr. nabbed the winner for the hosts), we wondered just why it is that a lot of the world’s top players seem to choke when it comes to slotting the ball into the back of the net.
After all, these prima donnas are paid millions of dirhams to kick a ball about for 90 minutes, they’ve spent hours practising them time and time again throughout years of gruelling training sessions. Surely they can’t miss from there! Says your Dad from the comfort of his couch as he eats an entire packet of steak-flavoured Lays crisps.
While we’re not completing removing the blame from Simone Zaza, the fact of the matter is that footballers more often than not miss their penalty attempts not because they aren’t thinking about where they are going to place the ball, but rather that they are over-thinking the entire ordeal.
A study recently orchestrated by Bangor University found that a great deal of footballers often suffer from this very issue. It’s known as the “ironic error”, with the irony being that the more an individual thinks about what they should not try and do (i.e. sky the ball into row Z or hit the post) the more likely it is that they will do just that.
Our brains are basically wired in two ways, with decisions like taking a spot kick relying on both the operating process and the monitoring process in our minds to co-exist harmoniously. The operating process involves acting as your brain’s meticulous little general and recognising each specific action that needs to occur in order for you to achieve the outcome you so earnestly desire. In the case of a penalty it would be something like: run up to ball, hit ball, celebrate with popular dance move. Not that complicated, really.
The problems occur when this process combines with the monitoring process that goes on at the exact same time. The monitoring process is basically your anxious mum when you’ve gone to your first sleepover, it worries about every possible tiny thing that could go wrong and texts them to you to make sure that you definitely don’t do anything of the things that she has warned you about. In real life you’d probably do everything that you’d mother warned you about, but in the idyllic world of the brain, these warnings are strictly adhered to and very stringently avoided in any normal situation. (So no setting fire to flannel-covered mud cakes for you!)
Unfortunately for most professional footballers, a penalty shoot-out is not a normal situation and not one in which your brain can easily listen to its mum’s constant advice very clearly.
When in such high pressure circumstances your brain can often find it difficult to use both its operating process and its monitoring process simultaneously – it simply finds itself too consumed by the mental pressure of the entire overwhelming situation. It’s like when you think so hard about what to say to that cute girl at the bar that you end up saying absolutely nothing.
Because of this cramped space, the operating process (that useful little general) becomes far less efficient whilst your brain’s monitoring process (the worrisome mother) still runs at full balls-to-the-defensive-wall capacity. The unfortunate (and ironic) result is that an athlete’s brain will be so focussed on what will go wrong in this situation that it simply forgets to provide the necessary action needed to avoid all this possible wrong-doing. Basically, the more the player tries not to sky the ball, the more likely it becomes that Felipe in the nosebleed seats is going home with the game ball.
So how about you think about that the next time you make fun of poor Roberto Baggio for any reason apart from his dreadful haircut.