World Cup: How to Bend It Like Beckham

Despite the overwhelming odds of getting a penalty kick past a goalkeeper, many soccer kickers fail during big games. For fans of England, penalties evoke a sense of dread. The team has lost six of seven matches in major tournaments during penalty shoot-outs, including three in the World Cup. In contrast, the Germans have won four Cup matches in shoot-outs since 1990, and are five for six in big games.

So what’s going on here? Not enough practice? Bad karma? A one-way trip to choke city?

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Actually sports scientists say it’s a combination of physics and psychology that some players have mastered, and others seem to fail to understand time and time again.

“Most of these (soccer) players can pass a ball to a teammate 30 to 50 yards with pinpoint accuracy,” said Greg Wood, a lecturer in sport psychology at Liverpool (U.K.) Hope University who has studied the psychological factors of taking penalty kicks. “But when it comes to hitting a ball 12 yards in top corner, they can’t do it. It’s because of the emotions they feel. Regulating this is key aspect to penalty taking. They’ve already got the skills.”

Wood and other researchers have found out some interesting things about penalty kicks:

First, don’t look at the goalkeeper. Studies show that either focusing on or purposely avoiding the goalkeeper indicates stress. In fact, that’s why goalkeepers yell, wave their arms and sometimes do other things to make the kicker choke.

“When players are anxious, instead of looking where they are going to shoot, players focus on the goalkeeper,” Wood said. “There’s a tight link between where we look and where we shoot. Anxiety makes you focus on things that are threatening.”

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Wood developed a method of “quiet-eye” training for soccer players that gave them ways to regulate their anxiety by focusing on aiming location in the seconds before striking the ball. After a seven-week training, the players had 50 percent fewer shots save by the goalie. Of course, none of the elite soccer teams in England adopted Woods’ training. “It takes a while,” he said.

Don’t turn your back either. It seems that players who purposely avoid the goalkeeper by turning their back before spotting the ball fare worse than those who face the goal.

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