In Penalty Kicks, Tortoises Fare Better Than Hares
By AUSTIN KELLEY  (Wall Street Journal, Oct 21, 2009)
[SP_COUNTPJ1] Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The penalty shootout, soccer's ubiquitous tiebreaker, can be an agonizing experience. Just ask the young Brazilians who lost to Ghana on Friday in the final of the Under-20 World Cup. With a chance to win it at 3-2, Brazil failed to convert on three straight kicks and ended up settling for second place.

"We did everything in our power and it didn't go our way," disappointed Brazilian midfielder Giuliano said at the time.

But did the Brazilians do everything in their power? A new study suggests that teaching players to take a little more time with their kicks may help them score. Movement scientists in Norway and the Netherlands analyzed every penalty shootout on video from the World Cup, the European Championships and the UEFA Champions League and found that, for the most part, the longer a player takes to place the ball (up to three seconds) and the longer he pauses after the referee's whistle, the more likely he is to find the back of the net.

Getty Images

In measuring the time between when the ball is first put in place and when the player lets go of it, the study found that players who took 1.1 seconds or less were successful 58.8% of the time, while those who took between 2.3 and 2.9 seconds scored 78.1% of the time. Those who began their rush forward immediately after the whistle (0.2 seconds or less) missed, or had their shots saved, at a much greater rate (42.6%) than those who waited for at least 1.1 second before beginning their approach (18.9%).

Geir Jordet, professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and co-author of the study, says that these findings show that shooting ability is not the most important component of converting a penalty. "It is absolutely clear that the soccer penalty shootout is not a technical skill game," he says. "It is a psychological game." Prof. Jordet suggests that the shooters hurry because of pressure. "We think that these players that rush simply want to get the shot over and done with."

Many players have reported impatience while waiting to shoot. In his autobiography, England midfielder Steven Gerrard described his anxiety during the shootout with Portugal in the 2006 World Cup. Mr. Gerrard,'s shot was saved, and Portugal advanced. "Blow the whistle!" he wrote, "Why do I have to wait for the bloody whistle? Those extra couple of seconds seemed like an eternity, and they definitely put me off."

Next time, Mr. Gerrard, try to relax.

Worth the Wait

Patience pays off for soccer players who take their time before taking their shots in penalty kick shootouts.

When placing the ball, players who take . . . < 1.1 seconds 1.2-1.5 seconds 1.6-2.2 seconds 2.3-2.9 seconds > 3.0 seconds
. . . have a goal % of: 58.8% 64.7% 73% 78.1% 70.6%
After the whistle, players who wait . . . < 0.2 seconds 0.3-0.4 seconds 0.5-0.7 seconds 0.8-1.0 seconds > 1.1 seconds
. . . have a goal % of: 57.4% 77.8% 70.6% 77% 81.1%