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How to win the penalty mind game

The classic mind game of soccer penalty-taking begins when the referee points to the spot. Anticipation, a steady nerve, a cool head, firm resolve - all these factors come into play in a short but highly intense drama. Will the keeper second-guess the striker? Will the kick fly high over the goal? Science has now come to the aid of goalies with research that may help them to stay calm. In a split second, before the striker hits the ball, the orientation of their hips indicates which way the ball will fly. The results were presented at the second Asian Congress on Science and Football in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Watch the hips

Mark Williams, head of science and football at Liverpool John Moores University, explained: "If the taker's hips are square-on to the goalkeeper in a right-footed kicker, the penalty tends to go the right-hand side of the keeper. If his hips are more 'open', the kick tends to go the left."

Williams & Burwitz (1993)[2] investigated saving strategies by showing goalkeepers life-sized video footage of strikers before and during penalties. He stopped the film: 120 milliseconds before the kick; 40 milliseconds before; the point of impact; and 40 milliseconds afterwards. Each time, he asked the keepers to predict the outcome.

Semi-professionals were consistently better than unskilled amateurs at guessing which of four target spots the ball would hit in the goal. At 120 milliseconds before impact, half the semi-pros guessed correctly. The success rate rose to 62%, 40 milliseconds before and 82% at impact. At each stage, the amateurs lagged ten percentage points behind the semi-pros.

Williams reported that other visual cues include the angle of the striker's run-up and the orientation of the non-kicking foot. The non-kicking foot pointed to where the ball would go 80% of the time. Ian Franks and Todd Harvey at the University of British Columbia identified this latter factor as crucial in a study of 138 penalties in World Cup competitions between 1982 and 1994.

Will this information make things harder for strikers, or will it introduce a new dimension to the mind game as strikers try even more challenging to disguise their intentions?