The World Cup: Psychology Behind Penalty Kicks

The game of soccer is one of the most physically demanding in all of sport. With physical demands of the whole body and players traveling, on average, seven miles in a game, there is no doubt that soccer athletes have to be some of the most physically fit in the world. But what comes, then, when regulation and extra time have passed and players must engage in game-deciding penalty kicks? What physical skill is required there? The ball is centered, only 12 yards away from the goal, with the keeper completely at the taker’s mercy in regards to where the shot will go, when it will be taken, etc. So why at the World Cup – soccer’s greatest stage – is the conversion rate for penalty kicks only .71?

The answer is one of the most beautiful ironies in all of sport: the simplest of physical tasks becomes the most difficult because of how mentally challenging it is.

The one-on-one nature is naturally going to elicit some nerves. Coupled with the pressure of the moment, the implications of the result, and the apparent ease of the situation, those nerves can make a player far from their best. Some factors are beyond the player’s control: who shoots first and who shoots second, and consequently who shoots for gain and who shoots to recover, is determined entirely by a coin flip. For some, the pressure is next to none; goalkeepers are seen as heroes if they save a penalty kick, and receive next to no blame for allowing a goal. However, for the players taking the penalty kicks, it can be said for certain that mental strength is the key.

Confidence, strength of will, and physical ability–these are all the pieces to the penalty kick puzzle. All are ever-present with the USA National Team. Just consider the team’s slogan through the tournament thus far: I Believe. Klinsmann, the team’s coach, just told his players to change their flights until after the World Cup final. Think Team USA has confidence? While we hope the game for the Americans doesn’t end up coming to penalty kicks – hopefully we have the win secured long before they become necessary – don’t be surprised to see the team shine if it comes to that. The mental strength is there, and the whole country can’t be wrong when they say, “I believe that we will win!”

Konnor Fleming

References:

Hatokie, A. (2014, July 1). The psychology of penalty shootouts. – Football. Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.aljazeera.com/sport/brazil2014/2014/07/psychology-penalty- shootouts-20147182438644251.html

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