Penalty Kick Psychology

New psychological research suggests that soccer goalkeepers and teams are not only affected by the high-stakes pressure of a penalty shootout. Without their awareness, goalkeepers also appear to be biased to dive to the right in some situations.

Football World Cup held in Chile, 1962

Football World Cup held in Chile, 1962

The consequences of this bias could potentially affect games ranging from casual pickup matches to world championships.

The bias primarily seems to affect goalkeepers when their teams are down, according to psychologists at the University of Amsterdam. A number of psychologists at that particular university believe the bias likely extends to other sports as well that involve rapid decision-making under pressure.

The researchers said their hypothesis arose from a discussion they had with each other at a bar one Friday evening. They were talking about two recent papers. One showed dogs tend to wag their tails to the right when approaching their masters. The other showed that soccer goalies have a tendency to dive one way or another while facing penalty kicks – they seem to dislike staying still.

Combining the ideas in the papers, and referring to soccer goalkeepers, the psychologists asked themselves, “Could it be that they would also, like the dogs, dive more to the right?”

The psychologists in question started examining the evidence. They looked at penalty kicks in the men’s World Cup football championship from 1982 onward and found 204 penalty shootouts. When teams were tied, they found that goalkeepers dived left and right equally. But when their teams were down, the psychologists found goalkeepers were more than twice as likely to dive right as dive left.

Football goalies’ tendencies

Now, there’s a scientific explanation for this – and it doesn’t have anything to do with being left-handed or right-handed.

Among humans, dogs and some other animals, individuals unconsciously move to the right when they approach something they really want. Lovers tend to lean their heads to the right when they kiss; dogs wag their tails to the right when their masters approach.

The predisposition to go one way rather than another does not mean that individuals always have to go that way. But it does mean they have an unconscious tendency to favour one side rather than another in certain situations.

The Amsterdam University psychologists said the tendency likely arose in different species because there was an evolutionary advantage for many members of a given species to favour one direction rather than another – when they were hunting or avoiding predators, for example.

A theory that arose is football goalkeepers tend to dive right when all hopes are pinned on them. That’s why they dive right, “especially when their team is behind and their likelihood to be heroes is the greatest.”

Note also that the research showed that when the goalie’s team is behind, the goalie never remains standing in the middle of the goal, but instead, chooses to dive either left or right.

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