Most football fans know all the crushing disappointment that comes when a player misses a perfectly or even imperfectly lined up penalty kick, especially when it is the difference between a favorite team becoming champions or losers but do you know what happen’s in the footballer’s brain?
Lionel Messi recently retired from international duty after missing in a penalty shootout as Argentina lost a fourth major final in nine years. He had reportedly said after the match, “On top of everything, I missed the penalty kick,”.
So obviously, a lot is going on in a footballer’s brain when squaring off and subsequently missing a penalty, and science gives us a glimpse into it.
According to researchers from Bangor University, players consistently miss vital penalties because they make the exact error they are trying to avoid.
It is known as an “ironic error” and Recep Gorgulu, a researcher of sport psychology, and Tim Woodman, professor and head of the school of sport at the university explain it this way;
“A player places the ball on the penalty spot in a tournament like Euro 2016 and tells himself, ‘aim left; just don’t hit the left post’. During training or a less important match, they would find the back of the net with ease every time, but this is a high-pressure match – a stadium full of screaming fans and hundreds of millions of viewers around the world watching him take those steps back.
And more often than not, the player who misses won’t have kicked the ball wide of the post or over the crossbar. He’ll have kicked it precisely at the left post. Since this is the thing he set out to not do”
The two further explained that, when the brain is trying to get the body to behave in a certain way, it relies on two processes; an operating process and a monitoring process.
The operating process would identify all the steps that will let us achieve a desired outcome, applied to the subject at hand it would include, “taking the usual number of steps back, thinking of the spot where you want to hit the ball, running up, planting your non-striking foot next to the ball, and scoring where you were aiming,”
At the same time however, a monitoring process is subconsciously at work, “It is like a radar sweep searching for information on what could go wrong, in this case hitting the post,” the pair continued.
“Once it has identified such risks, it informs the operating process to try harder to find information that will make things go to plan so you can still score the penalty. Both processes work under one control system and operate together as part of a feedback loop.”
Such well though out processes usually result in a success, but in high-pressure situations, the room needed in a player’s brain for the operating process to work is “overloaded” by pressure.
The “I know what to do” operating process competes for limited mental space against the “I’m nervous”, anxiety making the former less effective.
While the operating process faces these struggles, the monitoring process remains largely unaffected under pressure because it works on a subconscious level and doesn’t take up any cognitive space. As a result, when we’re under pressure the monitoring process becomes more prevalent.
So according to the researchers, the ironic error occurs;
“When it carries out a sweep for information on what could go wrong under pressure – and here’s the irony in all this – it brings what could go wrong into the person’s consciousness, in other words, the very mental process that should help the player not to hit the left post is the very reason that he ends up being more likely to hit the left post. By attempting to avoid the error, the mind is drawn ever closer to focusing on it.”
Other recent research by the university also found that the players most susceptible to these ironic errors are those who attempt to hide their anxiety.
This is because their brain along with the anxiety of missing the shot has to deal with statements on behavior like; “be cool” and “don’t show that you’re anxious.”
The simplest advice given to avoid these ironic errors is to practice controlling anxiety under pressure with relaxation strategies.
There is also the suggestion of rephrasing negative instructions, for instance, instead of a player to tell himself “don’t hit the left post” he should be instructing himself to pick the precise point where he wants the ball to strike the net.