A psychologist spent five years studying world cup penalty shootouts | Mint
Active Stocks
Fri Feb 23 2024 15:58:13
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 145.50 -0.24%
  1. State Bank Of India share price
  2. 759.40 -0.86%
  1. HDFC Bank share price
  2. 1,420.90 0.08%
  1. NTPC share price
  2. 337.70 -0.54%
  1. ITC share price
  2. 411.60 -0.65%
Business News/ Sports / Football News/  A psychologist spent five years studying world cup penalty shootouts

A psychologist spent five years studying world cup penalty shootouts


Every job requires performance under pressure. Here’s what everybody can learn from the most tense few minutes in sports.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022: Round of 16 - Morocco v Spain - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar. Morocco's Badr Benoun has his penalty saved by Spain's Unai Simon during the penalty shootout (Photo: Reuters)Premium
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022: Round of 16 - Morocco v Spain - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar. Morocco's Badr Benoun has his penalty saved by Spain's Unai Simon during the penalty shootout (Photo: Reuters)

There are more people who have traveled to space than soccer players who have taken a penalty kick in a World Cup shootout, and there is nobody on this planet who has done more to understand the minds of those athletes than a psychologist named Geir Jordet.

He spent five years of his life watching footage of every shootout of every major international men’s tournament for the past half-century.

“That is literally all I was doing," he said. “I would sleep a little bit, occasionally, and I ate when I had to. But I was researching penalties."

His goal was to learn as much as he possibly could about the complexities of performance under pressure—which is how the lessons from a soccer field in Qatar apply to every line of work.

As you watch soccer at work and hear strange guttural noises around the office, you can expect a few things from the World Cup’s knockout rounds: Brazilians will flop, the English will find a way to humiliate themselves and some matches will end in the agony of a shootout.

This is when a physically exhausting game turns psychologically excruciating. If the score is still tied after extra time, the teams resort to a format that has little in common with anything that came before it, picking five players each to alternate penalty kicks and then proceeding one by one until they have a winner. Since 1986, 20% of men’s World Cup elimination games ended in penalty shootouts. In the history of World Cup shootouts for men and women, there have been 261 goals on 370 attempts, which means scoring is not guaranteed, but anyone who doesn’t score is devastated.

This is a ridiculous way of settling the sport’s biggest matches—a shootout in the World Cup is like a World Series baseball game being decided by home-run derby—but penalties also happen to be irresistible. The higher the stakes, the crueller they seem, and the thinner the line between jubilation and despair.

It’s the most tense event in sports. So of course a psychologist would find it compelling.

Most of us don’t have to worry about the mental anguish of taking penalties in front of a few billion people. But the challenges of performance under pressure are universal. We all have career moments that can feel like World Cup shootouts—job interviews, pitch meetings, unpleasant conversations we’ve been avoiding for weeks—and there are two especially valuable takeaways from Dr. Jordet’s analysis of penalties.

The first is that a shootout is not a showdown between two people but a collective effort involving everyone on the field. The second is that psychology plays a massive role in determining who wins and why. It’s both a mind game and team sport.

Long before he was a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Dr. Jordet, 48, understood the cognitive factors at play in shootouts through personal experience, as he can still feel his heart racing from a penalty kick he took as a teenager in Norway. “I aimed for the right corner," he said. “I was so nervous that I missed completely and scored in the left corner."

After graduate school, he moved to the Netherlands in 2004, and he could not have picked a better time or place to become obsessed with penalties. The nation had been eliminated by shootout from three straight international tournaments, and those brutal losses turned penalties into the stuff of national trauma. When he began his work on the pressure of shootouts, Holland’s soccer officials were naturally curious.

He says he devoted nearly every waking hour over the next five years to the intellectual exploration of penalties.

“I was able to stay married throughout this period," Dr. Jordet said, “which is an accomplishment."

In the days before old footage was readily available on YouTube, he tracked down every shootout from men’s World Cups, European Championships and Champions League matches since 1976. If broadcasters couldn’t find specific clips of penalties in their archives, he enlisted private collectors with garages full of VHS tapes.

He timed how long every part of the process took. He picked apart body language. He studied how players celebrated and sulked. He groaned when broadcasts panned to fan reactions in the crowd and cheered when they lingered on players at midfield. When quantifying the most data ever collected wasn’t rigorous enough for Dr. Jordet, he also tested his intuitions with field experiments and interviewed players about feeling the weight of an entire country on their shoulders.

The studies published by this Pelé of penalty scholarship helped introduce several ideas that shape the way people think about the world’s most popular sport.

He found that anxiety was the emotion most associated with penalty shootouts, and the amount of pressure that a player felt was the most reliable predictor of success. Some rush their penalty kicks to get them over with. Others avoid eye contact with the goalkeeper. One player told Dr. Jordet that he was scared TV cameras would detect his legs shaking. So brains determine shootouts as much as hands and feet. When players are in position to instantly win a match with their penalties, they tend to do better than when not scoring means they would lose. Meanwhile, goalkeepers are heroes when their teams win and rarely get the blame when they lose, which frees them from some of the stress facing the players standing a dozen yards away.

Players who hurried through penalties missed more than players who took enough time to compose themselves, according to his research. His recommendation: Slow down. Taking deep breaths and trusting in routine is a good way to exert agency, which is important, since players who feel like they’re in control outperform those crippled by the unpredictability of chance. But this kind of mental work must begin long before a World Cup, said Dr. Jordet, who suggests practicing every detail of the process down to placing the ball on the penalty mark. “You want to have an almost machine-like, robotic approach," he said.

The most counterintuitive of his findings may be that penalty shootouts reward teamwork. This sounds a bit like Europeans calling football soccer.

But shootouts are team sports disguised as individual confrontations. There is an emotional contagion in which the mere reactions of players can shape the events on the field—for good and bad. Dr. Jordet said that lab and field experiments show that a player simply celebrating a goal increases the entire team’s chances of winning a shootout. The bigger that celebration, the better, he said. This is an occasion for exuberance, not humility. Raise your arms. Beat your chest. Rip off your shirt! (“I can imagine screaming celebrations down the office hallway perhaps not being ideal," Dr. Jordet said.)

The same goes for the players watching at midfield. Taking a penalty can be profoundly isolating. Teammates can make it less lonely. “Communicate. Talk. Be present for others. Move. Interact," Dr. Jordet said. “This is far more productive than standing still and quiet, which is what many teams do." It turns out being a supportive colleague matters as much on the soccer field as the office.

Sports are useful for studying human behavior, but World Cup shootouts are memorable because they occur so infrequently, and it’s worth being skeptical of any findings based on a limited sample. Even the person who knows more about penalties than anybody is the first to admit how much more he would like to know.

So it was surprisingly convenient when Dr. Jordet came down with Covid-19 last winter. He canceled his meetings, cleared his schedule and realized he could do anything he wanted with his free time.

He went back into the archives to watch more shootouts.

“I dove into Brazilian and Argentinian penalties," he said. “I had the best week of the year."

Unlock a world of Benefits! From insightful newsletters to real-time stock tracking, breaking news and a personalized newsfeed – it's all here, just a click away! Login Now!

Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App