“Pretend the goalkeeper isn’t there”: How effective is this tactic?

A common tactic when taking a penalty kick in soccer is to aim for a target in the goals and ignore the goalkeeper altogether. This is in contrast to the tactic whereby players pay attention to the goalkeeper, and adjust their kick depending on where the goalkeeper moves.

The former is considered a safer tactic. For instance, if the kick can be placed into either of the top corners with enough force, it is almost impossible for the goalkeeper to stop the goal.

However, whilst this tactic is good in theory, it is possible that the mere presence of a goalkeeper affects kick direction. In other words, is it that simple to completely block out something (i.e., the goalkeeper), if that something is to be avoided?

The study

Martina Navarro and colleagues asked 27 skilled soccer players to take penalty kicks under 3 conditions: (1) without a goalkeeper present, (2) with a goalkeeper present, and (3) with a goalkeeper present who is aware of where kick is being directed. Participants were instructed to aim for a target in the top corners, and ignore the presence of the goalkeeper.

If participants can successfully ignore the goalkeeper, their kicking accuracy should be the same whether the goalkeeper is present or not present. Kicking accuracy should also remain similar in the condition where the goalkeeper knows which way they are kicking and therefore can pre-meditate their dive.

Results

It was evident that the presence of a goalkeeper affected kick direction. This was amplified when the goalkeeper knew which way the kick was being directed. Essentially, kick accuracy decreased when there was a goalkeeper, with kick location being more centralised. Hence, when there was a goalkeeper present, the kick was directed closer to the goalkeeper.

Implications

In aiming tasks, asking a player to ignore something will likely result in performance being directed closer to the to object-to-be-avoided.

Nonetheless, this strategy still appears to be more affective than keeping an eye on the goalkeepers movements. So what can players do about it?

If anything, this study highlights the importance of perception-action coupling during training. Whilst practicing to hit targets is an important skill, it will be far more effective if a goal-keeper is present during this practice.

Reference

Navarro, M., van der Kamp, J., Ranvaud, R., & Savelsbergh, G. J. (2013). The mere presence of a goalkeeper affects the accuracy of penalty kicks. Journal of sports sciences, 31(9), 921-929.
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