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The lottery of a penalty shoot-out…though it’s not a lottery

Date: 10th November 2014

Ashley Cole penalty

Ashley Cole takes a penalty…he misses

Stirling Albion and Hurlford United engaged in one of the lengthiest and exciting penalty shoot-outs in many years in their Scottish Cup tie over the weekend. The League One side eventually scraping through 13-12 on spot kicks.

For many, the appeal of penalty shoot-outs is the unpredictable at allegedly ‘random’ nature of the event. The cliché that the competition is a ‘lottery’ is indulged in to the nth degree and sympathy for those that miss comes in abundance. The losing team can take solace in that their defeat was not due to a shortcoming of skill, but rather the result of football’s equivalent of the flip of a coin.

This attitude is understandable, it provides an excuse for those who come up short in spot-kicks and allows the winning side to adapt a modest approach to their ‘fortuitous’ victory. Except, this isn’t really the case at all. Penalty shoot-outs are rarely decided by luck; the conclusion more often than not the result of which team can score a goal with a stationary ball from twelve yards.

Of course, some will point to exceptional circumstances. Players slipping and turf giving way under foot can have a bearing on individuals attempts. Who can forget John Terry tragically/hilariously slipping whilst taking his penalty kick in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final against Manchester United – we all felt terribly sorry for big JT that night. Though two points should be made; firstly, that Terry’s foot gave way after he struck the ball, suggesting that he would have hit the post regardless and two, that it was Nicholas Anelka’s tame effort that Edwin van der Sar saved to secure victory for United that night in Moscow.

This is not to suggest that freak occurrences never have an impact, but that the majority of penalty shoot-outs are won by skill – both technical and psychological. In fact, the mental strength required to win a shoot-out, especially if during a match of high importance, may be the biggest factor of all. In ‘Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment’ (J. Apesteguia and I. Palacios-Huerta, American Economic Review 100), a study conducted over 129 penalty shoot-outs, resulting in a total of over 1,300 attempts, that the team that shoots first has a 60% chance of victory. In the same study, players and coaches from amateur of professional teams in Spain were asked whether they pick to shoot first and their reasons why. Almost all of the respondents noted that choosing to go first allowed them to apply pressure to the opposition; suggesting that players and managers are more than aware of the psychological factors surrounding these match-deciding events.

Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, echoes the sentiment that shoot-outs are a challenge of skill, rather than a result of luck:

‘The penalty itself is football at its most basic: a ball, a kicker, and a goalkeeper. It’s a test of technique and of nerve and while you can never recreate the match conditions, just as you cannot with a putt to win the Ryder Cup or a second serve to win Wimbledon, purposeful practise can help prepare for the moment’

That psychological strength is often cited as being crucial to a professional footballer’s make-up, it is strange that there is not the same emphasis put on a player’s ability positively harness it in the unique environment of a penalty shoot-out. If a player takes a penalty and shoots wide of the goal, was that luck? The lottery of the shoot out? Of course not! For one reason or another, be it technical skill or otherwise, that player was unable to score a goal from twelve yards with a stationary ball. Dismissing penalty shoot-outs as luck does a huge disservice to the winning team and trivialises the manner in which the match is won. As is the case in most football matches, when it comes to penalty shoot-outs, the best team wins.

Oh and well done to Stirling Albion and Hurlford United. I just watched that shoot-out while writing this and those were some very impressive penalties!

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