Think, see, do: Exploring the science of the penalty kick

York St John University study demonstrates how the body and brain work together when you’re on the spot.

Researchers in the field of sports psychology and performance at York St John University have published new insights into performance under pressure in penalty-taking.

The present study is the first to examine the direct relationship between executive function (cognitive skills), visual attention, and penalty performance while controlling factors such as physical activity and expertise. Publishing ahead of the start of the delayed European Championships, it uncovers the importance of having a ‘clear head’, avoiding distraction and being able to understand contextual information.

The team worked with 95 participants of a range of ages and athletic ability. The group performed cognitive tasks before being put into a pressurised situation to physically take a penalty shot. When performing the pressurised penalty, their visual attention was measured with a mobile eye-tracker. Three areas were tested, Inhibition (ability to go or withhold responses), Shifting (quick thinking from one thing to another) and Updating or working memory (ability to replace old thoughts or information with new).

Analysis of the results points to the important role that cognitive processes (i.e., inhibition and updating) play in penalty performance and that these cognitive processes appear to first influence visual attention (i.e., quiet eye duration and location, search rate, and number of fixations to the goal).

Lead researcher Jack Brimmell, Graduate Teaching Assistant at York St John University, said: “Previously, despite theorising these cognitive elements, research has tended to test theoretical assumptions using measures of visual attention only. Now we can see that the cognitive ability to avoid distraction and update information within working memory can impact the quality of visual information picked up. In turn, these two factors (cognitive and visual attention) work together to allow more accurate penalty kicks.”

The study has important connotations for players and coaches. It reveals that executive function can directly impact penalty performance, through an effect on visual attention. It could therefore be beneficial for coaches to train players on these cognitive processes to improve overall athlete performance; however training should closely relate to the demands required in the targeted sport. Players can also utilise techniques such as self-talk to facilitate cognitive processes under pressure of a penalty kick, reminding themselves to focus on goal-directed stimuli (the goal) and hold back the urge to focus on the ‘threatening’ stimuli (the goalkeeper).

Read the full study here in the Journal of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology

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