Why professional soccer players choke during penalty kicks

A new study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity as inexperienced and experienced soccer players took penalty kicks.

Penalty kick

PORTLAND, OREGON - MAY 09: Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers reacts after missing a penalty kick in the second half against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park on May 09, 2021 in Portland, Oregon.

Abbie Parr via Getty Images
  • The new study is the first to use in-the-field imaging technology to measure brain activity as people delivered penalty kicks.
  • Participants were asked to kick a total of 15 penalty shots under three different scenarios, each designed to be increasingly stressful.
  • Kickers who missed shots showed higher activity in brain areas that were irrelevant to kicking a soccer ball, suggesting they were overthinking.

In a 2019 soccer match, Swansea City was down 1-0 against West Brom late in the first half. A penalty was called against West Brom. Swansea midfielder Bersant Celina was preparing to deliver a penalty kick. He scuttled up to the ball, but his foot only made partial contact, lobbing it weakly to the right.

Was it a simple mistake? Maybe. But there might be deeper explanations for why professional athletes choke under high-pressure situations.

A new study published in Frontiers in Computer Science used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to analyze the brain activity of inexperienced and experienced soccer players as they missed penalty shots. Although past research has explored why soccer players miss penalty shots, the recent study is the first to do so using in-the-field fNIRS measurement.

The results showed that kickers who choked were activating parts of their brain associated with long-term thinking, self-instruction, and self-reflection. The chokers, in other words, were overthinking it.

The psychology of penalty kicks

Penalty shots offer an interesting case study of how mental pressure affects physical performance. After all, there's a lot at stake, not only because the kick can sometimes render a win or loss, but also because there are sometimes millions of people anxiously watching, some of whom might have a financial interest in the outcome.

That pressure is no joke. For example, research on Men's World Cup penalty shoot-outs has shown that when the score is tied and a goal means an immediate win, players score 92 percent of kicks. But when teams are facing elimination in a shootout, and the kick determines an immediate tie or loss, players only score 60 percent of the time.

"How can it be that football players with a near perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 meters) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 meters?" study co-author Max Slutter, of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said in a press release.

"Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick."

In the new study, the researchers aimed to answer two key questions about choking under pressure among both experienced and inexperienced players: (1) What is the difference in brain activity between success (scoring) and failure (missing) when taking a penalty kick? (2) What brain activity is associated with performing under pressure during a penalty kick situation?

To find out, the researchers asked ten experienced soccer players and twelve inexperienced players to participate in a penalty-kicking task. The task was divided into three rounds, each of which was designed to be increasingly stressful:

  • Round 1 had no goalkeeper and was labeled as a practice round.
  • Round 2 had a friendly goalkeeper who wasn't allowed to distract the kicker.
  • Round 3 had a competitive goalkeeper who was allowed to distract the kicker, and kickers were also competing for a prize.

Participants kicked five shots in each round. They wore a fNIRS-equipped headset during the task that measured activity in various parts of the brain.

All participants performed worse in the second and third rounds and reported experiencing the most pressure in the third round. Inexperienced players performed worse than experienced players, which might suggest that they were less able to deal with the mental stress.

The locations in which experienced and inexperienced players kicked the ball in each round. Red dots represent missed penalties and green dots represent scored penalties.Slutter et al., Frontiers in Computer Science, 2021.

The neuroscience of choke artists

So, what types of brain activity were associated with missed shots?

The most noticeable result was that kickers missed more shots when they showed higher activity in their prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain associated with long-term planning. This was especially true among participants who reported higher levels of anxiety. More specifically, experienced soccer players who missed shots showed high activity in the left temporal cortex, which is related to self-instruction and self-reflection.

"By activating the left temporal cortex more, experienced players neglect their automated skills and start to overthink the situation," the researchers wrote. "This increase can be seen as a distracting factor."

Also, when players of all experience levels felt anxious and missed shots, they showed less activity in the motor cortex, which is the brain area most directly associated with kicking a penalty shot.

Don't overthink it

The results suggest that mental pressure can activate parts of the brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. In general, expert athletes show more efficient brain activity — that is, more activity in relevant areas, and less activity in irrelevant areas — and therefore experience fewer distractions. This is likely one reason why they were more successful at penalties than inexperienced players in high-stress situations.

This principle is described by neural efficiency theory, and it applies not only to athletes but experts in any field. As you gain mastery over something, you can rely more on automatic brain processes rather than deliberate thinking, which can lead to distractions. The authors of the study concluded that their results provide supporting evidence for neural efficiency theory.

Still, as long our experts are human, it seems that high-pressure situations can turn anyone into a choke artist.

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