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The ultimate mind game

Sunday, June 27, 2010
Jun 27
Sport Science: Penalty Kick
Sport Science takes a scientific look at the penalty kickTags: World Cup Soccer, null, Soccer

Posted by Chris Jones

JOHANNESBURG -- A penalty shot is less a physical exercise than it is a mind game.

I've played the game, albeit at the rec level, for quite some time and it's clear to me that the strategy has changed. I can remember when, for the keeper, the conventional wisdom was that a penalty shot was pure guesswork. The shooter was going to aim for either the far left or right, and if we were going to have any chance of reaching the ball, we had to start moving before it was struck.

Then, certain shady, immoral shooters -- that describes pretty much all of them, actually -- began using that overcommitment to their advantage. They started putting the ball straight down the middle, where the keeper used to be standing. Nothing made keepers look worse. We were forever being caught diving away from the ball, making anti-saves.

So, maybe 10 years ago, I stopped guessing. A lot of keepers did. Earlier this World Cup, Japan's Eiji Kawashima waited until Denmark's Jon Dahl Tomasson took his shot before he moved. He allowed a rebound that was buried, but he made the initial save, which he probably wouldn't have made had he left his feet earlier.

I think of the current trend as "educated guessing." Professional keepers will have been given scouting reports, tendencies for every player on the field. Then they can play the percentages. But even with that knowledge, they'll still try to read the shooter in those moments before he strikes the ball.

I usually come off the line and talk to the shooter a bit. Try to get him off his head. I've asked shooters where they were going to put the ball, and a surprising number of them will answer -- and an even more surprising number of them will tell the truth. If a player tells me he's going to put the ball bottom left, he's probably going to put the ball bottom left.

Reverse psychology? Nice try, Jasper.

If my pre-shot chat doesn't work, my favorite shooters are those guys who think they're clever -- when everybody knows that strikers are morons -- and they'll stare at one side of the net, as though that's where they're going to shoot. I'll even encourage that idiot behavior by pointing to my eyes, showing them that I see where they're looking. Of course, they're going the opposite way. But for a second there, I let them feel pretty good about themselves. That makes saving the ball that much sweeter.

Even good players, though, might have a split second where their eyes betray the genuine truth. I call that the "moment of honesty." Most players will look, even if it's only for the briefest of instants, at their target. It usually happens after they've placed the ball and they're taking their steps back. That's when their guard is down. They'll also sometimes give a little something away in their approach angle. For a right-footed player, a sharp angle usually means he's going to shoot to my right, his left, across his body. A straighter run often means a right-footed player is shooting to his right.

The last giveaway is in that half-second before the ball is actually struck. I'm usually looking at the shooter's ankle then, waiting to see whether it's open or closed, going to his right or his left. I don't think any player can fake that. Then we're both committed.

The lesson for shooters? Here it is, you mouth-breathing meatheads. If you want to score on a penalty shot, take a short, straight run. Look at the ball and only the ball. And put it low and hard just inside either post. A shot like that is impossible to stop.

But I know you won't do it every time. For some stupid reason -- vanity, an absence of character or moral fiber, poor genetic sequencing -- you won't be able to resist getting fancy. You'll think that you'll be able to pull one over on me, you'll think that you're smarter than me, and that's when you're right where I want you.

That's when I'll break your lousy striker's heart.

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