Penalty taking in soccer – research-based guidelines for greater success

Last year the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a review article on penalty-taking in soccer (Vol 6, 2013). In light of us having just entered the knock-out phase of the 2014 World Cup, I’ve pulled out a few interesting bits of information;


  • There appears to be no statistical difference in whether the team kicking first or second is more likely to win. (Note that penalty-taking expert Ben Lyttleton - in June 16th issue of TIME – disagrees however, suggesting that the team kicking first has a slightly greater chance of winning).
  • Goalkeepers seem to feel less confident (very subtly, and perhaps sub-consciously) when the penalty-taker is wearing red (rather than another colour such as blue).
  • Statistically, there is the smallest chance of the goalkeeper saving shots that reach the upper third of the goal (as opposed to middle or low shots). Yet only 13% of kicks end up in the upper third of the goal area.
  • Surprisingly perhaps, kicks to the middle of the goal (ie straight at the goalkeeper) have a slightly higher chance of scoring, than those to either the left or right. It is advisable however that the decision of where to shoot should also take into consideration the penalty-taker’s technical abilities, and any information one has about the goalkeeper). 
  • Accuracy is higher if the penalty taker has a clear plan, and implements this plan without being influenced by the goalkeeper. ie Choose beforehand where you are going to shoot to, and just calmly do this while ignoring all goalkeeper movements and antics. This is where psychological skills, pre-kick routines and of course lots of practice are very helpful.
  • The penalty taker should employ positive, dominant body-language before the kick. Looking at the goalkeeper briefly is better than hiding or turning one’s back on him, but at the same time one shouldn’t stare too long. 
  • The run ups to taking a penalty that are most strongly associated with success, are those which are either straight, or very oblique. (As opposed to something in between). 
  • And very importantly – don’t rush! The England team are a case in point – they are the fastest penalty-takers, and have one of the worst records. (Six defeats out of 7 penalty shoot-outs in major tournaments).
  • After you have scored, DO celebrate as theatrically as possible. This seems to have a positive impact on one’s own team, and potentially a negative one on the opposition’s penalty takers.
  • And finally – need we even say this - Do NOT ever tell anyone not to miss!

As promised, here are a few pointers for the goalkeepers: 

  • There is a tendency for right-footed players to kick to the left (from the penalty-takers perspective), and vice versa.
  • One study showed that 29% of kicks go to the middle – ie get his straight at the goalkeeper. The same study however found that the goalkeepers stay in the middle only 6% of the time.
  • If the goalkeeper is indeed going to pick a side, he should do so BEFORE the kicker has made contact with the ball. Making a decision on how high the ball is going to come however, should happen only AFTER the kicker has made contact.
  • The best goalkeepers seem to focus their attention on the ball - foot contact region.
  • Goalkeepers who are very fast movers, can afford to wait a little longer before deciding where to dive. This enables them to gather more information, eg through looking at the penalty taker’s support foot – which usually points in the direction of the ball.
  • Interestingly enough, goalkeepers are less effective at judging ball direction from left footed penalty takers (than their right footer counterparts). Presumably this is because they have less opportunity to practice this.
  • If the goalkeeper stands in a very slightly off-center position (too slight to notice consciously), then the penalty-taker does seem to be influenced towards the larger side.
  • Players who are feeling the pressure tend to look for longer at the goalkeepers – so it’s worth trying to distract them a little more. Goalkeepers do also seem to have better outcomes when they do things like wave their arms up and down. In fact studies show that goalkeepers’ actions less than 150ms before a kick lessen the chance of the kicke scoring.

Bottom-line - the best penalty takers have set, practiced routines. Anything that the goalkeeper can do to try and distract the penalty taker from this structure (and get him to over-think or try too hard), is therefore probably worthwhile.