Goalkeepers show a predictable pattern when they are pitted against multiple kickers in tense penalty shootouts.
After kickers repeatedly kick in one direction, goalkeepers become increasingly likely to dive in the opposite direction, according to an analysis of all 361 kicks from the 37 penalty shootouts at the World Cup and UEFA Euro Cup matches over a 36-year period.
The findings reported in the journal Current Biology highlight the importance of monitoring and predicting behaviour in competitions, according to the researchers.
“Cognitive fallacies can affect all of us, even if we are considered expert performers in a particular field,” says Professor Patrick Haggard of University College London.
“It is important to try to be aware of situations in which we may be vulnerable to bad decision making. Then we may be able to avoid making mistakes.”
For example, at a casino roulette table it’s not a good idea to place a big bet on black simply because there have been several reds in a row.
Previous events aside, red and black are always equally likely. The natural tendency to suspect otherwise is known as gambler’s fallacy.
Professor Haggard and and PhD student Erman Misirlisoy of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London are generally interested in how people make decisions and they see soccer and other sports as great examples of competitive cognitive strategies at work.
“In a penalty shootout, a goalkeeper and a group of kickers do their best to outwit each other,” Misirlisoy says.
“How they control their behaviour gives an insight into cognitive strategies more generally. Just as a kicker and a goalkeeper need to decide between kicking left or right and diving left or right, we often find ourselves in life making decisions between two roughly balanced options, such as two alternative routes to where we want to go.”
Goalkeepers can’t wait until the ball has been kicked to dive or they’ll miss it every time. They have to guess. The best strategy for both goalkeepers and kickers is to behave unpredictably, diving and kicking in random directions.
The analysis of penalty shootouts shows that even the very best goalkeepers in the world suffer from a cognitive fallacy in selecting which way to dive next, making their next move more predictable than it really should be.
Fortunately for those goalkeepers, kickers failed to exploit those goalkeeper biases, the researchers found.
Is there anything a goalkeeper can do?
Misirlisoy suggests that it might be good strategy to decide on a random sequence of dives before the game and follow that sequence regardless of what kickers do. Until that day comes, kickers could learn to predict which way goalkeepers might dive.
For the researchers, the work left them experiencing this year’s World Cup series in a whole new way.
“We found we were thinking about behavioural decision making as much as about the entertainment,” Misirlisoy says. “We were trying to predict which way the goalkeeper would dive, and we didn’t pay much attention to how many times the ball ended up in the net.”
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