Should goalies stand still when facing a penalty?

Any soccer fan who followed the recent World Cup can tell you the importance of a penalty kick, which is a direct, stationary kick taken from a distance of twelve yards with only the goalkeeper to block the shot. Penalty kicks are used when a player commits any of the ten „direct free kick fouls“ within his own penalty box or to determine the outcome of a tournament game that has not produced a winner within the allotted time frame.

The relatively slow reaction time of humans against the speed of the ball (nearly 70mph) means that the goalkeeper cannot know which direction the kicker will kick and so must decide ahead of time in which direction he will jump to block the ball. His decision is not entirely random; it will be based on his knowledge of the kicker’s playing patterns and on the movement of the player’s hips before he kicks, giving him a better than average chance of getting it right.

The penalty kick has fascinated many academics since its characteristics lend themselves to analysis according to Game Theory, where two players choose their moves simultaneously and only two outcomes are possible: scoring a goal or missing. Under these circumstances the area between the goalposts becomes a fertile field for economic research.

In a sport in which the average number of goals per game is only 2.5 and the chance of blocking a penalty kick is less than 15%, a penalty kick can determine the outcome of a game. Thus, the heroic efforts made by goalies are among the more dramatic events in sport.

It is hard to believe but a study published a few years ago in the Journal of Economic Psychology claimed that it was better for goalkeepers not to stretch their limbs but to stay put between the goalposts. Miki Bar Eli and Ofer Ezer of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Ilana Ritov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined the results of 286 penalty kicks made in senior league games and championships around the world and interviewed 32 professional goalkeepers before reaching this surprising conclusion.

An analysis of the data shows that in 93.7% of cases the goalkeepers jumped to one side or the other. In these cases they blocked an average of 13.5% of the kicks. However, when the goalies remained rooted between the goalposts without jumping to either side, they succeeded in blocking 33.3% of the kicks. Even if they managed to predict to which side the ball would be kicked and jumped accordingly, their success rate would only reach 27%. (Politicians might find it interesting to note that the success rate for moving to the left is higher than that of the right.) In other words, in spite of the fact that the chance of the ball being kicked to the center is only slight, if in fact it is kicked to the center then the goalie stands a much better chance of stopping it than if it is kicked to either side. The result forms the optimal strategy for goalkeepers: stay in the middle of the goalposts and don’t jump.

The researchers believe that the energetic but useless response of goalkeepers is rooted in the ramifications of the Norm Theory developed by Kahneman and Miller in the 1980s. According to this theory, when a certain action is the norm, we experience more intense negative feelings about not carrying out the action than if we do carry it out. For example, a person looking for a name on a list reading from the bottom up and finding that name near the top will experience greater regret than if she had started from the top and read nearly to the bottom in the usual manner before finding the name.

In soccer, it is the norm for a goalie to jump to one side or the other during a penalty kick. So goalkeepers are condemned to feeling greater disappointment about a goal scored when they do not move than a goal scored after they have jumped left or right. This leads to the Action Bias, which is the tendency to take action even under circumstances in which non-action would be the most suitable policy.

Dr. Ofer Azar believes that the results of this study are applicable in many other fields as well. In an environment of no growth, for example, heads of state are likely to initiate economic programs just because they feel they have to „do something“. A manager who has recently joined a firm often initiates changes because that is what new managers are expected to do. „You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet,“ they’ll tell you. But who asked for breakfast anyway?

In fact, there are few spheres in which a tendency to action is more harmful than in investing. „After spending many years in Wall Street and after making and losing millions of dollars I want to tell you this: It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It always was my sitting.“ So said legendary Wall Street speculator Jesse Lavermore, who came out on top of the stock market crash of 1929.

Berkeley researcher Terrance Odean has shown that investors tend to trade stocks at a rate that is not to their advantage. He even gave it a price tag: a hit of 3.5% on annual yields.

But recall that it was the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal who preceded everyone when he claimed that „All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.“

About author Jacob Burak:

Author Jacob BurakJacob Burak (b. 1948) founded Evergreen Ventures in 1987 and became one of the founding fathers of the Israeli venture capital community. Five years ago he took a step back from the business world and now devotes his time to social activism and writing.

He has written two bestsellers: Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement?, which deals with the encounter between business, psychology and evolution; and Noise, which maps the „noises“ in our lives – external but mainly internal. Jacob also lectures on these topics.