It is that time of the year again, when championships are decided in European football. The Bundesliga was completed last weekend. The Premier League, Primera division and Serie A clubs wrap it up this coming weekend. And, right after that, there is the Champions league final.
Many of these decisive matches add considerable pressure on each player. As managers, coaches, and fans, we know this. We also have good intuitive insights into the effects of pressure. But do we have any fact-based knowledge? Do we know how elite footballers typically behave under severe pressure? Answers can be found in the most intense pressure situation any footballer can imagine – the penalty shootout.
Geir Jordet writes of how the pressure involved in penalty kicks affect even the top players in world football.
If the pressure is high enough, elite players choke
From our data base, containing almost 400 kicks from all the penalty shootouts ever held in the World Cup, the Euro and the Champions League, we see that players generally underperform when pressure peaks. For example, on high-pressure penalties where a miss will instantly produce a loss, players only score on about 55% of their attempts. In contrast, on penalties where a goal will secure a win, players convert almost 95% of their attempts into goals. This difference is vast and clearly illustrates the impact that thinking about consequences has on performance.
What can we learn from this? Even highly elite performers occasionally choke. Not surprisingly, in high-pressure situations, being absorbed in the negative consequences of one’s actions comes with a hefty cost, and focusing on the positives is particularly important.
High-status players are more vulnerable to choking
An even stronger lesson comes from the effect of status. When John Terry stepped up to take Chelsea’s fifth shot in the 2008 Champions League final penalty shootout, history told us that he had a 25% chance of scoring. That is an astonishingly low figure. How can that be?
The fact is that in penalty shootouts, the most internationally recognized players (i.e., players who have won a prestigious individual award) score considerably fewer goals than players with lower status. The examples are many. Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, and Roberto Baggio were all fantastic players – who consistently delivered within the first 90 minutes – but got it wrong on that one shot in their careers when it was most important to get it right. Furthermore, defenders generally score fewer goals in penalty shootouts (68%), compared to forwards (80%). This difference is higher, though, when we look at only the high-status players. The majority of high-status forwards maintains an average level of performance (73% goals), while high-status defenders flop and only score on 25% of their attempts. Many high-status defenders have reached their position because of excellent dueling, tackling, and leadership – very different qualities from those required when he is one-on-one with the goalkeeper from 11 meters away. Thus, when people expect them to deliver, they may not have the skills to match, and the pressure becomes incredibly high.
What can we learn from this? A superstar – your number one performer, logically, will feel more responsibility than others in deciding moments of a competition. With added responsibility comes added pressure and if this is combined with average or low skill in that specific situation, the odds become, as we have seen, dismal.