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Get Your Head in the Game: New Study Looks at the Brain Activity Behind Missed Penalty Kicks

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Get Your Head in the Game: New Study Looks at the Brain Activity Behind Missed Penalty Kicks

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Titans of soccer, such as Barcelona playmaker Leo Messi, are capable of immense feats of dexterity and ball control. But placed one-on-one with a goalkeeper tasked with kicking a ball into the goal from just 12 yards away, Messi has missed 22% of all the penalty kicks he has ever taken. Penalties should, from a technical standpoint, be straightforward for professionals, but they are, of course, some of the most high-pressure moments in team sports.

Whilst the phenomenon of world-class soccer players missing penalty kicks, known succinctly as choking, has been well-documented by sports psychologists and creators of mocking YouTube clips, what links pressure environments to these high-profile performance flubs has been less clear. Now, new research from the University of Twente in the Netherlands has added to a body of evidence suggesting that the activation of brain regions related to long-term thinking may be behind missed kicks.

"Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick,” says Max Slutter, a MSc student at the University of Twente and the study’s lead author. To open a window into the penalty-taking brain, the authors of the study, published in Frontiers in Computer Science, had to overcome the long-standing challenge of examining brain activity in the brain during movement. The signals from delicately mapped brain regions become fuzzy and distorted when recorded during movement using classical brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Slutter and his co-authors, including Twente postdoc Nattapong Thammasan, opted to use an indirect imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). “Normally we would measure brain activity directly. This method instead measures oxygen levels in your brain. When the oxygen levels are higher, we can assume that the brain area is more activated. This measure is more resistant and more consistent regarding movement.”

The authors conducted an array of tests on a set of 22 volunteers, half of whom were experienced soccer players. The other half were chosen as complete football naïfs, having barely ever kicked a ball, says Slutter.

These volunteers were tasked with taking three kicks – one into an open net, one with a goalkeeper present who merely attempted to save the ball, and one with a goalkeeper who used mind games to get into the taker’s head. Further ramping up the pressure in this final condition was a cash reward for success and a requirement to take the long walk from the center of the pitch to the penalty spot.

The kickers were all fitted with fNIRS headsets that recorded their brain activity just before they took the penalty.

"We found that players who were able to perform under pressure activated task-relevant areas of the brain," commented Thammasan in a AAAS press release. "For example, increased activation of the motor cortex was related to performing under pressure. This seems logical, as movement is one of the most important elements when taking a penalty."

However, when players reported anxiety about the kick and missed penalties, another brain area lit up – the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This activation of this site of higher thinking in the brain, say the authors, may indicate focus moving off the kick and onto the long-term consequences of a miss.

Interestingly, experienced kickers showed lower activation than rookie kickers in their left temporal cortex. This chimes in with the neural efficiency theory, says Slutter – the concept that experienced athletes, who have to an extent “automated” certain motor actions, need less brain activity to perform those activities. When the experienced players’ temporal cortex activity spiked, they were more likely to then miss the penalty. By comparison, higher activity in rookies was associated with scoring. This is likely because experienced players are overthinking the kick, shifting them out of their automated skillsets, whereas the increased focus benefits kickers who are still learning the basics.

Could these findings lead to better kick strategies? Slutter raises the prospect that one day, footballers could study their brain activity to train their brain to focus better on the kick, although he emphasizes that this is some way off.

Whilst the fNIRS technique allowed an examination of brain activity that wouldn’t have been possible with other techniques, it wasn’t foolproof: residual noise meant that several of the study’s significant findings disappeared after correcting for multiple comparisons between the study’s many variables. Finally, it’s unlikely that, even with a trash-talking goalkeeper, the conditions in the study replicated the immense pressure of a penalty kick watched from the stands and screens around the world.  It might be a while yet before Manchester United penalty taker Bruno Fernandes is seen walking up to the spot at Old Trafford with a brain imaging device strapped to his head.

Reference: 

Slutter MWJ, Thammasan N, Poel M. Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study. Front Comput Sci. 2021;3. doi:10.3389/fcomp.2021.661466

Meet The Author
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Senior Science Writer
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