Goalkeepers deceive themselves when facing penalty kicks

Soccer’s netminders fall victim to fallacy during high-pressure situation

GOALIE GUESSWORK  During penalty kick shootouts, goalkeepers suffer a logical glitch that often leads them to dive away from the ball.

Eser Karadağ/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Soccer goalkeepers routinely dive the wrong way because their minds presume trends that don’t exist, University College London scientists report July 31 in Current Biology.

During penalty kick shootouts, each team has five chances to score from 12 yards away from the goal with only the goalie protecting the net. Professional penalty kicks travel up to 80 miles per hour, giving goalkeepers less than half a second to react.

To make saves, many goalkeepers begin diving before the ball is hit, says coauthor Erman Misirlisoy, a cognitive neuroscientist.

But their guesswork might be flawed, Misirlisoy and cognitive neuroscientist Patrick Haggard  found after watching videos of 361 penalty kicks from the last 36 years of the World Cup and the European Cup. When multiple kickers in a row shot toward the same side, goalkeepers often dove in the opposite direction on the next kick. The kickers’ behavior, meanwhile, lacked any predictable pattern.

“We cannot help but feel that independent events throughout life are somehow related to each other,” Misirlisoy says. “This can lead to the gambler’s fallacy,” a tendency to doubt a trend in one direction will continue, even if the odds of each direction are 50-50. An example of the fallacy occurs when a pregnant mother of three boys predicts her next child will be a girl.

Kickers could exploit this fallacy in future tournaments, Misirlisoy says. 

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