Monday, 26 March 2007

Subconcious tactics of penalty box soccer

Scientists at Hong Kong University have come up with a theory that might prove extremely useful for football players around the world. Had Mark Schwarzer known in the fateful World Cup match against Italy last year what these Hong Kong scientists know today, Australian soccer fans might still be cheering.

As it turns out, a small tweak in where the goal keeper is positioned in the goal can make a player send the ball in a particular direction. By just standing a couple of centimetres to the right or left instead of in the middle of the goal, the goalie might thus be able to subconsciously convince the player to kick the ball into his or her path.

Rich Masters, assistant director of research and associate professor at the Institute of Human Performance at the University of Hong Kong, is one of the researchers behind the report. He became a football fan after spending some time in England.

"I studied for my Ph.D. in England and spent 14 years there. Gradually soccer just seeped into my blood. So I love to watch it, but play badly," he said in an interview.

Masters is an experimental psychologist with further interest in implicit knowledge, which he explained as such: "If something is implicit, it influences your behaviour without your knowledge. The penalty-taking study was a 'what-if' moment."

Football players and fans have long suspected the keeper´s position in the goal is important, and the article published by Masters and his colleagues John van der Kamp and Robin Jackson in the U.S. journal Psychological Science proves these speculations right. By standing six to ten centimetres off the centre of the goal - a displacement the penalty taking player is unlikely to notice - the chances are ten percent higher the player will send it towards the wider space.

Many fans loathe the idea of a game being decided on penalties, and it has been a long running debate both in England and internationally as to what extent this should be allowed to happen. The BBC recently reported on a decision by the English Football Association (FA) that stated that replay matches are still to decide who advances in the domestic FA-cup, instead of penalties as suggested by several managers.

Masters believes this kind of research can be helpful both for other parts of the game and for other sports, also here in Australia. "Recently I have been involved with both your Australian Institute of Sport and the New Zealand Academy of Sport because of the relevance of implicit motor learning to sport."

Perhaps these findings might help change the scene for penalty takers, so that the keeper is at less of a disadvantage, since today only 18 percent of penalty shots are saved.

One can only hope that the next time Francesco Totti rocks up against the Socceroos at the penalty spot in a vital World Cup game, he has not heard about this report.

Reidar von Hirsch is a soccer enthusiast and freelance journalist in Sydney, Australia.

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