Penalty kicks improve when focusing on external targets and not mechanics

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Many sports involve moments where players are in almost complete control of the run of play and their opponent at a decided disadvantage if they are involved in the play. Often this involves a stopped ball or puck. In tennis, it’s a serve. In American football, it a field goal kick. In baseball, it’s every time a pitcher pitches. In football/soccer, penalty kicks gives almost complete control of the ball to the player taking the shot. Intuitively, it appears as if those situations would be easy scoring opportunities. Not so.

How important are penalty kicks? Team awarded PK won 52%, drew 30%, and lost 18%. Chances of winning increased to 61% if PK scored, decreased 29% if missed. Even though the keeper is at a decided advantage defending a large goal and a short distance from kicker, the penalty taker missed 20-40% of the time. So converting PKs are among the most profitable skills in sports and important to winning.

Training plays a major role in the development, reinforcement, and improvement of skills executed on the playing field. Wilfand Lewthwaite proposed an approach to training called the Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning theory. It has been used to explain how practice effects such as attention and autonomy support influence performance and learning. The theory proposes that practice environments which encourage the player to utilize an external focus of attention, promote autonomy support by way of self-controlled practice methods, and linking desired behavioral outcomes with motor skill production increases intrinsic motivation which then facilitates motor learning.

In a recent study by Hubert Makaruk et al., intermediate skilled soccer players were trained in six distinctive ways. The aim of the study was to measure which practice conditions produced the highest level of self-efficacy, which is defined as a person’s judgement or belief in his or her own ability to successfully execute a specific task.

Recruited 120 male college aged students who were completing a minimum of 60 hours of soccer coaching education classes as part of university physical education program. Each volunteer practiced taking penalties, took and passed a penalty skills test, and also practiced teaching the PK to others. In order to be eligible for the study, players also had to have one year experience on an amateur soccer team and been healthy for the past 6 months. 111 subjects were right legged and only 9 were left-legged.

Conditions were meant to reflect the superficial physical match conditions. Regulation sized goals, balls, and distances from goal of penalty taker were used. However, the penalty takers faced an open goal. In other words, a goal keeper was not standing between the posts. Asked two questions: How confident are you in performing the penalty kick? How confident were you in your ability to successfully hit the correct target? Broken randomly into groups that reflected the various training styles: External focus with autonomy support (EF/AS); external focus (EF); internal focus with autonomy support (IF/AS); internal focus (IF); autonomy support (AS); and control (C). Instructed to hit the target as accurately as possible. Allowed 12 shots, 3 shots at each target.

EF/AS told they should focus on the target but allowed to choose the order of kicks although not allowed to target same spot twice in a row. IF/AS groups were told to concentrate on the movement their kicking leg and allowed to choose order. EF were only told to focus on the external target, etc.

The results of the experiment were broken into two categories, accuracy and self-efficacy. According to the authors, “The results of our experiment confirmed that combining an external focus of attention and autonomy support immediately improved motor performance relative to baseline trials completed in the C condition.” They note that the benefits of the combination were not additive and that, “beginners may benefit by the combination of an external focus with autonomy support. In contrast, skilled performers may not display performance enhancements from this same practice strategy.” For example, the EF/AS groups produced a similar level of accuracy as the EF groups. Both groups performed better than those that focused internally, i.e. concentrated on the mechanics of their task.

Makaruk et al. concluded that the results of their experiment demonstrated that external focus and freedom to choose their targets resulted in better motor performance. The improvement is most likely due to improved automacity (the state where muscle memory controls an action more than active thought processes). “Combining an external focus of attention with autonomy support immediately enhanced penalty kick accuracy relative to participants that performed in the control condition and those that received a combination of an internal focus of attention with autonomy support.” Moreover, their findings suggest that soccer players should adopt a target-based approach during training as opposed to a solely internally focused one. Follow-up studies should be performed with goalkeepers involved as it adds a different layer of stress to completing the task.

IMAGE CREDIT: Creative Commons

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