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Penalty Kicks: Never Choose to Go Second! Poland Gets It Wrong

Have you ever wondered what's the best predictor of who will win a penalty-kick lottery? Who wins the coin toss. Unless you're crazy enough to win the coin toss--and go second. Hey, it didn't work for Italy in 2008 either. Behavioral economists have analyzed the whole penalty shootout thing, and they have some interesting insights.

Portugal celebrate winning on penalties.  Poland had the advantage--and threw it away.  Read on.
Portugal celebrate winning on penalties. Poland had the advantage--and threw it away. Read on.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The only real drama of an otherwise fairly forgettable match between Poland and Portugal came when we got to penalties.  Poland won the toss, decided to go second, and promptly lost the shootout, 5-3, Portugal going into the semifinals.

So was that decision, to go second, as dumb a decision as it seemed?  Turns out, yes, it was (h/t to Kurt).  Back in 2010, a paper was published in the American Economic Review studying, of all things, penalty shootouts (The American Economic Review is considered one of the most highly distinguished journals in its field, by the way).

The paper's full title is "Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment".  That's a mouthful, but there is also a neat review of the paper here called "Penalty kick shootouts and the importance of shooting first" , which helps out a lot.  Turns out there is a branch of economics, behavioral economics, that tries to build in psychological factors to economics models.  Also turns out you can do a lot of lab experiments, but it's hard to find real-world opportunities to test your models.  But one where you can is the penalty-kick shootout.

The professors (one in London, once in Barcelona) studied oodles of penalty kick shootouts (129, to be precise).

First, they tried to see if anything in particular explained the results of a shootout.  Team rankings, league positions, home team, shootout experience, none of that mattered.  The only one that did at a statistically significant level was which team went first--that team won 60% of the time.

Second, they tried to analyze the 'mechanism of the scoring rates during the shootout'.  What they found was not too surprising to those of us who have watched a lot of penalty shootouts--as a team lags behind, their performance gets worse, and the team that takes the lead tends to do better.  The team that goes second, therefore, almost always has a level of psychological pressure the teams shooting first doesn't have.  The team shooting second can only catch up if the first team succeeds with theirs.

Third, they also looked to see if there was a difference in the performance of the goalkeeper--and found the save rates were about the same.  In other words, success is determined by the miss rate of the kicker; the pressure is all on the players taking the penalty to perform rather than the goalkeeper to make the save.  Again, for any of us who have seen many shootouts, this makes sense.

Fourth, and most interestingly, they sent a questionnaire to soccer managers in Spain--from the Primera down to the Regional Preferente.  At least in Spain, they know their stuff--fully 90% of the managers who answered said 'shoot first" if you win the toss.  Why?  To put pressure on the shooters of the opposing team.

So, the bottom line is, we have a process to determine a winner in a knockout round of major soccer tournaments where the most potentially decisive moment happens before the shootout, often isn't even shown by the cameras--the coin flip. Win it and you have a 60% chance of winning.  Unless you're Poland (or Italy in 2008 against Spain), win the flip and go second, and throw away your advantage.  Knowledge is power, folks!!