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Sport and Competition

What High-Stakes Athletic Competition Reveals About Winning in Life

The potential pitfall of a "winner's mindset."

Key points

  • Performance in high-stakes predicaments hinges on having the correct mindset, yet what this is may not be obvious, even to experienced players.
  • Brain activity under pressure varies between elite and amateur performers.
  • Certain types of long-term goal-setting can ultimately impede performance in high-stakes scenarios.
  • Mental self-instruction may not be the right strategy in some high-stakes predicaments.
Photo of Spanis Soccer Ace Alvaro Morata Кирилл Венедиктов Creative Commons Wikipedia
Álvaro Morata Spanish soccer sta
Source: Photo of Spanis Soccer Ace Alvaro Morata Кирилл Венедиктов Creative Commons Wikipedia

Álvaro Morata, a Spanish soccer star, scored a vital equaliser during the 2021 Euro semi-final against Italy, yet missed his penalty in the shoot-out, leading to Spain crashing out of the tournament.

The latest psychological research suggests that one reason he may have missed the penalty is, in fact, paradoxically linked to his scoring during the game itself.

When, in high-stakes professional soccer matches, penalties are missed, psychological factors such as anxiety under stress, commonly referred to as choking under pressure, are invoked.

In a study entitled, ‘When Superstars Flop: Public Status and Choking Under Pressure in International Soccer Penalty Shootouts’, Geir Jordet, from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, analysed all penalty shootouts held in three major soccer tournaments (the World Cup, European Championships, and UEFA Champions League), including 366 kicks.

Players who had recently won prestigious international awards (e.g., “FIFA World Player of the year”) in fact performed worse in penalty shootouts.

Mental Burden

Jordet argues that perhaps those who experience high public expectations to perform well feel more pressure in high-stakes predicaments, such as penalty shootouts.

People feel threatened when favourable views of themselves are called into question. If your self-esteem has been bolstered recently by success, maybe you come under more self-imposed strain to continue performing at a high level.

Emma Raducanu, the British teenager tennis star who caused a sensation in recently reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, had to retire from her Round-of-16 match because she said she "started to breathe heavily and felt dizzy" after her first set against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia.

We don’t yet know whether this was the kind of hyperventilation associated with anxiety or a panic attack, but some might argue there is a striking similarity with a psychological theory and prediction that sports stars who have achieved recent high status may come under more ego-threat when put in high-pressure situations.

Jordet hypothesizes that the players most recognised with recent accolades are carrying a heavier mental burden because of their standing. Fear of missing the penalty therefore makes them change the way they usually play, and increases the chance of failure.

A recent brain-scanning study of penalties from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Twente, Netherlands, suggests perhaps the optimum psychological strategy requires players to ‘know themselves’, specifically where they are on the talent spectrum.

Entitled, ‘Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study’, the research involved attaching a fNIRS (Functional near-infrared spectroscopy) brain-scanning headset to novice and expert soccer players, who then took penalties under low- or high-stress conditions.

The authors, Max Slutter, Nattapong Thammasan and Mannes Poel, point out that the findings of this study can have implications on a wider range of tasks beyond sports, such as in surgery, where motor performance is demanded under high mental pressure.

These authors explore two particular theories that explain choking: self-focusing and distraction.

The ‘self-focus’ theory maintains that high-pressure predicaments increase self-consciousness, resulting in more deliberately monitoring, or controlling, skill execution, with choking the inevitable result.

An expert tennis player may be serving effortlessly in a match; they are in a groove with a fluently repeated rhythm; but maybe they can also start thinking too hard about the actions they perform during the ball toss, and this increased focus on the physical sequence detracts from the seamless unconscious element. The serve then breaks down under this greater conscious awareness.

Excessive pressure leads to too much attention toward the implementation of skills which are better executed when more unconscious.

How the brain responds to pressure

‘Distraction’ theory argues, in contrast, that anxiety shifts focus from task-relevant focus, like serving, to task-irrelevant anxiety-heightening distractions, like ‘What if I mess up the serve and then lose Wimbledon?’

The results of this study, published in the journal Frontiers in Computer Science, show that the physical task-relevant brain region, the motor cortex, was more activated when players were not experiencing performance anxiety.

The activation of task-irrelevant areas was shown to be related to players experiencing anxiety and missing penalties, especially the prefrontal cortex (PFC) area of the brain (the part of the cerebrum which helps us set and achieve goals).

Higher activation of the PFC can be caused by players' worries about the consequences of scoring or missing penalty kicks. An increase in PFC activation was paired with a decrease in motor cortex activation when being anxious. The long-term thinking element of the PFC could be the source of this distraction, as players dwell on the consequences of missing or scoring the penalty.

When experienced athletes were feeling anxious, their left temporal cortex activation increased, which could be an indication that they experienced ‘overthink’, and so neglected their automated skills.

The left temporal lobe is mainly responsible for recognizing, memorizing, and forming speech; therefore it is activated when we are giving ourselves instructions.

The left temporal cortex's relationship to self-instruction and self-reflecting, according to this study, may distract experienced players.

Practiced skilful competitors, according to these authors, should put more trust in their automated skills, suppressing self-instruction and self-reflection processes.

What works for you

Self-instruction and self-reflection are essential in the early stages of learning a motor skill. By activating the left temporal cortex more, experienced players may be neglecting their automated skills and instead start to overthink the situation.

Left temporal cortex activation is higher when more inexperienced players succeed in scoring penalties, which suggests that the secret to success depends on the best mental strategy to adopt, and that hinges on whether you’re an experienced or an inexperienced player, and your own insight into where you fall on the talent spectrum.

You need to figure out what works for you individually.

In another study by Jordet, ominously entitled, ‘Why do English players fail in soccer penalty shootouts?: A study of team status, self-regulation, and choking under pressure’, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, one psychological secret to Italian soccer's success is revealed.

A key factor appears to be whether the penalty-taker turns their back on the goal-keeper or faces them throughout the process. This opportunity for prolonged eye contact between the two adversaries makes the penalty shootout a uniquely personal psychological encounter. There isn’t usually this opportunity for a prolonged ‘face-off’ during the fluid nature of normal play.

Of the eight top European teams, the Italian soccer players have the second-highest rate of not avoiding facing the goal-keeper by turning their backs, and so they have the second-highest rate of ‘staring down’ the goal-keeper. Goal-keepers in penalty predicaments rate shooters looking away as less confident and less likely to score.

Of all European nations in this analysis, English players scored the highest in looking away and avoiding eye contact with the goal-keeper during a penalty.

Feeling anxiety impairs performance because of psychological and neurological events within you. But when you also signal panic to your opponent, you’re increasing their confidence that they can beat you: Your apprehension helps relax them.

Winning is about not losing your head.


Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study Max W. J. Slutter, Nattapong Thammasan and Mannes Poel Front. Comput. Sci., 07 May 2021

When Superstars Flop: Public Status and Choking Under Pressure in International Soccer Penalty Shootouts Geir Jordet April 2009 Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 21(2):125-130 DOI:10.1080/10413200902777263

Why do English players fail in soccer penalty shootouts? A study of team status, self-regulation, and choking under pressure Geir Jordet Journal of Sports Sciences Volume 27, 2009 - Issue 2

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