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Psychology Matters

2010 December 16
by Skip Sauer

Psychology matters in sport, at least in soccer.  That’s the unambiguous implication of a new paper by Jose Apesteguia and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta

I watch more than my fair share of European soccer, and often hear the commentators speaking about a form of first-mover advantage.  Scoring first, for example,  provides a clear strategic advantage ( it is easier to defend than attack).  It may or may not pile on psychological pressure, and disentangling psychological advantage from strategic advantage is no simple matter.  A similar claim is made with regard to playing first in the round for teams in the title race:  if you win and take the lead in the race, you supposedly put pressure on the teams that are chasing you.  I find that a bit more dubious, but it could be true. 

“Choking” is a form of failing under pressure, and this effect could be present in both individual and team performance.  The flip side, “clutch” performance under pressure, has been studied extensively and is something of a holy grail among baseball stat geeks.  Nobody’s found robust evidence of clutch performance, including me, and I’ve spent months of my life sifting through data just in case everyone else has “missed it.”

Apesteguia and Palacios-Huerta find a form of choking, in penalty kick shootouts.  The data come from knockout competitions invovling a variety of club and international federations.  The results are truly remarkable:  the team that shoots first wins 60%, and the team that follows wins just 40% of the time.  The coin flip is thus a major shift in the probability of winning (more so than the controversial coin flip in NFL overtime).  Moreover, whether they know the numerical statistics or not, players and teams behave as if it matters, overwhelmingly choosing to shoot first when given the option.  The inference is that the first team, by scoring, imposes a psycholgical burden on the second team.  Here’s the concluding paragraph, which sums things up nicely:

Lastly, from the perspective of the recent behavioral economics literature, we find a signifcant and quantitatively important type of psychological effect not previously documented. From the perspective of rational choice theory, we find that individuals are aware of this effect and they rationally respond to it. 

The paper is forthcoming in the American Economic Review, and is full of all the technical bells and whistles that it is fashionable to criticize these days.  Reporter  Julian Guyer has a nice summary (hat tip to Julian) and discusses a simple reform proposal with Ignacios (hint: copy tennis), that makes a ton of sense to me.

3 Responses
  1. Liam Lenten permalink
    December 16, 2010

    Skip, I may sound like a broken record here, but: IF the coin toss is SO important in who wins the shootout, then that is ALL THE MORE REASON to shift it to BEFORE extra-time to diminish the lottery element – the NFL has already realised this with the overtime rule change last year.

    In any case, the paper is a nice natural experiment, though I think they’ve missed a lot of the penalty sequencing literature from sports statistics researchers. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that anyone has yet nailed the problem of how to properly disentangle pressure on the taker from pressure on the ‘keeper.

    Nevertheless, it is a compelling read:-) LL.

  2. Skip Sauer permalink*
    December 16, 2010

    That’s a fair point Liam. In defense of Ignacio, their main point is about the impact of the coin flip on outcomes (via “choking”), rather than the impact of going to penalties on strategy, which is what your paper focuses on.

    To others, see Liam’s post here:

    His paper on shifting the shootout to extra time is here:

  3. Greg Pinelli permalink
    December 17, 2010

    Scoring first in soccer provides a huge advantage not just because it’s easier to defend..but because it’s much easier than any other sport to time waste and play negative soccer. Much of the advantage of taking the first penalty kick in a shootout would disappear, in my opinion, if every field player were required to take one. Considering the magnitude of the event often determined by a shootout..Euro Cup (Germany..)..World Cup (Brazil, et al) hardly seems an imposition to allow the full side excluding keepers to have a go at it…

    When the first player up knows he has an outsized influence on the game and that the odds are greatly in his favor and not the keepers it’s no surprise he can turn the entire psychology of the second team upside down. FIFA COULD experiment with 10 shooting..but then, how much can one expect from an organization that still cannot bring itself to use electronic monitoring for goal scoring in 2010?

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