While so many other sports are continuously breaking records and pushing barriers, it’s a little mind-boggling to consider that the 12-yard penalty kick was first seen in a game in 1891, and hasn’t changed since then. It was first proposed by William McCrum, a goalkeeper for Milford Everton FC in the Irish Football League, and added to the official rules on June 2, 1891. Twelve yards was the magic distance then, and still is. No matter what level you are playing at, the penalty spot is always the same distance.
There are all kinds of stats out there about the controversial penalty. A quick Google search will come up with all kinds of good stuff, from what percentage of penalty kicks are made (anywhere from 70-80% depending on whether it’s a World Cup or regular play), to where shooters have the most success (upper third of the goal), to what side shooters go to more often (the goalkeeper’s right side).
But as a goalkeeper myself, I’m more interested in the other side of penalty kicks – the coveted save. I started playing soccer in high school, so I missed the skills training that most kids get in their sport and so was never “trained” to deal with PKs. For me, it’s always been based on pure reaction.
According to a study by researchers at Brunel University in London, professional goalkeepers can successfully read where their opponent is going to shoot the ball, and guess correctly 57% of the time. But even when they picked the right direction, these keepers only saved 22% of the shots, because the shots are coming in too fast and there is too much space for the goalkeeper to cover. Based on the distance of the penalty spot (12 yards) and the average speed of a pro’s kick (~70 miles per hour), the ball gets to the goal in less than half a second. That means that goalkeepers have about 700 milliseconds to make a decision and heave their body to that spot. No wonder they say the shooter has the advantage.
So how do goalkeepers EVER make a penalty save? How do you prepare yourself for a 700 millisecond decision?
Chris Sharpe, the Goalkeeper Coach of the Colorado Rapids and Rapids Youth Academy Director of Goalkeeping, explained that training a goalkeeper for penalty kicks is twofold. “At a younger age, you’re trying to tell them to look at certain things—the run up, are they left or right footed, are they opening their hips up, are they looking to one side?” Professionals, like Rapids ‘keeper Tim Howard, don’t spend training sessions working on penalty kicks. Instead, Sharpe says, “I use a lot of video. I’ll look back at a team’s last dozen PKs from two years or so and look for telltale signs. Then I give the guys 4-5 pages of notes and they’ll study it for the week.”
Stephanie Labbé, a goalkeeper on the NWSL team Washington Spirit and the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-winning Canadian national team, also looks for cues to make what she calls an “educated guess. When I’m in goal, I try to read the type of player – is she cheeky? Is she not as confident and will just try to hammer it in with power? The biggest thing is to see what foot they are kicking with based on where they line up, then things like their hips, their eyes, timing, intensity.”
While Sharpe says that the Rapids use the same strategy whether it’s a regular game penalty or a penalty shootout, Labbé trusts her abilities to make a reaction save in a five shot series. “For a shootout, I have full confidence in my skills and athleticism, and if I stand and react, I can make at least one save out of five.”
“But everyone has a different approach,” she explains. “Some goalkeepers go late and some go extremely early. It comes with experience.”
Because penalty kicks so strongly favor the person shooting the ball, that even when the game seems to be on the line, the team doesn’t put pressure on the keeper. “There’s never any pressure on the goalkeeper,” Sharpe says. “You just hope they compose themselves, gather themselves, look at the approach, and know what to do.”
Labbé agrees. “There’s no pressure, but there’s an excitement. It’s more ‘this could be my moment. I could change this game.’ ” And she’s right. There’s that immeasurable momentum shift that can happen when a goalkeeper makes an amazing save, especially when that save is a “sure-thing” shot like a PK.
While the shooter may always have the advantage, a confident and skilled keeper will always have at least a chance of standing in the spotlight and coming up big.
And that’s what every goalkeeper lives for.