Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have used a technique known as functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity directly in volunteers taking penalty shots on the soccer field. Results from the study suggest that individuals who “choke” under the pressure and make mistakes activate areas of the brain involved in long-term thinking, indicating that they were ‘overthinking’ the consequences of missing the shot.

The research team, including Max W. J. Slutter, Nattapong Thammasan, PhD, and Mannes Poel, PhD, from the University of Twente Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, claim that their study represents the first to investigate the neuroscience behind choking under realistic conditions outside a laboratory. They believe that using fNIRS technology could help players to perform better under pressure by showing how their brains are behaving. The scientists also reason that players could feasibly might train themselves to activate beneficial brain regions in high-pressure situations.

And beyond the sports field, it’s possible that the technique could be useful for other professions—such as brain surgery—where performance under high pressure is important. Reporting their results in Frontiers in Computer Science, first author Slutter and colleagues concluded, “The findings of this study can have an implication on a wider range of tasks beyond the soccer/sports domain, such as in surgery, where motor performance under high mental pressure involves.”  The team’s paper is titled, “Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study.

Are penalty shots a soccer player’s dream or nightmare? Penalties can go either way, which makes them exciting to watch, but also raises some questions about performance under pressure. And what might normally be considered a relatively straightforward shot can become a mammoth task when the hopes and fears of an entire nation rest on a player’s shoulders. MSc student Slutter commented, “How can it be that football players with a near perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 meters) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 meters?” The University of Twente highlights misses by the England soccer team as an example. “Remember Beckham’s slip on the penalty spot against Portugal in the 2004 European Cup? He certainly does.”

The investigators point out that that while technical skills will influence the “quality of the penalty kick,” psychological factors also appear to have a clear influence on the outcome of a penalty kick. Many studies on the causes of missed penalties have convincingly shown that the kicker’s anxiety and the mental pressure under which they find themselves are the most common psychological factors that can adversely affect performance. This then manifests as what’s known as “choking” under pressure. “While resistance to mental pressure depends on player personality, the pressure often leads to distress, which is a negative factor adversely influencing the quality of the penalty kick,” the scientists noted. “Psychological factors, such as anxiety and pressure, are among the critical causes of the mistakes, commonly known as choking under pressure.”

Despite existing neurological evidence of choking under pressure, studying the phenomenon in the field is difficult, and there can be a huge difference between choking under controlled laboratory conditions, and under real-life settings that might involve a wide range of external factors. “Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role,” Slutter continued, “but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty?  We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick.”

For their study the investigators recruited 22 volunteers to kick penalties, and measured each participant’s brain activity while they were on the move, using fNIRS, a technique that involves the use of a headset worn by the participant. The volunteers attempted to score penalties under conditions with increasing levels of pressure conditions: firstly with an open goal, secondly against a friendly goalkeeper, and in a final third round, in a high-pressure situation where the goalkeeper attempted to distract them and there was a prize at stake. “Both experienced and inexperienced soccer players were recruited, and the brain activation was compared across groups,” the team noted. After each round the participants completed the Sport Anxiety Scale (SAS) questionnaire to determine the level of anxiety/pressure they had felt during that round.

“We found that players who were able to perform under pressure activated task-relevant areas of the brain,” commented Thammasan. “For example, increased activation of the motor cortex was related to performing under pressure. This seems logical, as movement is one of the most important elements when taking a penalty.” For players who tended to experience more anxiety and miss penalties, another area of the brain was more active—the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This brain region is involved in long-term thinking, suggesting that such players were thinking about the consequences of missing the shot, which impaired their performance.

The authors further explained, “We found that experienced players showed a higher left temporal cortex activation when being anxious … As the left temporal cortex is related to self-instruction and self-reflection, this increased left temporal cortex activation indicates that experienced players overthink the situation and neglect their automated skills …” And when the level of expertise was discarded, the results showed that the averaged PFC activation was also related to players with anxiety. “Similarly, an increased right PFC activation, as compared to left PFC activation, was shown to be related to anxious players, irrespective of the level of expertise,” they noted. “Also, the motor cortex tends to have lower activation when being anxious regardless of the experience group.”

The team says the results support evidence for the neural efficiency theory, where the “correct” regions of the brain need to be activated to effectively carry out motor tasks under mental pressure. “This study provides insights on why people fail to perform under pressure and possibly paves a way toward tailored intervention to prevent choking by utilizing a closed-loop brain-computer interface,” they concluded.