What A Penalty Shootout Can Teach You About Business

The World Cup wouldn’t be the World Cup without the drama of a penalty shootout. It’s one of the only times when the planet-sized egos of multi-millionaire footballers are reduced to the size of a pea. Often world-famous footballing icons with colossal fan bases are made to feel like children – a shaking bag of nerves with the glaring eyes of up to a billion people around the world fixed on them, and the hopes of their fellow countrymen hanging on their next kick. One penalty can either take them from zero to a national hero, or from prince to peasant.

The wonderful thing about penalties is that they reduce the multiple complexities of the beautiful game down to a simple and personal contest between kicker and keeper, man versus man. For some, the penalty shootout is nothing more than luck, dependent more on whether the heavens have blessed you that day than on skill. However, research by scientists from multiple universities has shown that penalty success rates are affected greatly by a taker’s confidence and his or her ability to avoid being distracted by external influences, in particular the goalkeeper. Nervous players are more likely to become preoccupied with what the keeper is doing, and as a result they are likely to be less accurate with their kick. The business lesson there is clear, self-confidence plus the ability to see obstacles as insignificant distractions can equal success.

The goalkeeper’s penalty perspective is driven by a different motive: a fear of humiliation. Fear of embarrassment is as potent among humans as any other fear. Research by economists has shown that goalkeepers save almost three times more penalties when they remain in the center of the goal than when they dive left or right. And yet most keepers dive when a penalty is taken. The reason is that the goalkeeper’s instinct is to do something rather than nothing. He needs to be seen to be trying to save the ball – it shows he cares and even if he fails, he will be forgiven by teammates and fans and will avoid disgrace.

The business parallel here is that there are occasions at work when doing nothing is actually better than doing something, but it’s a high-risk strategy because it just looks wrong. “The greatest entrepreneurs are people who are risk takers by other people’s definition but because of their mind set, do not see their own actions – or in some cases inactions – as risky at all,” says Tony Cohen, Deloitte Global managing director.

“They just do it, or do not do it. They really don’t care how it looks to other people because their convictions tell them that they are right.”

An example of this is an investor who feels the need to be seen either buying or selling, when having the nerve to hold a position (i.e. doing nothing) would actually be the most beneficial thing to do.

Football and business are both fields that are speedy, require great skill, and take a lot of energy. But sometimes the most effective outcomes in both arenas come not from intense action, but from holding our ground and standing tall. Always, confidence is key.

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