How to Save Penalty Kicks - Don't Guess: Analyze

One goalkeeper who I worked with extensively on this method lead his team to a high school state championship by making key saves in several penalty shootouts during playoff games. This was possible through his diligence in learning and practice, which allowed him to achieve a high level of success. He was a hero to his team, and there’s no reason any other keeper can’t be a hero to their team as well. There is certainly some measure of luck in all of this, but luck and logic together can make something unlikely into something epic.

Keep reading to learn how you can save a penalty shot and save your team!

There are few things in life that compare to the experience of trying to stop a penalty shot. Most penalty shots that are taken in the run of play have a real impact on the outcome of the game, and the emotion surrounding them can swing momentum very quickly to one side or the other.

The shot is taken from just 12 yards away, it’s usually taken by one of the other team’s best players, and the odds of the keeper being in exactly the right position at the split-second a save is possible are incredibly small. Many assume that this arrangement puts all the pressure on the goal keeper, but that isn’t how it has to be.

In reality, there is much more on the line for the shooter, who is feeling all the stress of missing an opportunity that he really should be able to take advantage of. The goalkeeper may have the odds stacked against them when it comes to penalty kicks, but even that can be used to their advantage. Here are some building blocks a goalkeeper can use to experience what it’s like to win a game for their team by turning away a shot from the spot.

Definition of terms

Penalty Kick – a shot taken from 12 yards out as a result of a defensive foul in the 18 yard box

Set-up – the time between the referee giving the shooter the ball and the referee blowing the whistle to proceed

Line-up – the way the shooter positions themself before permission is given to take the shot

Approach – the time between the referee giving the shooter permission to proceed and the kick

Finesse side – for a right-footed shooter, this is the keeper’s left. For a left-footed shooter, this is the keeper’s right.

Power side – for a right-footed shooter, this is the keeper’s right. For a left-footed shooter, this is the keeper’s left.


Step 1: Analyze

This is the most important step in this process. With logical analysis, I have found that I can predict the direction of the shot 75-80% of the time. This step is all about mentally compiling all the knowledge you have about your opponent and using that information to predict their behavior.

Remember, when it comes to penalty shootouts, it’s about brains and wits just as much as anything else.

A basic analysis consists of determining three things: striking foot, shooter playing style, and shooter intelligence.

Striking foot

Easy enough, this is the foot the shooter will use for their shot. The shooter will typically either place the ball by opening their hips (finesse), or go for a more powerful strike by closing their hips (power). Generally speaking, if a right-footed shooter goes finesse, they will shoot to the keeper’s left; if they go power, they will shoot to the keeper’s right. This is opposite for left-footed shooters.

Determining the shooter’s dominant foot should be easy, since the keeper will have been observing them during the game. The shooter’s set-up and approach to the penalty shot should also be a clear indication of the foot that will be used to strike the ball.


Shooter playing style

There are various playing styles in soccer, but I have found that when it comes to shots from the spot, the shooter usually falls into one of two broad styles: finesse or power.

Finesse shooters are players who are creative, quick, patient, level-headed, and opportunity creators in the run of play. They are usually technically proficient and prefer a perfect assist to a sloppy goal.

Power shooters are players who are strong, fast, aggressive, competitive, and are quick to take advantage of an opponent’s mistake in the run of play. They are usually less technical, relying on their athletic ability to make up for a weak first touch.

This is important to remember: finesse shooters tend to open their hips and place the ball, whereas power shooters tend to close their hips to put more power behind the shot.


Shooter intelligence

Gauging shooter intelligence is the most difficult part of the process. A player’s intelligence can best be observed during the run of play--once the penalty is called it is much more difficult to determine. Evidence of shooter intelligence can override the previous two points of analysis, since a smart shooter will focus not only on netting the shot, but also on reading the keeper and trying to outwit them.

An example of this is when a shooter lines up straight on, but then opens their hips at the last second to hit the ball to their finesse side. The line-up would indicate a power style, but if the keeper knows the shooter is intelligent, the keeper may choose to anticipate the trickery and dive to the finesse side in spite of the evidence observed during the line-up.

When performing this analysis, a keeper needs to be aware of how the shooter thinks. This is a time to ask questions like these:

Is this shooter likely to try and deceive me in their approach?

Will the shooter be distracted if I dance on my line or take a hard step?

How confident is this shooter in their ability to place the ball?

Is the shooter feeling nervous?

What are the odds the shooter is confident enough to lob a shot down the middle of the goal?

These are just a few of the many questions that can be helpful. The principle here is that the more intelligent a shooter is, the more difficult it will be to outwit them.

As a general rule, midfielders tend to have the highest degree of player intelligence, followed by attacking players, and then defenders. There are surely exceptions to this rule, but it typically holds true.


Step 2: Decide

Now is the time to decide on a course of action. The keeper has analyzed the shooter and has formed a prediction. This prediction is the sum of all the information the keeper has gathered on the shooter. This includes observations of how they have performed during the run of play, both with their skill with the ball and their attitude.

There may be other factors that the keeper thinks are important, like the weather or a high-stakes game or moment. The keeper’s job is to take valuable observations and simplify them based on the three foundational pieces of analysis: shooter striking foot, style, and intelligence.

Once the referee asks the keeper if they are ready, decision must turn to action.


step 3: Act

Step three is simple, it's just the physical execution of the analysis-based decision. In most cases the keeper should take a half step in the direction they have chosen just prior to the kick, and as the shooter strikes the ball the keeper should be moving into the dive.** The dive should be mid-height so that the keeper can reach a shot whether it is high or low.

Important: the dive height and power-step should allow the keeper to cover as much of the goal as possible. All it takes is a fingertip to make the save and defy the odds.

**Very rarely is staying in the center of the goal a good idea on a penalty kick. If a down-the-middle shot is expected, dive to a side, but leave your legs behind to make the save down the middle if it comes. But since most shooters in most youth leagues don’t have the guts to attempt a shot down the middle (even though its rate of success is very high), I wouldn’t recommend defending a penalty shot by standing in the center of the goal.


If you can read people, you will be successful


By definition, a deceptive shooter is an intelligent shooter. The more experience a keeper has with the method outlined in this post, their insights will become more accurate and sophisticated, allowing them to outwit and outthink more and more shooters.

When it comes to penalty kicks, being able to think several steps ahead is critical.

In a way it is a battle of wits between the keeper and the shooter.

Here's an example of an analysis a keeper may do:

“the shooter set the ball on the spot, they didn’t look up at me, they backed away at about a 45 degree angle to the ball. They are a defensive midfielder, and throughout the game they have been conservative and thoughtful during the run of play. They are also constantly switching the ball away from pressure. Because they are on an angle to the ball and because they are conservative and an opportunity creator, they will probably open up and shoot to the finesse side, and since they’re left-footed that will be to my right. Their intelligence seems to be about average, but since they didn’t look up at me or the goal I’m assuming they have a consistent penalty shot of choice and probably go to the same place every time. They seem to be more conservative than creative, preferring to play it safe rather than take a risk. But because they didn’t look up they may have something up their sleeve."

So, you tell me. Based on the information you were given, which direction would you say the shooter is going? Which direction would you dive?

Here's what I think.

Because of what I have observed and can analyze, and because they are lined up at such a tight angle, I think they will close their hips and shoot to the power side, which for a left-footer will be keeper’s left.

Did you come to the same conclusion? What evidence can you point at to support your decision?

As a keeper works through these logical steps, they may change their prediction multiple times before the kick is taken. When done correctly, prediction changes aren’t a sign of indecision, but of thoughtful consideration of all the possibilities. Once the keeper settles on a prediction, however, they shouldn’t waver when the time comes to act.

Infer as much as possible from the information available, and then act with confidence!

This method is simple, and it is effective. And contrary to what so many commentators of professional matches claim, goalkeepers don’t have to just “guess” the intention of the shooter—there are real ways to make pretty good predictions as opposed to blind guessing.

The goalkeepers that I’ve trained using this strategy not only increase their prediction and save rate, they also enjoy an increased sense of confidence and purpose in what is an intense, stressful, high-emotion situation.