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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. If you follow soccer or you watch the U.S. women's team lose in the World Cup final last month, you know how critical penalty kicks can be. Players train to kick them and goalkeepers train endlessly to stop them. But science knows something that coaches and players don't. As NPR's Shankar Vedantam explains, it's a secret weapon that could change the outcome of everything from pickup games to world championships.

LAURIE GEORGE: Stick it. Stick it.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Soccer camp is in full swing at the University of Maryland outside Washington, D.C.

GEORGE: Tighten those hands up there, girl. Tighten those hands up.

VEDANTAM: Coach Laurie George is teaching 20 teenagers how to be goalkeepers.

GEORGE: Get your body behind the ball. Don't smack at the ball. I'm not yelling at you. I'm motivating you.

VEDANTAM: OK. So she is yelling at them. That's because she knows what it's like to defend a soccer goal against a penalty kick. The goal is wide, 24 feet wide. The ball, just 12 yards away. When Laurie George used to play in the pros, she used every psychological weapon to narrow the odds.

GEORGE: I am staring her down. I look at the player's eyes. I look at her positioning. I make myself as big as possible.

VEDANTAM: Goalkeepers can't start to dive until the moment the ball is kicked. Then, they have an instant to decide which way to go.

GEORGE: I mean, it is a split second. You're trying to react as fast as possible, but also maybe you're trying to guess and hope that you guess the right way. There you go. Well done.

VEDANTAM: But new psychological research shows that without goalkeepers being aware of it, without coaches being aware of it, something else is at play. In certain situations, goalkeepers start to predictably dive to the right. Now, that sounds like the kind of theory a bunch of soccer fans might dream up in a bar, and actually, that's exactly what happened.

SHAUL SHALVI: We were sitting in a bar actually on the weekend, discussing all kinds of trivial issues, including football, which we all like a lot.

VEDANTAM: That's Shaul Shalvi, a psychologist in Amsterdam. Shalvi and a couple of colleagues were talking about a recent paper. It showed that when dogs eagerly approach their masters...

SHALVI: They have this tendency to wag their tails to the right.

VEDANTAM: Shalvi and his colleagues wondered if soccer goalkeepers might have the same tendency.

SHALVI: Could it be that they would also, like dogs, dive more to the right?

VEDANTAM: Now, this is where science has a leg up on theories fueled by beer. On Monday morning, when they got back to work, Shalvi and his colleagues started examining the evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: This to make it one-one from the spot.

VEDANTAM: They looked at penalty kicks in the men's World Cup soccer championship from 1982 onward. They found 204 penalty shootouts where penalty kicks decided the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: It was unlucky on (unintelligible) part. He got a hand to the ball...

VEDANTAM: When teams were tied, goalkeepers dived left and right equally. But when their team was down...

SHALVI: Then, goalkeepers dove twice as much to the right than to the left.

VEDANTAM: Now, there's a scientific explanation for this, and it doesn't have anything to do with being left-handed or right-handed. Among humans, dogs and some other types of social animals, individuals unconsciously move to the right when they approach something they really want. Lovers tend to lean their heads to the right when they kiss; dogs wag their tails to the right when their masters approach. Shalvi thinks soccer goalkeepers tend to dive right when all hopes are pinned on them. That's why they dive right...

SHALVI: Especially when their team is behind and their likelihood to be heroes is the greatest.

VEDANTAM: I wondered what a soccer coach would make of the finding. Laurie, are you there?

GEORGE: Yes.

VEDANTAM: I asked Laurie George to watch a replay of the World Cup final between the United States and Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: This looks like it's going all the way to penalties.

VEDANTAM: When I first told her about Shalvi's theory, before the World Cup, she was skeptical. But then, the championship match came down to penalty kicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: Penalty shootout works on the basis of five penalties each.

GEORGE: When they went into penalty kicks, my stomach, literally, was churning.

VEDANTAM: Things started going badly for Team America from the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: Oh. (Unintelligible). It's all going horribly wrong here.

VEDANTAM: And that's the setup Shalvi was talking about. Your team is down, and everyone looks to you, the goalkeeper, to save the day. The first Japanese penalty kick, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo moved right. The ball went left. The next shot, Solo dived right and came up with a save. The third shot, Solo missed after diving again to the right.

GEORGE: You're right, another one to the right. Maybe your theory could be working.

VEDANTAM: The fourth kick, with the championship on the line, Solo dived right again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: It is Japan's World Cup.

GEORGE: Yeah. Game over.

VEDANTAM: Do you think there's anything to the theory now?

GEORGE: Maybe so.

VEDANTAM: George says she'll tell her students about the study, but she doesn't want them thinking about a psychology paper when they're facing a penalty kick.

GEORGE: I still want my goalkeeper to make herself big, read their eyes, read their body position and get a good jump on the shot.

BLOCK: Shankar Vedantam, my mind is spinning, thinking about all of these possibilities here. You've been talking about the psychology of the goalie, but let's think about it from the kicker's perspective. What does science have to say about what the kicker should do?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think, based on this paper, the lesson is if your team is up, then you should kick the ball towards the goalkeeper's left because the goalkeeper has a tendency to dive right. When your team is down or level, you may want to consider kicking the ball just straight down the middle because goalkeepers are also known to have a tendency to dive left or right and not stay in the middle.

BLOCK: It's a lot to think about in a tiny fraction of a second.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. You could just look at psychology - bring a psychology paper onto the field that they could look at. That's what I would do if I were playing.

BLOCK: Yeah. I'm sure the coaches would love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Melissa.

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