CHICAGO — With the Illinois state championship game scoreless after 100 minutes, Barrington High School midfielder Tina Teik stepped up to the penalty spot, 12 yards from the goal, to take her turn in the shootout that would decide the title.
She blocked out the hollering crowd and remembered a teammate's advice to treat the shot as if it were just a pass. She had taken penalty kicks since she was 8 and always aimed in the same direction. If she struck the ball well, it wouldn't matter if the goalkeeper guessed right.
This time, though, Naperville North keeper Amanda Johnson moved before Teik, 17, even swung her leg. Johnson snuffed the shot, one of two saves she made in the shootout to deny Barrington a third straight championship (the Fillies' previous titles had come via shootouts).
"It's amazing when you make it, but it's extremely nerve-wracking," Teik said this week. "Personally, I enjoy the pressure and I trust myself to make the shot. I can handle the emotions that come with it. But a lot of people can't recover when they miss."
Penalties — as the kicks are called whether they come during a shootout or after an infraction — are soccer's answer to the 3-foot putt or the chip-shot field goal, an ostensibly easy task that can turn the steeliest psyche to pudding when the stakes are high.
The duel between penalty taker and goalkeeper is so psychologically fraught that researchers have published dozens of papers on the ritual. Definitive answers remain elusive, though, and philosophies differ about how well anyone can prepare for the moment.
"You can't really explain what happens — it just happens," said Vanessa DiBernardo, a Chicago Red Stars midfielder who has taken her share of penalties. "Some players are under so much pressure that something just goes wrong. Any player who steps up to take a PK is putting themselves out there. It takes so much courage to be in that shootout, especially at the World Cup level."
The penalty kick entered the Laws of the Game in 1891 to discourage fouls close to the goal (it was originally called "the kick of death"). Today, offenses committed within the penalty area — the 44-yard-wide, 18-yard-deep box in front of the goal — allow the attacking team to get a free shot on target, with only the keeper standing in the way.
It can be an immensely consequential punishment: World Cup games average fewer than three goals, and penalty takers score 75 to 80% of the time. When the U.S. beat Spain, 2-1, last week, both American goals came from penalty kicks.
Penalties given by a referee usually spark fierce arguments about whether they're justified — former U.S. player Julie Foudy called the one that decided the U.S.-Spain game "the softest of soft PKs" — but emotions turn inward when the kicks are used in tie-breaking shootouts at the end of games.
Each team chooses five players to take a shot on goal. If the score is tied after five rounds, more players get a turn until one team finally prevails.
Shootouts didn't become a regular part of the sport until the 1970s, and typically are used only during tournaments. Many purists dislike them, saying they're akin to deciding a basketball game with a free-throw shooting contest, but psychologists and game theorists find them an irresistible window into the mind (one example of a journal article: "Asymmetric predictability and cognitive competition in football penalty shootouts").
London-based soccer writer Ben Lyttleton chronicles much of the research in his book, "Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick." He said shootouts are so pressurized they can undo even the most skilled player.
"If you're playing for your country in a major tournament, you are very, very good at soccer, so in theory you should score every time," he said. "The reason so many players fail to score isn't because of their talent. It's because of their minds."
He said practice and preparation can tip the balance, and proper body language helps, too. Norway, he said, offered a stellar example in its shootout win over Australia last week.
"All the players broke out of their wall of support and welcomed (the shooter) back in, as if to say, 'Whatever happens, you are part of our group,' " he said. "One of the fears is being cast out. If a player celebrates, lifts their arms above their shoulders, that somehow creates an emotional contagion that will make the team more likely to win."
Northwestern women's coach Michael Moynihan, whose team has an enviable record in shootouts, said he emphasizes gratitude before the action starts.
"We talk about bravery, how much the team appreciates it," he said. "We try to say, 'Thank you for being courageous. Whatever happens, we appreciate you putting yourself on the line for the team.' "
Former North Park University men's coach John Born employed a different gambit when his team faced a shootout against the University of Chicago in the NCAA semifinals two years ago.
He had an assistant coach yell out — in Swedish — the direction he expected the Chicago player to kick the ball, based on video scouting. The goalkeeper, a Norwegian who understood the language, then dove to that side. The illusion of certainty settled the team, and North Park ended up winning after its keeper made a save in the seventh round.
"Whether or not we were right, it calmed everyone's nerves a bit," said Born, recently named the school's athletic director. "If you don't have your team calm and confident, you're doing to lose."
While penalty takers can be consumed with anxiety, goalkeepers tend to be more relaxed. Samantha Schmitz, who was Barrington's keeper during the shootouts that brought them state titles, said she thought they were fun.
"I really liked them because I had a lot more power (over the game)," said Schmitz, 19, who now plays at Harvard. "It was all on me, but then it was all not on me. It was the best of all worlds. I could make or break the game (with a save), but if I didn't, it wasn't my fault."
But the balance might be shifting slightly in the World Cup thanks to an instant replay system known as video assistant referee, or VAR. For the first time, referees are using VAR to determine whether a goalkeeper came off the goal line too soon during a penalty save; if she does, the opposing player gets a do-over.
That rule has long been on the books, but rarely called until now. Josh Tucker, a Columbus, Ohio-based writer who has chronicled VAR's effect on penalty taking, said the re-kicks — there have been three so far, all successful — have been "a system shock" to goalies.
"I have trouble believing that it's not in the back of keepers' minds," he said. "Even if it's not something they're conscious about, I can't believe it's not having an effect."
Still, by his calculation, penalty takers had made 73% of their shots heading into the quarterfinals, in line with typical results. Keepers, he said, might have adjusted already.
That means the mental burden will continue to fall disproportionately on the players making the lonely walk to the penalty spot, giving them plenty to think about before and long after their attempts.
Teik presumed her tendency to shoot in the same direction, documented on video from previous games, helped Johnson make the save, but Naperville North coach Steve Goletz said that wasn't the case. He hadn't done any scouting before the game, he said, allowing Johnson to operate on instinct.
"I've never seen anything like that in a goalkeeping performance," he said. "It was really freaky and obviously one of the big reasons we won a state championship."
Nonetheless, Teik said she is recalibrating her strategy. And like others who have missed penalties in critical moments, a list that includes all-time greats like Roberto Baggio and Lionel Messi, she said she won't hide when it's time to step up again.
"I almost want to take it more," she said. "I just want to right the wrongs, essentially. When you miss, you just question everything, but hopefully the bounce back will be real."