A Bias in Field Goals and Penalty Kicks?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Seattle Seahawks fans are just now mentally recovering from the heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. (Honestly, even Captain Picard knew to give the ball to Beast Mode.) However, the fact that Seattle recently won a Super Bowl in 2014 relieves a bit of the sting.

Not so for the Buffalo Bills. They have zero Super Bowl wins in four appearances. (To add insult to injury, they made the Super Bowl four years in a row, from 1991 to 1994, and lost every single one of them. Ouch.) In what became possibly the most infamous Super Bowl loss of all time, the Buffalo Bills had the opportunity to clinch victory in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXV (see video). But their field goal kicker, Scott Norwood, missed. Wide Right.

If it makes him feel any better, Mr. Norwood is not alone. A study in PLoS ONE showed that, from 2005-2009, kickers in Australian football (which is more like rugby than American football) tended to miss to the right. But why?

Previous studies have indicated that humans have attentional asymmetry, which ultimately means that we have a hard time judging the location of true center. When attempting to bisect objects that are within reach, we tend to have a leftward bias; for objects further away, we tend to have a rightward bias.

So, the researchers, who hail from Australia, examined this phenomenon in greater detail. They determined how accurately 212 students could kick a soccer ball between goal posts that were placed four meters away. Just like the professional footballers, their kicks tended to skew to the right. Furthermore, when the students were asked to touch the center of the goal with a long stick, they missed the true center by about six millimeters to the right. The authors attributed this error to attentional asymmetry.

It would be very interesting to determine if the same rightward bias exists among field goal attempts in the NFL and penalty kicks in soccer. In the meantime, athletes should bear in mind that their eyes and brains are slightly deceiving.

Source: Nicholls MER, Loetscher T, Rademacher M (2010) Miss to the Right: The Effect of Attentional Asymmetries on Goal-Kicking. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012363



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