Penalties and Geometry: Overcoming your deepest fears

My heart was pumping. My knees were shaking. My throat went dry. I couldn’t concentrate. But last Saturday I overcame my fears. I opened my eyes. And watched Brazil and Chile face off in a penalty shootout. All the way to the end.

Yes. Even watching penalties gives me the shakes! So what must it be like for the players? I can’t imagine! Since 1982, 221 players have lined up to take a penalty in 24 World Cup penalty shootouts. 63 have failed to score.

That’s almost 3 in 10 anxious penalty takers! Meanwhile, the OECD tells us that about 3 in 10 boys get nervous doing maths problems. In most countries, high levels of maths anxiety are closely linked with lower test results. Students who suffer from maths anxiety won’t – or can’t – even try to solve maths problems.

Penalties and Geometry

The bubble graph compares the nerves of maths students and penalty takers in the remaining World Cup countries. I’ve chosen to take boys only, since they’re the ones taking penalties at the World Cup. It’s worth noting that in most countries, girls get much more nervous than boys about maths. This is a big problem, since more confident girls in maths means (a) more equitable education systems and (b) more qualified people to take on techy and scientificĀ  jobs.

We can see that:

  • Germany boasts some cool cucumbers, facing both the goal and the geometry assignment. They haven’t lost any of their four World Cup penalty shootouts.
  • Belgium and Costa Rica have missed none of their five World Cup penalties, but when tasked with a maths problem, their nerves are about average.
  • France is close to the average in both.
  • Argentina and Brazil get wobbly knees during trigonometry. They’ve missed quite a few penalties, but have each won 3 of their 4 shootouts.
  • The Dutch results are perhaps most surprising. Their maths students have no fear, but their footballers have only scored 2 of their 4 penalties.
  • Colombia has never been involved in a penalty shootout. It’s levels of maths anxiety are about as high as Brazil’s.

As we head into the quarterfinals, I can only wish everyone nerves of steel, no matter what your next task!


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