Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: Lessons from soccer

Creative people know that acting in unexpected ways, including not acting at all, may sometimes be the smartest step to take.

First, with soccer in the news lately (for reasons both good and bad), it made me remember a research study that suggests not acting can be a good thing. In 2007, Israeli researchers Bar-Eli, Azar, Ritov, Keidar-Levin, and Schein investigated goalkeepers’ actions during penalty kicks. They examined 300 kicks and found that 94% of the goalies dove to the side of the goal box, even when their chances of stopping the ball were minimal. In fact, standing still would have given them a greater opportunity to stop the ball.

So why did they act?

The goalkeepers jumped sideways because they wanted to appear as though they were doing something. They were trying to make a difference. Of course, making the game more exciting probably didn’t hurt ratings or love for the players. But, according to the researchers, the goalkeepers really had a greater chance of stopping the ball if they had stood still.

A second piece of research also raises the benefits of doing nothing, but in a different way. In this case (Tilburg and Igou, 2011), the researchers found boredom can lead to a feeling of meaninglessness. And, over time, when people do nothing, they eventually become more interested in finding ways to put meaning into their lives, which then makes them act, sometimes to help others. In essence, doing nothing leads to boredom, which can eventually generate positive behaviors as people search for meaning.

Maybe it’s a stretch but perhaps that’s what the goalies are doing – by acting, leaping toward the edge of the goal box, they give meaning to their role. Even though standing still is a better option for the desired outcome of stopping the ball, moving and acting may be better for the individual player’s sense of meaningfulness.

I knew about the value of using down time or boredom as a way to trigger the mind to become more creative but I’d never thought about the value of boredom in helping to generate thoughts of meaningfulness.

So try doing nothing for a while and see what comes. It’s summer, after all.


Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O.H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y. and Schein, G. 2007. Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks, Journal of Economic Psychology, 28 (5): 606-621.

Van Tilburg, W.A.P. and Igou, E.R. 2011. On Boredom and Social Identity: A Pragmatic Meaning-Regulation Approach, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (12): 1679-1691.