Penalty shootouts – it's not a lottery!

As the England men's football team prepare for the World Cup finals in Russia, Tim Callen offers five pieces of evidence-based advice.

The national men's football team of England have failed to win a major senior tournament since 1966 (we're now on more than '50 years of hurt'!). A particular shortcoming is the failure to win penalty shootouts – a series of dead-ball kicks from 12 yards in the event of a tie. During shootouts there is an assumed advantage for the shooter over the goalkeeper (Bakker, Oudejans, Binsch, & van der Kamp, 2006) with 74.6 per cent of penalties being scored in international shootouts since 1997. England’s conversion rate during the same period is 65 per cent, and they have lost 7 out of 8 of their shootouts. England must improve their penalty performance to achieve at tournament level.

Luckily, there is now a wealth of research on the many variables that can influence spot kick success, from Sports Psychologists such as Geir Jordet and others. The player’s position, fatigue levels or match performance seem to have no influence. Nor does the style of kick, or even if you shoot high or low. The research all points to psychological aspects and how the player copes with the stress. Here’s five ways England can take control and improve their penalty conversion rate.

Take your time

Players, unsurprisingly, report anxiety as the predominant emotion experienced before taking a penalty. In practical terms scoring from 12 yards with no defenders should be simple for a professional footballer, who practises kicking a ball in far more complex situations on a daily basis. However the exposing nature and general importance can lead to players choking – performing below expectation in a high pressure situation. Explicit Monitoring Hypothesis (Baumeister, 1984) states pressure causes a conscious monitoring of simple, normally automatic movements, resulting in choking. This has a detrimental effect on skill execution (Beilock et al., 2002). The theory suggests this causes self-regulatory breakdown; where thoughts, emotions and behaviours are self-altered, causing the inability to control impulses and direct behaviour to achieve goals (Baumeister, 1997). This leads to an escape response, whereby one chooses an immediate unpleasant experience over waiting for a negative stimulus. 

Data from shootouts indicate shorter times from the whistle to kick are related to more misses (Jordet et al., 2009). Analysis shows that of Europe’s eight most decorated international teams, England miss the most penalties and also have the shortest whistle to kick time (Jordet et al., 2006); suggesting England players have poor self-regulation. Taking a couple of extra seconds before striking the ball could significantly improve the conversion rate.  

Breathe

Anxiety can cause physiological symptoms of the flight or fight system and like pressure can lead to poor self-regulation. Players need to control these symptoms to improve penalty performance. This can be achieved by understanding their body and deep breathing exercises, perhaps through the use of biofeedback training to provide physiological feedback when they practise penalties. The training is designed to produce visual feedback on physiological responses, such as heart rate and breathing, enabling the learning of regulation (Thompson & Thompson, 2003). During this practice the players would be taught breathing exercises to slow down their rate of breaths. Olympic athlete’s self-regulation skills have improved using this technique and these skills have been translated at competition level (Dupee et al., 2016). Training has also shown improved performance in accuracy based sports such as golf (Kao et al., 2010). Perhaps biofeedback could improve self-regulation and accuracy in footballers, leading to a greater chance of scoring. 

Pick a spot (Take control)

Players report having a perceived lack of control during a shootout. This is reinforced by the media often referring to shootouts as a 'lottery', suggesting luck over skill. Self-control is one’s perception of their ability to cope under a stressful situation. In shootouts a perceived lack of control has been linked to higher anxiety and more goalkeeper-related focus (Wilson et al., 2009), where the penalty taker’s eye gaze is directed towards to the keeper. When this is occurs, the rate of conversion significantly decreases (Van Der Kamp, 2011). Analysis showed that of Europe’s eight most decorated teams, England had the highest goalkeeper-based focus (Jordet, Elferink-Gernser, Lemmink & Visscher, 2006). 

Focusing gaze on the intended target improves accuracy of shot (Wilson et al., 2009). Quiet-Eye training could help players gain control of their strikes. QE is the final gaze fixation before a motor response is initiated and is proposed to be the period when task relevant cues are processed and planning for successful execution occurs (Vickers, 1996). QE training has been shown to improve performance and accuracy in other sports such as archery (Vickers & Williams, 2007). A small study has shown that if football players focused their QE on the corners of the goal, their penalty conversion rate was significantly higher than an uninstructed team (Wood & Wilson, 2012). This training has also increased the level of perceived control athletes have over performance (Behan & Wilson, 2008). 

Forget the past (Priming)

“No matter how well we have played in a match, when it comes down to penalties, you think: 'Oh s*** here we go again” former England footballer Frank Lampard 

The story of England is that they miss penalties, and this is consistently reinforced through the media. England need to change their story. Through subtle cues such as priming, this could be possible. Priming is a method that has been shown to activate certain characteristics that can affect our behavior and performance. Famously (although somewhat controversially, in terms of replication), John Bargh and colleagues asked students to form sentences with words such as “wrinkle” “grey” and “bingo”. They found that these students walked slower than their peers who weren’t exposed to words stereotypically linked with the elderly. This has been adapted to a sporting context with hockey players performing better in dribbling tasks after being primed to words such as “balanced” and “immersed” (Ashford & Jackson, 2010). If football players performed priming tasks, where they had to rearrange words to form sentences that included words such as “goal” “score” and “win”, perhaps this would increase their chances of scoring. 

Celebrate 

With the previous tips implemented, theory says the ball should go in the back of the net. However the work doesn’t stop there, as psychology suggests the importance of celebrating that success. Moll et al. (2010) analysed every penalty taken in international shootouts and found that post-strike behaviour could have an influence on the final result. They found that when players celebrated, particularly with two hands raised above the head, their team were 82 per cent more likely to go on to win the shootout than those who did not celebrate scoring. This can be explained by emotional contagion; where emotions expressed are transferred to others. The expression of pride and celebration can impact how athletes perceive their opponent’s levels of confidence and ability (Greenlees et al., 2005). Players were less likely to convert their penalty if the opposing player before them scored and celebrated. So expressing positive emotion can help two-fold, by enhancing the performance of your own team mates and reducing the ability of the opponents. 

By taking a little longer, controlling physiological responses by deep breathing, focusing on the goal, exposing themselves to positive words and celebrating, it’s possible that England can turn around their penalty shootout woes this summer.  

- Tim Callen is a trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner. [email protected] 

- For some counterintuitive advice for goalkeepers, see our Research Digest.

References

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