BLOG: What makes a penalty shoot-out successful

With England winning their first ever World Cup penalty shoot out, Professor Tracey Devonport, a sport and exercise psychologist, examines what made them successful.

In the past, some football managers and players have been heard to say that you can’t ever fully prepare for the pressure of big tournament penalties. However, possibly due to Southgate’s penalty taking past, or England’s well know history with penalty shoot-outs, things seem different for this England team.

In the post-match interview Southgate talks of ‘writing their own histories’, and ‘owning the process of a shoot-out’, and says how ‘a lot of work has gone into this area over the last few months’.

Pressure is described as the presence of incentives for superior performance. The ingredients that make up pressure in penalty taking are well known.

There are rewards or punishment for success or failure from a passionate England fan base and media; the presence of competition and comparison, a noisy crowd responding to every penalty taken, one chance only, a fixed time to take it in, and an outcome that will be recorded publicly.

The fact is, football players can prepare for penalties. Why? Because as well as the known pressure inducing incentives listed above, penalty shoot-outs have distinct phases that always take place, and so are predictable.

These phases are the wait in and around the centre circle prior to a penalty being taken, the walk to the penalty spot, and the shot itself.

It seems that the present England players have been coached in preparing for pressure in each of the penalty taking phases.

We start with the wait. This phase can create problems for players by allowing for ‘paralysis by analysis’. This is where players overthink the penalty, making a relatively simple skill more complex. Autobiographies clearly evidence this overthinking. For example, Steven Gerrard in his autobiography post the 2006 World Cup, described what went through his mind just before he missed a penalty: "Jesus, I wish I was first up. Get it out the way. The wait's killing me. I'd put the ball on the spot, Ricardo was on the line. Why do I have to wait for the bloody whistle? Those extra couple of seconds seemed like an eternity, and they definitely put me off."

Columbia’s players used delaying tactics to try to lengthen the penalty wait, and allow the time for the mind to self-sabotage chances of success. However, in his post-match interview Southgate described how they were prepared for such tactics, whilst England Keeper, Jordan Pickford, talked of researching players’ penalty taking habits. 

To manage the pressure of the wait, a longer-term strategy is for players to do their homework on players/keepers habits and preferences. In the minutes immediately before a penalty shootout, this knowledge should then be brought to mind, with players deciding a target area to shoot for, and keepers committing to save a predicted shot.

At the point a player walks to the penalty spot or goal line, they should then picture the execution of their predicted save or determined strike. After the ball has been placed on the penalty spot, deep breathing may be used to gain control of nerves and tension. Thoughts should simultaneously be focused on what will be done, for example, ‘I will strike firmly and with conviction for the top left corner.’

After the whistle is blown, when executing the shot or save, a player must be decisive.

A poorly struck shot is easier to save; a change in direction rarely produces a shot stopper. This penalty taking routine is mapped to the phases of penalty taking and is designed to control and delimit thinking in positive and constructive ways, manage emotions and breathing, be clear in decision making, and proficient in execution.

England’s players have illustrated how you can prepare for penalty pressure. The positive results will boost confidence and reinforce a repeat of this meticulous preparation in order to replicate this success.

Tracey Devonport  is Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at the University’s Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing.

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