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Inside the Mind of the Penalty Taker: Can Psychology Explain Why England Fails in Soccer Penalty Shootouts?

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Roy Hodgson the England Football manager was reported by the Daily Telegraph newspaper to be cursing the 'psychological block' suffered by his team when facing penalty shootouts, lamenting that practising hadn't helped. But perhaps Hodgson and his team are in fact unaware of the latest scientific research on the psychology of how to take a penalty?

Football is after all a macho sport and possibly therefore psychology is viewed suspiciously as a bit 'feminine'.

In a research study entitled 'Why do English players fail in soccer penalty shootouts? A study of team status, self-regulation, and choking under pressure', Dr Geir Jordet, a sports scientist from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, Norway, argued English failure in this particular sports predicament is really about 'choking under pressure'.

Jordet was inspired to conduct the research because certain countries seemed to consistently win, while others appeared to recurrently lose penalty shootouts.

For example, Jordet pointed out in his 2009 paper, published in the 'Journal of Sports Sciences' that since 1982, Germany had won all five major shootouts it had participated in (1982, 1986, 1990, 1996, and 2006) up until that moment. In comparison, with one exemption (in 1996 against Spain), England had lost all its penalty shootouts (in 1990, 1996 against Germany, 1998, 2004, and 2006).

Jordet's research involved selecting the eight most successful European footballing nations, obtaining videos from penalty shootouts in two major international tournaments (World Cup and European Championships), and analysing all 200 shots taken by players.

Jordet contends from his many different studies of penalties there are several behavioural clues as to the mind set of players in this high pressure situation. The first is the length of time, from the moment referees' signal, for players to start the run-up. Players who appear more stressed, and are more likely to choke under pressure, seem to hurry through this. The longer a player takes, the calmer they appear to be, and the more likely they are to score.

Another key clue is the direction of the players' faces as they walk back to prepare their run-up, after having placed the ball on the penalty spot. Players either walk backwards while facing the goalkeeper (termed approach looking) or turn around, actively directing their faces away from the goalkeeper and then walk back (termed avoidance looking). It appears that facing the goalkeeper is predictive of less stress, and a higher likelihood of scoring.

In the research English players exhibited both the fastest times over penalty taking, and the most avoidance looking - both are behaviours associated with higher stress and poorer performance. 'Hastening and Hiding' is the catchphrase used by sports scientists to describe this approach to penalty taking, and it seems particularly characteristic of England players. It appeared to be still the same way they were taking their penalties on Sunday night.

Jordet argues that the shorter times than English players take over penalties, indicate a strong desire to get the situation ''over and done with'' which also equates with the wrong coping response to pressure. How players celebrate after scoring a penalty also appears to influence the future success and failure of the opponents and team-mates in a shoot-out - some of the other psychological factors we shall be writing about in the future.

Another intriguing finding from Jordet's research is that goalkeepers, overall, moved to the correct side for about half of the shots in these competitions, but were much more likely to move to the correct side when faced with shots from England. It would appear that English players seem to 'leak' their intentions more than other nationalities, and again this may be down to nerves and choking.

Philip Furley, Daniel Memmert and other sports scientist colleagues based at the German Sport University, Cologne and the Institute of Cognitive and Team/Racket Sport Research, in Köln, also in Germany, have come up with an intriguing explanation for the link between 'hastening and hiding' and why goal keepers guess England players shot choice better.

Their study; "Get it out the way. The wait's killing me" hastening and hiding during soccer penalty kicks', published in the Journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, involved studying penalties in depth.

They were intrigued by the fact that in most sports (eg a golf putting), experienced performers tend to 'choke' when they take longer, and this is usually explained as 'paralysis by analysis'.

So theoretically the right thing to do might appear to be to take the penalty faster. But the very latest thinking is that there is a key dissimilarity between a golf putt and a soccer penalty, and that difference is the interaction with the goalkeeper.

There is a 'behavioral loop' between penalty taker and goalkeeper; a mutual exchange of perceptual information between the two players. Furley, Memmert and colleagues found in their research that 'hastening and hiding' in penalty takers leads goal keepers to feel increased confidence in saving the penalty, encouraging them into taking longer to initiate their movement, so indeed increasing their chances of saving the penalty.

Steven Gerrard is quoted from his autobiography post the 2006 World Cup, as listing what went through his mind just before he missed the penalty: "Jesus, I wish I was first up. Get it out the way. The wait's killing me. I was ready. Elizondo wasn't. Blow the whistle! F***ing get a move on, ref! Why the wait? I'd put the ball on the spot, Richardo 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."

Stuart Pearce is quoted in his autobiography as saying: "All you need to do is walk 50 yards, take a penalty and score. That's the worst part of it, that bloody walk from the halfway line. Why do they make you stand there, so far away? God only knows which masochist decided that. It is clearly someone who has never been in this nerve-jangling position because it heightens the tension to an unbelievable degree."

Geir Jordet and colleagues, quotes Ashley Cole from his 2006 autobiography, "Of course, you can't help but think about Southgate, Batty, Pearce, Beckham, and Waddle, and all those penalty nightmare misses of old. It lurks in your mind somewhere, adding more pressure and a little bit of fear."

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