Penalties In Nature

Thanks to Harry Rutherford of Heraclitean Fire for pointing out this article in Nature.

Harry didn’t let on what he made of it. I suspect he was being polite, because this is academic psychology at its worst.

Let’s start with this:

On a summer evening last year, more than a billion pairs of eyes were fixed on footballer David Trézéguet as he stepped up to take his penalty for France in the shootout against Italy to decide the world championship. A supremely talented goal-scorer, he inexplicably crashed his kick against the crossbar. France lost.

Fast-forward six months, and psychologists say they have explained why: the pressure got to him.

Well, yes…

Their results indicate that the psychological burden of a penalty shootout is the most important factor in whether or not a player scores — more so than skill, fatigue or experience, which are so crucial in other areas of the game.

That’s the reason why some of the world’s most gifted players have come a cropper in this pressure-cooker situation, says Geir Jordet, a sports psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and a member of the research team. “Players prepare for the physical aspects but not the psychological aspects,” he says.

Of course, that is true, and that’s the point, but it’s no more than Clive Woodward has been saying for years – and it’s no more than messrs. Hoddle and Ericksson have been debating for even longer. Woodward says that you can prepare for the pressure of penalties – Hoddle and Ericksson say no, you can’t.

Some players and coaches still believe that a penalty shootout is a ‘lottery’, with luck playing the largest role in deciding the outcome. But this view is counterproductive, Jordet argues. The worst thing for a player’s psychological position is to believe that a miss on their part would have disastrous consequences, and that they have no control over the situation.

In another study2, Jordet and his team interviewed professional footballers from the Netherlands and Sweden, and found that subscribers to the lottery view were more likely to miss than were those who were confident and believed that their destiny was in their own hands.

We already know this. These are basic cognitive psychological principles – and, not to forget, exactly what most fans and commentators say about the scenario. Confident player score more penalties. But what do you suggest we do about it?

And in terms of what to do about it, this just isn’t good enough:

Jordet suggests that players should rehearse the entire routine, including the lonely walk from the centre circle to take their kick. He also thinks that the media could publish details of players’ practice shootouts, to raise the pressure even during training.

He also stresses that players should have a fixed routine to block out thoughts of failure, similar to that used by rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England to World Cup victory in 2003.

Most recently, Jordet’s team has discovered that players who pause for less than half a second before beginning their run-up succeed only 63% of the time, whereas those who compose themselves for longer enjoy an 81% success rate. This hints at the importance of a solid routine to calm the nerves, they say.

Quite apart from anything else, that’s an utter parody of what Jonny Wilkinson does. You can’t “block out thoughts of failure”. You can’t. How do you do it? A routine isn’t going to do it. Have you ever had a routine block out negative thoughts? Of course not. This reminds me of the bizarre idea I see psychologists putting out about Tiger Woods – that he “forgets” about a bad shot; that he can induce some deliberate form of amnesia in order to stop a bad shot affecting the next one. No, he doesn’t. Show me that happening in a brain scanner. However, I think I know what he does in those situations, and I’ll talk about it in my next post – I think it’s something Alan Shearer does too, and it’s something that can be learnt without having to resort to nonsense psychology or superstition.

Time, I think, for me to present the last part of my series on how to take penalties. It isn’t exactly soundbite material, but the actual do-this part is straightforward enough. I’m going to have to do it as a podcast, however, as enough material is being lifted from this site and passed off as other people’s thinking. They’re not having this.


5 responses to “Penalties In Nature

  1. If I were a manager, I’d first try to find out if there were any accepted facts about scoring from penalties – technique things, not psycho-gush. I’d then test them against the experience of notably good penalty-takers (and bad ones too) and goalies. I’d then have my players practice these techniques, including against unfamiliar goalies, until they had a well-merited confidence of scoring. I’d have them practise when fresh and when tired. Any merit in this proposal?

  2. Yes, I think that would help a great deal. There absolutely are accepted facts about scoring from a penalty – including well-worked out maps of the goal showing places where, if you can strike the ball, the keeper stands no chance. There’s a good book on this.. I’ll post the title when I remember it.
    Where the psycho-gush comes in (and I hope it will use the language of football to express itself rather than .. well, that of psycho-gush) is in explaining why, under the pressure of the moment, a player’s ability to make his body kick the ball in that way degrades so dramatically. My attitude is that explaining why that is is complex, helping a player over it much less so, and I hope to demonstrate that shortly.

  3. “Harry didn’t let on what he made of it. I suspect he was being polite, because this is academic psychology at its worst.”

    Well, it didn’t start every promisingly; the ‘discovery’ that penalty takers are severely affected by pressure does invite the “No shit, Sherlock” as a response. That may be more the fault of the journalist who wrote the story than the researcher, though.

    What I did find somewhat interesting were some of the numbers, like:

    “For the first kick, when the pressure is relatively low, an average of 87% of kicks were successful. But the rates of success then start to drop, down to 73% for a fourth shot… When missing a kick means defeat for the entire team, the success rate plummets to 52%. But when a successful kick guarantees a win, 93% of attempts go in.”

    The trend isn’t very surprising, but I found it interesting to see the specifics.

  4. I’ve probably read more guff on why players miss penalties than anything else related to football.

    For those who think luck plays a greater part than skill, you only need watch Zidane taking a penalty. He could have told the keeper exactly where it is going, before putting it an inch inside the post hitting the side netting inside the goal. Keeper’s got no chance. Confidence must also play a huge part, as Ballack showed so brilliantly in his spot-kick in the last world cup, even when he was injured: he swaggered up with a cocky smirk on his face knowing full well he’d score, which he then did. Contrast this with messrs. Lampard and Gerrard and you can see who’s the more prepared.

    I never bought the idea that you couldn’t practice for penalties. The Germans always did apparently, and they were rather good at them. Watch any sportsman under pressure, such as Tiger Woods and Neil Jenkins (I’m not gonna mention Wilkinson being a Welshman) and they perform because they have practiced and practiced and practiced so that they are mentally and physically prepared. I get the impression footballers only crack under the pressure of penalties because they have not practiced enough: those that do practice them usually score.

  5. There are many factors involved in taking penalties for ‘real’. The practice of penalties on the training ground can only cover some of them:

    Skill – technique, power and accuracy.

    Simulation – I remember Mat Le Tissier saying he would offer £50 to the trainee goalkeepers if they saved one of his penalties to add a bit of pressure for himself and also motivate the trainees to try their best. £50 back then was alot of money to a trainee.

    This in itself will breed confidence, but it’s what you do with it that counts. The figures Harry produced regarding success of a penalty based on what is at stake is the main issue that needs to be overcome. But how best to do it? What mental routine/practice does a player go through to compose oneself before taking the penalty?