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.
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.