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How to End England’s Shootout Nightmare

How to End England’s Shootout Nightmare

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon of Italy saves a penalty by Ashley Cole during the penalty shoot out of the quarter final match of the Euro 2012 between England and Italy in Kiev, 2012 [SERGEY DOLZHENKO / EPA]

For the 6th time since 1990, England’s soccer team has been knocked out of a major tournament by losing a decisive penalty shootout. In the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 against Italy last Sunday, England seemed to have finally put an end to a long line of shootout woes after the Italian Riccardo Montolivo was the first to miss. But in the end, Sunday’s match only validated their misery as they were defeated by Italy by a final score of 4-2.

A penalty shootout is for most soccer fans – and soccer players – the most nerve-racking part of a football game. After a 120 minute draw, five players of each team get the chance to turn the game into victory.Whichever team scores more goals wins. Some say it’s a matter of chance who wins, and that penalty kicks cannot be practiced. This assumption was confirmed by England’s coach Roy Hodgson who said – after losing the shootout – that “it was Italy that took the chance” and that penalties cannot be practiced, because there’s no way to simulate the tiredness, the pressure and the tension of an important match during training.

As usual, scientific research is ignored by those who think of themselves as experts. Otherwise Hodgson would have known that fatigue is not related to the outcomes of penalty kicks. In addition, there are certain factors involved in a successful penalty kick that can indeed be controlled, according to sport scientists.

Dutch goalkeeper dives to save the penalty kick during the match between the Netherlands and Cameroon, World Cup 2010

“Penalties can absolutely be practiced during training. Of course, you cannot reproduce the pressure of major tournaments, but that doesn’t mean you cannot prepare yourself for it as a player,” says Dr. Gert-Jan Pepping, Sport Scientist and lecturer in Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

“The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practicing. Do you think other elite performers don’t practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure,” says Greg Wood of the University of Exeter’s School of Sport and Health Sciences.

So the lack of pressure and stress during ordinary training sessions seems no reason for not practicing penalty kicks. Players can prepare themselves. But how? Three studies have an answer.

Ignore the Keeper
A penalty shootout in a major soccer tournament is the ultimate example of a performance under high pressure. The more important the outcome of a certain kick, the more stress it will evoke in a player. If the skills of a player are not robust under this pressure, stress will probably negatively influence the outcome. Watch the video below to see what happens in such cases:

Wood: “During a highly stressful situation, we are more likely to be distracted by any threatening stimuli and focus on them, rather than the task at hand. Therefore, in a stressful penalty shootout, a player’s attention is likely to be directed towards the goalkeeper as opposed to the optimal scoring zones (just inside the post). This disrupts the aiming of the shot and increases the likelihood of subsequently hitting the shot towards the goalkeeper, making it easier to save.”

Because of the tight link between where we look and where other motor actions follow, it’s important for soccer players to focus on where they are aiming. Even when they are stressed and anxious. If not, this will disrupt the accuracy of the shot.

Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty kickers to use is to pick a spot and shoot towards it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process,” according to Wood. This way, players will hit the ball more accurately – making it hard to save.

“Coaches should encourage penalty kickers to practice routines that encompass a target-focused strategy, providing the performer with the optimal target information to generate an accurate shot,” says Wood. “Training that focuses on guiding the performer to targets or optimal goal locations should serve to strengthen eye-shot coordination and also will allow the eyes to provide the brain with the necessary visual information for accurate shooting. In addition, such training will empower the kicker to claim more control over the situation, making disruptions in gaze behavior, and choking under pressure less likely.”

Aiming High
As discussed, aiming for a spot in the goal area – as opposed to gazing at the goalkeeper – is essential for a good outcome of a penalty. And where would that be? Remember British Wayne Rooney, who gave his team a 2-1 lead last Sunday? He took a powerful shot into the upper left corner. (If your memory needs to be refreshed or in case you missed the game altogether, watch the shot here.

Although it seems to be the least used strategy of targeting the ball, a penalty kick towards the upper third of the goal is most difficult to stop. As confirmed by this study, that analyzed 310 of penalty kicks in an attempt to identify the ultimate way of scoring. The researchers found that only 12.9% of the penalty kicks reached the upper part of the goal,  and non of these kicks were stopped by a goalkeeper. In contrast, kicks landing in the lower part of the goal – which are the ones players kick most of the time (56.6%) – were actually the most frequently stopped kicks. In addition, the study suggests that among the top zones, shooting to the top corners may be the more optimal strategy for the kicker as it’s easier to stop a ball that is high but close (instead of both to the side and high) to where the goalkeeper stands before the kick.

The reason that most players prefer low kicks – which are easier to safe save – may be that high kicks are more likely to miss the goal completely – by flying over, or ending up against the crossbar. However, the researchers question whether the chance of missing the goal with the current training players receive is indeed so high that it justifies kicking low. “[I]n to the major principles of motor control and learning, we believe that with sufficient and proper training (of kicking penalty kicks to the top corners of the goal), this ‘miss’ rate can become very low, thus allowing players to kick high and take advantage of the slim chance that the keeper will stop such kicks,” the researchers write in their paper. They argue that with such training soccer players will be able to perform this task successfully, even under pressure.

Feyenoord players celebrate after Leroy Fer, right, scored the winning goal against PSV Eindhoven [Photograph: Robert Vos/EPA]

Spread the Love
Like in many other situations, on the soccer pitch too, emotions are contagious. Therefore it is important that a player, when he scores, shares his happiness and pride with the whole team. The more joy the better. Dr. Pepping explains why:

“A way to experience positive emotions in soccer – what is proved to be beneficial in performance under high pressure – is via emotional contagion, a process in which players more or less unconsciously take over each others emotions. Therefore it is important that players see each other, and even better, that they cheer with each other after scoring a goal. This increases the consistency (cohesion) of the team, and at the same time it lowers the stress of individual players.”

Researchers studied a large number of penalty-shootouts during important soccer matches, as long as the score in the shootout was still equal. It turned out that players who  overtly celebrated in the direction and with their teammates after scoring  were more likely to win the game. In addition, this cheering had the opposite effect on the other team. When they watched a team sharing happiness with their hands up in the air, the pressure and anxiety only increased among the opponents. As a consequence, it was more than twice as likely for the next opponent to miss his penalty kick.

However, out of all the penalties analyzed only 20% of the soccer players showed cheering behavior. “Celebrating a goal is not often seen during a shootout,” says Pepping. “You would expect that every player cheers after making a goal in a shootout – as they tend to do during the regular playtime – but apparently the pressure is that high that they don’t.”

This study demonstrates that besides practicing aiming – and shooting strategies, training should also focus on increasing players’ insights in how emotions – positive or negative – can influence their own performance as well as that of the whole team and the opposing team. “Soccer players should be aware of the psychological processes that are important during a game and act on it,” says Pepping.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Overall we can draw the conclusion that in the future , the coach of the British soccer team may do good by reading some more studies prior to the next major tournament instead of resigning himself to  the widespread belief that penalty kicks cannot be practiced. Of course, the high pressure of a penalty shootout is impossible to reproduce during training, but research proves that there are ways in which players can prepare themselves for this.

England, it’s time to practice skills, positive thinking and emotional control. So hopefully next time, you can put an end to this shootout nightmare.

Jordeta, G., Hartmana, E., Visschera, C., & Lemminka, K. (2007). Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress,skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes Journal of Sports Sciences, 25 (2) DOI: 10.1080/02640410600624020

Wilson MR, Wood G, & Vine SJ (2009). Anxiety, attentional control, and performance impairment in penalty kicks. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 31 (6), 761-75 PMID: 20384011

Bar‐Eli M, & Azarb OH (2009). Penalty kicks in soccer: an empirical analysis of shooting strategies and goalkeepers’ preferences Soccer & Society DOI: 10.1080/14660970802601654

Moll, T, Jordet, G, & Pepping, G (2010). Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success. Journal of Sports Sciences DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2010.484068

Carian Thus

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