by Dr Natalie Walker, Head of Sport and Exercise Science at Birmingham City University

A key author in the area of penalty research is Gier Jordet. He has identified anxiety as the most significant contributing factor to football penalty shootout failure. Think about it, this is one of the few moments in the team sport of football where individual players are under intense scrutiny on their own. They also have time to think about the consequences of failure unlike most of the rest of their performance time. Steven Gerrard commented about his anxiety in the build up to taking his penalty at Euro 2006:

“As extra time went on around me I spent half an hour worrying about the only kick that counted – my penalty. Nearer and nearer. My pulse raced madly. My head was pounding. Penalties, penalties, penalties.”

With Euro 2016 now underway, it has already been discussed what England should avoid doing (Evening Standard, 2016). The press are quick to point out that England have lost six of their last seven shootouts, with the most recent defeat coming at the hands of Italy in Euro 2012. Whilst England have only a 17% success rate at penalty shootouts, Germany and Argentina have won over 70% of their shootouts. Even Denmark and the Czech Republic have higher success rates!

So why is it that countries like Denmark and the Czech Republic have significantly more penalty success than England? Jordet (2009a) proposed that “ego-threat” might be one key reason. When an athlete perceives a situation as being potentially harmful or threatening to their status avoidance motivation and avoidance behaviour occurs. The Czech Republic and Denmark featured no players who had been named on the shortlist for FIFA World Player of the year, no players to have won the World Cup Golden, Silver or Bronze Boot, no players who had finished in the top 3 for the Ballon D’or or had featured in the UEFA club team of the year (Jordet, 2009a). However, 19% of England teams at the time had featured players who had won one of these individual accolades. In other words, players from England in the past have had more reasons to experience threats to their egos than players from Denmark for example. Jordet (2009a) also noted that England players engaged in far more avoidance behaviours than their more successful counterparts (Jordet, 2009a). This was demonstrated by 56.7% of England players looked away from the goal as they prepared their run up for penalty kicks compared to 4.5% of Spanish players for example (Jordet, 2009a). There could be some valuable lessons to be learnt here for the English press who are quick to place pressure on key players in the National side.

Jordet (2009b) also analysed the success rates of penalty takers who had won individual accolades and awards at the time of taking their kicks (“Current Stars”), compared to players who would go on to win them in the future (“Future Stars”). Current stars (who in theory would experience more ego threat having already won their awards) were only 65% successful from the penalty spot, while future stars had a success rate of 88.9% (with players who never won any awards in their career at 73.6%). It could be argued that the future stars were more successful because a high pressure penalty shootout was perceived in their eyes as an opportunity to go out and boost their reputation. Therefore, this research would suggest that when faced with a penalty shootout, younger, more  inexperienced players yet to fulfill their potential are more likely to be successful than some of their more experienced, decorated team mates. So should our penalties be taken by the likes of Rashford and Ali?

In the build up to major tournaments there is often a debate about whether England should practice and prepare for a penalty shootout, and if so how to do this effectively. Penalty shootouts are often referred to as a ‘lottery’ suggesting pundits believe the outcome is dependent on luck rather than a player’s skill. This in itself could be damaging to players’ performances via influencing their beliefs about whether this skill is under any of their control at all. Players’ perceptions of control are influenced by both beliefs about the role of skill or luck, and their beliefs about their own penalty taking ability. Players with low perceived ability and luck believe the outcome is dependent on chance or the goalkeeper’s actions rather than the penalty takers skill. These players typically experience more cognitive anxiety symptoms than those who perceive their ability and luck level as high (Jordet et al., 2006). This might have been in Roy Hodgson’s mind leading into the World Cup in Brazil 2014 when he recruited Psychiatrist Steve Peters to link up with the squad. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to have any influence in this domain as England failed to progress from the Group stages. Maybe in 2016 he will be called upon as he once again has been linked with the National team.

In terms of the order of the penalty, when a goal will win the game for their team players score approx. 92% of their attempts compared to fewer than 60% of their attempts when a miss will instantly result in a loss for the team (Jordet et al., 2007). These findings have been linked to avoidance motivation where those faced with a kick to avoid losing were forced into an avoidance or negative mindset. This hypothesis has been supported when researchers have explored the behaviours of players before taking their spot kicks. Avoidance behaviour has been described as when a player walks back from the ball having placed it on the penalty spot and doesn’t walk back facing the goal, rather they looked away from the goal. On shots to win the shootout, players who face away from the goal 14.4% of the time (Jordet and Hartman, 2008).

Penalty takers are also more accurate when ignoring the keeper and picking a spot rather than watching the keeper and making a decision based on their movements or looking one way and then shooting the other. Wilson and colleagues (2009) suggest that anxiety increases the amount of attention paid to the goalkeeper and increases the likelihood that players will produce shots that are hit significantly closer to the goalkeeper and therefore more ‘saveable’. So the trick therefore should be for penalty takers to treat each penalty as if it’s to win the shootout, in order to maintain a positive mindset.

Whilst nothing is certain and we cannot say that a player should follow specific advise and they WILL BE successful but we can suggest behaviours that are more likely to be productive than others. For example, the speed at which a player takes their kick is also an important consideration. Research suggests that players who take less than one second to place the ball on the penalty spot have a 58% success rate compared to those who take longer. These players have an 80% success rate (Jordet et al.,2009). On a similar note, taking about a second or more to respond to the referee’s whistle to initiate the penalty is also associated with a higher chance of scoring compared to immediately running towards the ball (Jordet et al., 2009). This therefore means that players should take their time as they prepare for the penalty kick, rather than rushing to get the penalty over with. That being said, taking too long might leave the player with ‘paralysis by analysis’ and too much thinking time and hence be detrimental.

It is possible that working on developing and practising a pre-performance routine could be useful to facilitate optimal timings and aid penalty success. Not only will practice enhance the perceptions of ability but will also serve to refine a pre-performance routine. When pundits talk about practicing penalties and simulation training they often state it is unrealistic because it is virtually impossible to recreate the pressure experienced in a shootout. However, what is possible is fine-tuning the skill of penalty taking in such a training environment using this method. The pre-performance routine should also include the lonely walk from the centre circle to take their kick.! Think about it, if penalty taking is influenced by perceptions of skill and luck then seeing one’s self being successful in training should help strengthen perceptions of control and help to maintain positive performances.

One final point to make is that whilst penalty taking is an individual skill what a player does after scoring a penalty in a shootout can influence the performance of those taking penalties afterwards. Jordet’s work has identified that players who substantially celebrate their goal end up on the winning team! Why? These authors suggest that the positive emotions from a huge celebration are contagious. Remember Stuart Pearce’s celebration at Euro 1996? That was a memorable penalty celebration and England progressed to the Semi Finals. Another penalty shootout against rivals Germany saw them miss out on a place in the final after the infamous Gareth Southgate miss however! Practitioners recommend that team meetings should discuss what players fear the most about penalties and what strategies should be in place for dealing with these outcomes. “What if’ plans can be developed for each player to deal with their missed kick and for the team to support those players who do miss (Jordet & Elferink-Gemser, 2012)