Penalty Shoot-out Pressure

By Caroline Heaney

England’s early exit from the World Cup may be hugely disappointing, but it does have one positive outcome – English fans will be spared from the potential pain of the dreaded penalty shoot-out! The England Football team do not have a great history when it comes to penalty shoot-outs in major tournaments, for example:

  • 1990 World Cup Semi-final – England lost to Germany 
  • Euro 1996 Semi-final – England lost to Germany
  • 1998 World Cup – England lost to Argentina
  • Euro 2004 Quarter-final – England lost to Portugal
  • 2006 World Cup Quarter-final – England lost to Portugal
  • Euro 2012 – England lost to Italy

England are not the only nation with a poor reputation in penalty shoot-outs. Both Holland and Italy, for example, have suffered multiple tournament exits to penalty shoot-outs. Holland in fact exited three consecutive European championships to the feared penalty shoot-out (Euro 1992, Euro 1996 and Euro 2000)!

The penalty shoot-out in a major tournament is probably one the most highly pressured situations in football; the stakes are high and the margins for error are small. Additionally, the personal accountability of individual players is probably higher than in any other situation in football, where normally responsibility is collectively shared. No-one wants to be the player responsible for their team exiting a major tournament, and history shows that unsuccessful penalty takers are often ‘scapegoated’ and ostracised by their national media. Interestingly it appears to be the penalty takers rather than the goal-keepers who tend to fall victim to this negative media attention, perhaps due to the expectations of a penalty shoot-out: penalty takers are expected to score and goal-keepers are expected not to stop them. Obviously when a goal-keeper makes a winning save (e.g. David Seaman in England successful penalty shoot-out against Spain in Euro 1996) they become a hero in the eyes of the media, but rarely are they subjected to the same media condemnation as a player who misses a penalty when they fail to save a penalty.

The penalty shoot-out is a common feature of a major football tournament and we have already seen two exhilarating penalty shoot-outs in the early knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup in the Brazil v Chile and Costa Rica v Greece matches. Penalty shoot-outs have even been known to determine the final result of a tournament. For example the winners of both the 2006 Men’s World Cup final and the 2011 Women’s World Cup final were decided by penalty shoot-outs. More recently the England U17 squad won the 2014 European Championships on penalties against Holland.

As a result of this teams often focus a significant amount of effort on preparing for the possibility of a penalty shoot-out. For example, it is suggested that this was a significant factor in the decision to employ psychiatrist Steve Peters to work with the England team in the build up to the World Cup. Psychology is certainly a significant factor in the penalty shoot-out. As a sport psychologist I like to watch a player prepare to take a penalty and predict whether they will be successful – there are certain psychological cues that are indicative of the outcome. Researchers have investigated these and have identified various factors that can influence the success of the penalty shoot-out. Some of these are explored in our penalty shoot-out game:

Click here to play our penalty shoot-out game

As with most tasks, confidence is key. A player who is confident and believes that they will score is more likely to do so. There is no room for doubt in a penalty shoot-out. Confidence can be seen through visual cues such as eye contact. A player who lacks confidence may avoid making eye contact with the goal keeper. Good goal keepers recognise these signals and will draw strength from an opponent who won’t make eye contact. Additionally, a successful penalty taker will normally take their time and not rush. Rushing can be seen as a sign of panic, whereas someone who waits is giving themselves time to compose themselves before executing the skill, perhaps utilising psychological techniques like imagery and positive self-talk before taking the penalty kick. Research by Jordet has suggested that England players have historically taken their penalties quicker (0.28seconds) than any other nation in major tournaments and so psychological intervention may help England players. A player may use imagery to rehearse taking a successful penalty in their head before taking it and may use positive self-talk to enhance their confidence and focus.

Experience is obviously an important factor for penalty takers. Players who have previously successfully taken penalties and won penalty shoot-outs are more likely to be confident in their ability to take a successful penalty. The reverse of that however is that those who have had bad experiences are less likely to be confident, which goes some way to explaining the serial penalty shoot-out defeats seen in teams such as England and Holland – the culture of expecting to lose a penalty shoot-out perpetuates. Research by Jordet revealed  that success rates in penalty shoot-outs are considerably higher for teams who have won their last two penalty shoot-outs compared to those who have lost their last two shoot-outs (89% versus 57%), even if the team membership is changed. Interestingly ‘higher status’ players, whilst likely having more experience to draw on, are sometimes less successful in penalty shoot-out situations; perhaps because the pressure of expectation is far greater for them than for players of lower status.

This shows that the successful penalty taker is one who is highly confident and copes well with pressure. Next time you watch a penalty shoot-out, watch the players prepare and see if you can predict whether or not they will be successful.

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