19th July 2018
In Focus: The science behind penalties
As the dust settles on what was a mesmerising World Cup tournament, one word is lingering on the minds of fans around the world: Penalties.
We saw France restore their lead against Croatia on Sunday after Referee Nestor Pitana controversially awarded the first VAR-assisted World Cup final penalty. And of course we saw England win a World Cup penalty shoot-out for the first time since the format was introduced for the 1978 edition. In fact, a total of 29 penalties were awarded throughout the tournament, with 22 scored and seven missed or saved – all new World Cup records.
We spoke to UCFB lecturer and Burnley FC Performance Psychologist Jennifer Lace about the psychological impact of taking penalties and coping strategies that players can use.
Can you prepare to take a penalty? What are the scientific arguments for and against?
As a fan we get so caught up in that pinnacle moment of a penalty shot, we cannot help but question how the players are able to execute the skill under so much pressure. How do they feel? What if they miss? Previously, many managers have said you cannot prepare for a penalty, and even goalkeepers have suggested you cannot be given any advice for penalties. Italy national team legend Gianluigi Buffon once said: “I don’t think you can give anyone advice for penalty shootouts”, and this point was further highlighted by former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton who stated: “The main factor in a penalty shootout is luck”.
In sport there are always things you cannot control or replicate, these are normally external variables. In the case of a penalty, you cannot replicate the crowd, atmosphere, weather, time of game or the situation the penalty is to be taken in e.g. World Cup group stage draw, 5 minutes into extra time, or in added time in extra time. This suggests that penalties cannot be prepared for as these variables will be different each time. However, taking a step away from what cannot be controlled or replicated allows for the analysis of what can actually be controlled and replicated, and therefore prepared for!
Consider a penalty shot. A penalty shot is a closed skill whereby there are actually little external influences directly impacting the execution of the skill. The ball is always the same distance from the goal, the same space in relation to the net, most balls now are regulated to the same size and weight, the same opportunity and space for a run up, the same size net and what starts to become apparent is that there are more things that directly affect the execution of a penalty that a player can actually replicate and prepare in training than the aspects they cannot! This suggests that a lot of what it takes to take a penalty can be prepared for!
What are the coping strategies required for a player when they miss a decisive penalty?
There are lots of different coping strategies a player can use. Which one they use will largely depend on their personal preference. Some players might use avoidance behaviour whereby they don’t review their shot or don’t talk about it. The current England squad have projected a strong sense of what we would call social identity whereby a player feels a sense of security, acceptance and inclusion due to being part of the group/team. England’s heroic goalkeeper, after the penalty shootout against Colombia, reflected that they have a strong sense of team and lots of team support.
This could be used as a coping strategy after a missed penalty as this sense of belonging helps them recognise that other team mates resonate with what the penalty shot miss feels like; they can understand how the player feels and this sense of group cohesion can help improve self-esteem. Furthermore, social identity can help with another strategy of approach behaviour. This is because generally social identity facilitates a strong emotional attachment to the group. This emotional attachment to the group allows approach behaviour which is often encouraged. This approach behaviour strategy can be interpreted as when a player is encouraged to use emotional expression and processing in order to better deal with a stressful situation. This could be in the form of talking to team mates, members of staff or family and friends.
What is the psychological impact on a player when they are taken from a team environment and put on the spot to take a penalty?
When an individual is in their team environment it can be easy to conform to what the rest of the team are doing or not doing. It can be easy to pass ownership and there is normally not much opportunity to take accountability for actions. This type of scenario allows for a less anxious environment with a shared/diluted sense of pressure. Therefore, transferring to an individual setting can be quite daunting. In an individual setting there is full accountability and full ownership of performance, which is normally facilitative of higher anxiety than in a team environment. This therefore suggests that a team can help with the psychological pressures of performance and by just being in a team should help. However, in a team environment, each individual will still experience a range of their own individual psychological ups and downs. Therefore, a player should have their own excellent level of self-awareness and mental skills which they can apply in a team environment. It is these same mental skills that they can apply when they are transferred into an individual setting.
So yes, a team environment can certainly benefit performance through the mechanism of what would be called social identity, but this should generally be ‘as well as’ their own psychological skill tool box rather than instead of.