Taking Penalties: Part One

The English might be grateful to Sepp Blatter for threatening the end of the penalty shoot out. It’s been our downfall on five separate occasions, and in each case bar 1998, victory would have left a tournament open at our feet. Since watching the last episode in this sequence, I’ve been working on a mix of old and new ideas in the search for a solution. It’s time for me to roll out what I’ve come up with. The question is, what happens when an otherwise confident, talented player crumbles under the pressure of a shoot-out (or other such situation) – can we define what is going on in a way that we can use to offset that crumbling and give the player the mental space he needs to succeed in his difficult task?
Most of what you’ll read about this is simply question-begging. Simply to say that one player is “more confident” in such situations gets us absolutely nowhere. It tells us nothing, gives us nothing we can use. And to follow that up with saying that it’s impossible to legislate for penalties, that there’s no effective way to prepare for them, is less a professional viewpoint than a counsel of despair. It reflects only the English professional’s willingness to do any strange form of physical exercise available, to attempt any crank diet, to take on any kind of performance supplement yet rear up in horror at the merest hint of psychology.
A combination of research and my own subjective clinical experience have led me to believe as follows:

  • I know, specifically, what is happening to players as they approach penalties, or other high-pressure moments. What’s happening with players who crumble and players who remain cool can be rationally differentiated, and is reasonably consistent and predictable.
  • I have a specific set of techniques that, if applied, will give a player infinitely more emotional control over himself in those pressure moments, and, if he/she chooses, at other times.

I’m going to go through this in a series of posts, step by step, but for today, I’m going to satisfy myself with a couple of short extracts that might give a hint as to where this is going.

The first comes from chapter seven of Antonio Damasio’s pioneering book on the relationship between emotion and cognition, Decartes’ Error, published in 1994. He’s talking about feelings and the physical body:

..(What makes feelings) different is that they are first and foremost about the body, that they offer us the cognition of our visceral and musculoskeletal state as it becomes affected by preorganised mechanisms and by the cognitive structures we have developed under their influence. Feelings let us mind the body, attentively, as during an emotional state, or faintly, as during a background state. They let us mind the body “live”. when they give us perceptual images of the body, or “by rebroadcast,” when they give us recalled images of the body state appropriate to certain circumstances, in “as if” feelings.

Feelings offer us a glimpse of what goes on in our flesh, as a momentary image of that flesh is juxtaposed to the images of other objects and situations; in so doing, feelings modify our comprehensive notion of those other objects and situations. By dint of juxtaposition, body images give to other images a quality of goodness or badness, of pleasure or pain.

Essentially, the brain collates nerve impulses etc. to create a coherent internal mental representation of the current state of the body. The brain can also summon up coherent mental representations of the past state of the body, and the potential state of the body in imagined scenarios. Implicit in this is the way the brain ascribes a value to objects, situations, and indeed the body itself.

I’ll be coming back to this, in particular, in later posts, but first here’s former England captain David Platt on the topic of former England captain Alan Shearer, taken from Grout and Perrin’s entertaining book Mind Games:

When Alan misses a chance he just “blows” it away. He breathes and it is gone. He sniffs up his nose and that is his way of saying it’s gone. He just moves on from there thinking he’ll get another chance, he’ll get another goal.

That image is perhaps better after breakfast, but it is significant, and I’ll be elaborating on why in future posts.

7 Replies to “Taking Penalties: Part One”

  1. It is very simple. You take a penalty like a corner. Run at it from an angle. You heard it here first.

  2. Quite so, Pierre, although I imagine that sending over an accurate cross is quite hard enough from the corner flag, and harder still from the penalty spot. Definitely a job for Peter Crouch.

  3. Think about the short distance involved. It can’t be that difficult to put the ball in the air past the goalkeeper who also can’t guess which way youu’re going to put it. I’d say it works for me but I just talk a great game.

  4. You might be interested in Ken Bray’s scientific breakdown of penalty-taking in his recent book “How to Score: Science and the Beautiful Game”, which discusses exactly what you’re exploring there. My interest lies in why players who are used to pressure, used to penalties, etc., crumble so dramatically in shoot-outs, and what can be done about it. It’s a psychological rather than a technical question. I’m aware of the near-phobic reaction of English football to anything psychological (which gets instantly related to the madhouse) but that’s what this site exists for – to do something small to change that attitude.

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