Wednesday, 9 March 2011

How Goals Are Scored - Penalties

A penalty kick is seen as a favourable situation for the attacking team. Given to penalise defending teams who commit fouls close to the goal, their obvious likelihood of resulting in a goal provides a disincentive for the defending team to prevent goal scoring opportunities by unfair means. Last year in the Premier League 79.94% were successfully converted.

It is often assumed that the striker picks his spot, and scores or misses depending on his ability to execute the simple technical demands of the situation. However, it is not that simple. There are two further pressures which make it more difficult for the penalty taker than first seems. The first is simple and reflects the psychological pressure present during most spot kicks. The second is a more complex case of the technical demands evolving as a result of increased use of technology and better goalkeeping.

Psychological Pressure

The psychological pressures of a penalty kick are brought into relief by a problem a friend put me a few weeks ago: how can a professional ever miss a simple penalty kick when they are capable of doing other things regularly which are so much more difficult? Players can regularly place a 20 yard pass accurately to feet. Why can't they play a 12 yard shot accurately to within the same small area of the goal?
The answer is that there are several layers of psychological pressure being exerted on the individual, particularly during a shoot out but also during a standard penalty, that aren't present during a standard 20 yard pass.

Firstly, a goal is cruelly and obviously at stake. This makes the technical demands of the situation more pressured than for any other outfield situation. Football is a low scoring game and so the opportunity to score is highly prized. Only a good shooting opportunity (e.g. a 1 on 1) presents the same clear cut, high reward situation. Goalkeepers routinely deal with knowing that one mistake can lead to a goal and so confidence and mental robustness are prerequisites for development in a way which isn't quite true for most outfield positions (Alex Welsh goalkeeping coach for many years at Arsenal, now at Tottenham, has said all coaching sessions are designed with the explicit aim of making goalkeepers more confident). Outfield players rarely feel the same strain and a high level of resilience isn't a prerequisite for success on pitch as it is in goal.

(As an aside, the pressure in a shoot out is flipped from the goalkeeper to the striker during a penalty shoot out. See here for a quote to that effect by Brad Friedel and some tips on how to save a penalty.)

Secondly, the kick taker has time to reflect on his own abilities and what's at stake. During open play, players act largely on instinct built up through repeated exposure to game situations. They trust themselves to make good decisions under pressure because they have been there before. The game is largely instinctual. Once the time is taken to consider performance the natural rhythms of unconscious competence are disrupted. Good performance is a function of relaxed arousal. This means being relaxed, and OUT OF YOUR HEAD. This is the state when humans feel best, and perform to the utmost of their abilities.

The minute or so (minimum) between realising you will be taking a penalty and striking the ball creates a vacuum which is filled with introspection when at that moment what you need is a burst of extroversion, whilst all the while remaining relaxed. No rush of blood to the head. No introspection.

Relaxed. Arousal.

Focused and calm.

Thirdly, players have expectations projected onto them by their team mates and coaches. Because the advantage is on the taker this will manifest itself as pressure to score. Feelings of letting the team down, destroying days/weeks/months of hard work or on the flip side having to live up to expectations can all inhibit performance.

Just as hanging out with a relaxed group of friends can aid your own relaxation, or passing a funeral cort├Ęge can make you feel sad, being surrounded by nervous peers can amplify your own nervousness. There is a draw towards the centre. Humanity's natural tendency to empathise with other humans is amplified within the context of a team because of the joint range of experiences they have shared together (this is the basis for empathy).

Fourthly, the crowd, television audience, the nation, and family/friends can all be remote factors which increase the opportunity cost of missing. These external factors also increase the cost of failing. Score and it is expected, miss and a wide range of external sources will see you miss. Your status within the group is no longer assured and a host of other negative rationalisations can follow all leading to a drop in self esteem.

Fifthly, the goalkeeper can pile on psychological pressure by moving on the line, or shaking his arms about, or by being outright daft like this. This reduced the ability of the striker to remain in relaxed arousal as the taker loses focus. Alternatively, it is extremely common for the defending side to protest for as long as possible before the kick is taken to maximise the amount of time the striker has to wait before taking the kick.

During Everton's recent penalty shoot out victory over Chelsea, Heitinga knocked into Cole as he walked up to take his penalty. Cole then went on to miss.

Sixthly, and this applies predominantly to penalty shoot outs, the psychological and physical stress the player is under is exacerbated by tiredness. A penalty shoot out happens only after two hours of football. Ouch!

Finally, goalkeepers will know who is likely to take a penalty on the opposing side and will have studied where they like to place the ball (trends emerge strongly as humans resort to comfort in times of stress, see also: chocolate nibbling, cigarette smoking etc).

The striker then has to be comfortable putting the ball in several different places. It is a psychological dare: can you put the ball where you are not most comfortable?

Technical Pressure

The technical pressure was first brought to my attention by Bob Wilson in the London FA magazine. The technical pressures at the top level are such that they make every single piece of advice given on the above link (with the Brad Friedel quote) redundant.

Over the past 20 years goalkeepers have become very good at predicting where a striker will shoot based on body position, length of run up, and whether their weight is shifted forwards (low shot) or backwards (high shot). In order to counteract this, penalty takers have done two things:

1) Smashed the ball as hard as possible, usually low. Power over placement. This is exemplified by the classic Frank Lampard penalty.

2) Alternatively players have developed such strong technique that they are capable of shaping to shoot one way and in the same movement, wrap their foot around the ball such that they shoot the other. This is a progression of the classic, pretend to shoot-pause-wait til the keeper has dived-then send it the other way routine.

Enter: Messi.

Here he shapes to shoot to his left. His planted foot is besides the ball pointing in the direction he should be shooting. He has also opened up his body as though he were going to shoot across the goal.
However his striking foot - imperceptibly to the 'keeper - is starting to do something interesting.

Instead he wraps his foot around the ball to shoot to his right.

The effect is to take away the goalkeeper's ability to predict where the striker will shoot. This explains why Almunia appeared not to dive. He was going to dive to his right but saw the ball going to his left so was made to look silly.

However this technique also increases the technical demands of the situation. Where previously it was a very simple action to perform, it now becomes more technically difficult at a time when there is plenty of psychological pressure anyway.


1) The most technically proficient players are most likely to perform well under pressure.

2) Do not emphasise what is at stake. Minimise all thinking. The player should be concentrating only on their kick as they take it. A penalty shoot out is not the time for epic speeches about the hands of destiny. Emphasise togetherness no matter what. Football is a team sport and is won and lost by the entire squad, not be individual players or actions.
A penalty shoot out is probably too late to introduce this. A penalty during open play is certainly too late. It is a feeling that the players should live with at all times. A player that feels like they have the support of their team mates, coaches and fans is more likely to cope with the demands of taking a penalty. A team that feels like it has the trust of the media, fans and other external sources, will also be more likely to succeed. This work is done every day.

Anyone want to hazard a guess why England are perennial losers at penalty shoot outs and Germany have only ever missed 4 at World Cup Finals, including penalty shoot outs?

3) Practice is only useful if you can mimic the mental and physical pressures of taking a kick e.g. after an intense session where all players are tired. Consider mimicking the "in your head" aspect by stipulating that players can only take a penalty with their weaker foot.

5) Smile as you take the penalty. Smiling releases a shot of endorphins. This will aid relaxation.

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