Applying sports psychology: fun with penalty kicks

In addition to leadership and marketing literature, I devote a fair bit of time to reading about peak performance and the psychology of decision-making. Readers of this site know that I’m also a big fan and avid player of soccer. The last few of those interests all came together in a short little article by the CBC, World Cup 2014: Penalty shootouts decided by psychology.

This article touches on many of the key teachings of sports psychology and athletic performance, framed against the backdrop of the recent (and remarkable) shoot-out between the Netherlands and Costa Rica.

The article says that: “‘Anxiety is the most significant contributing factor to performance failure in football penalty shootouts,’ according to an Expert Statement on the Psychological Preparation for Football Penalty Shootouts, a paper prepared for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2013. The statement identifies the hurdle the players have to overcome: the penalty shootout is one of the few occasions when they ‘have sufficient time to think about the consequences of failure.'”

Everything I’ve read on the subject indicates that thinking is about the worst thing you can do in an athletic situation, because it temporarily undoes all the subconscious performance training and physiological expertise you’ve developed. Recall that Bounce describes how “Great shot-making…is encoded in the brain and central nervous system”.

When players have the long walk from center to the penalty spot, they have time to think about everything that can go wrong and in doing so they overwrite this encoding. Andrew Anthony, author of On Penalties, advises that “Whatever you decide, you should stick to that and not change it. When they try to second-guess the goalkeeper, that’s when they come undone.”

Tim Krul, of course, knows that his best strategy is to make the shooter think; his antics before each shot were perhaps unsportsmanlike but undoubtedly effective, judging both by the concerned faces of some of the shooters and the end result. Says Krul: “I just told them I knew where they are going.” And as it turned out, he did – he went the right way on all five shots.

The statement cited above continues, “The expert statement advises the player to ignore the keeper and pick a spot. That’s because ‘anxiety increases the amount of attention paid to the goalkeeper and increases the likelihood that takers will produce shots that are hit significantly closer to the goalkeeper.'”

And this statement is completely consistent with what I’ve been reading in Mind Gym (stay tuned), which cites the example of a golfer who is teeing off on a hole with a water hazard. Most recreational golfers reach for their oldest ball, are consciously fearful of hitting the tee shot into the water (and might actually be expecting to do so), and then promptly do exactly that. The body is more likely to achieve what’s on the mind. From Mind Gym (p11): “You get what the mind sets. The mind works most effectively when you’re telling it what to do rather than what not to do.” Much better, then, to visualize a positive outcome.¹ Peak athletes go beyond visualization, though – they truly believe that the fantastic outcome is going to be achieved (and they’ve trained their minds to forget when it isn’t).

The body is more likely to achieve what’s on the mind. Much better, then, to visualize a positive outcome.

To avoid over-thinking (or thinking at all, really, about the task at hand, you can consciously utilize a distraction. Consider this, from The Sports Gene: “University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting – paralysis by analysis, she calls it – by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.”

So what’s the best approach to penalty-taking? Make your decision about where to shoot well in advance of the shot, whether the day before or while you’re lining up at center. Visualize the successful shot. Visualize it powerfully! Experience it! Take your time placing the ball, still while keenly visualizing placing it exactly where you’ve already decided to go. Then, upon hearing the referee’s whistle, begin your run and place it precisely in your predetermined spot.

And notice that this approach doesn’t once mention the goalie.

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¹I apply this technique while I’m trail-biking: if I’m ripping along and thinking “don’t hit that rock, don’t hit that rock”, then I’m gonna smack the rock; if, instead, I focus on the desired line, then that’s the line I’ll end up riding. There’s a particular section on a trail called “Sweet Street” that’s almost like a half-pipe (the “BMX” segment, for you Hydrocutters) that’s always given me problems because I’m preoccupied by what’ll happen if I mess up. This year I’ve adopted a new mental approach and have owned that section every time.

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Posted in Biking, Math and Science, Sports
One comment on “Applying sports psychology: fun with penalty kicks
  1. Much like the 90% free throw shooter missing both shots in the last minute of a big basketball game. I’m a firm believer in creative visualization as a precursor to successful outcomes in every facet of life – It’s all about positive thinking!

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