Thursday, 14 July 2011

Another England Penalty Failure

This time it’s the ladies who’ve been knocked out of a World Cup on penalties. The usual response is to say that penalty shoot-outs are a lottery, and that it was just cruel misfortune. This time, however, manager Hope Powell blamed some of her players, accusing them of “cowardice”.

I have to say both responses are completely inappropriate. Taking and saving penalties are skills, like every other part of football. The secret of dealing with penalty shoot-outs is to prepare the players for the stress involved, so that they maintain the correct technique. You won’t be surprised to learn that the correct technique is all about vision, but more of that later.

Earlier on in the tournament, a BBC reporter had asked the manager if she was considering making any changes to her team for the game against New Zealand. Powell replied by saying this perfectly reasonable question was “ridiculous”. This struck me as a response of a manager feeling under pressure, and if that sense of anxiety communicated itself to the players, I suspected we were going to be in trouble.

I was also surprised to read this quote on the FA website from the manager after the France defeat. “We thought we had a chance with penalties because we’ve been practising and Karen Bardsley has been saving every single one”. Well, that might have done wonders for the goalkeeper’s confidence, but considering that a well-struck and directed penalty should be unsaveable, it clearly didn’t do much for those taking them. No wonder they weren’t rushing to volunteer.

There’s no doubt that taking a penalty for your country can be a very stressful experience. Here’s Steven Gerrard talking about his miss in the 2006 World Cup. “Jesus, I wish I was first up. Get it out of the way. The wait’s killing me…….Why do I have to wait for the bloody whistle? Those extra couple of seconds seemed like an eternity, and they definitely put me off”. Or Gareth Southgate in 2003 “All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with”. Or Chris Waddle in 1997 “I just wanted it to be over”. These players appear to be suffering from a form of emotional distress, and the natural reaction is to try and get it over with as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this can mean less attention on the task required.

There are two strategies when it comes to taking penalties. In the keeper-dependent strategy, the kicker varies their shot according to the keeper’s actions, attempting to score in the opposite corner to the one where the keeper has dived. In the keeper-independent strategy, the kicker ignores the keeper, and makes a pre-planned shot. The keeper-dependent strategy is thought to be inferior, because unless the keeper dives early, there’s insufficient time to make the necessary adjustment, and they’re not actually looking at where they intend to shoot.

Yet Kuhn (2008), analysing penalties in top-level German football, found that 70% of all penalties used the keeper-dependent strategy. Why would 7 out of 10 professional footballers use completely the wrong strategy for something that is designed to determine the outcome of the match?

We’re back to stress and anxiety again. I like to think of the effect of anxiety in sport as turning you from a predator into prey. A lion hunting zebra will scan the herd looking for any weaker individuals. When the chase is on, the prey will be closely observed to pick out any deviations in course, and finally the focus will be on the target area for the attack. All the time, the eyes move ahead of the action, picking out relevant visual cues, relaying back visual information to enable the task to be successfully completed.

However, when you‘re prey, you constantly on the lookout for threats. When a threat is perceived, the body usually goes into a set of pre-programmed responses, such as “run” or “play dead”.
Coming back to sport, it means that instead of focusing on the parts of your vision that are required to be effective, the focus is drawn to perceived threats, such as the goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out.

This change in visual behaviour under stress leads to the ironic effect that player’s intense desire not to miss leads to precisely the behaviour that most likely to cause them to miss – i.e. not looking at the target. This effect has been found in several sports such as basket free shots (Wilson, Vine & Wood 2009) and golf (Binsch et al 2006). When it comes to penalty taking, Bakker et al (2006) found that telling players “not to shoot within reach of the goalkeeper” made them significantly more likely to shoot within reach of the keeper than telling them to “aim as accurately as possible”.

I’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s required to take successful penalties, and I haven’t even started on the best strategies for saving them. Bearing in mind that 22% of the goals scored in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there’s no excuse for not preparing your side properly for them.

David Donner