Scott Bradley, Sport Psychologist at the University of Northampton shares his thoughts on the dreaded penalty shoot-out. And why he feels previous England sides have struggled to handle the pressure when put ‘on the spot’.

“Hey, Scott. I heard you on the radio; you sounded like you knew what you were talking about. I said to my mate, that’s my lecturer on the radio – unbelievable!”


This was the enthusiastic greeting I received from one of my students, whilst awaiting the commencement of his graduation ceremony in 2012. Initially, I felt somewhat pleased that I had somehow initiated this level of enthusiasm (albeit a little late) within one of my students.


Retrospectively, I did begin to wonder whether his specific comment, ‘…you sounded like you knew what you were talking about’, alluded to the fact that my professional credibility and expertise had only been accepted and validated once, expressly and conversationally, disseminated via Talksport radio – hardly erudite stuff.


Little Chef killed the radio star

So, why the enthusiastic greeting? Well, in the summer of 2012 I had been asked by those bastions of afternoon sports radio broadcasting, Hawksbee and Jacobs, (well, their researcher at least) to comment on the psychology of penalty shoot-outs. England had limped through the group stages and reached the quarter finals of the 2012 European Championship; they faced Italy the next day.


I sat in my office, eagerly awaiting the call to be interviewed live on national radio, my heart racing a little at the prospect – this was my moment! Well, not quite. At the exact moment that I thought I would be speaking live to the nation, I heard messrs Hawksbee and Jacobs introducing two Evertonians to discuss their Odysseus-like journey from Merseyside to Ukraine, stopping at every single service station en-route. At this point I did begin to question the value of my hard-earned qualifications!


Fortunately for me, England struggled to break down the resilient Italians in normal time and indeed extra-time; penalties it was! The result? Italy won 4-2 on penalties. Realising the error of their ways, having previously chosen to inflict literally minutes of ‘Little Chef’ related travails and tribulations upon the nation, the call from the chirpy radio duo came. “So, Scott, why is it that we [England] are so poor at penalties and what are the psychological factors behind England’s most recent penalty shootout exit?”


De-bunking a few myths

The presenters, or more likely their researchers, had latched on to a piece of research claiming that high-profile players were under more pressure to score from the spot due to their need for ego-preservation, maintenance of a high-status social identity, and their self-esteem being more dependent on precarious public perception. Ashley Cole was one of the players to miss that day.


Now, I wondered, could the reason we [England] are so poor at penalty shoot-outs really be down to the pernicious influence of Cheryl and Hello! magazine? It seemed implausible, especially considering that Cheryl was only seven years old when England lost 4-3 to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals! Also, Ashley Young was the other player to miss that day – hardly a mainstay of the back, front, or even middle pages of the tabloids.


Having exposed a few goalmouth-size holes in the ‘esteemed and high-profile player’ hypothesis, my attention turned to the very notion that ‘we’, as a nation, are somehow culturally incapable of winning penalty shoot-outs. Was there such a thing as a penalty taking gene (in either long or short form variant) that the English did not possess? Had we developed a cultural identity that somehow permeated the belief system[s] of every English footballer’s ability to strike a ball, under pressure, from 12-yards?


I seem to recall Alan Shearer being quite good at penalties; he’s called Alan; he’s from Newcastle – definitely, English! Also, England’s vanquishers, Italy, supposedly more resilient from 12-yards out (Roberto Baggio’s 1994 World Cup aberration aside), have lost just as many penalty shoot-outs as England. Hypothesis #2 debunked.


The problem with ‘spaghetti legs’

As I recall I spent much of my air-time discussing the goalkeeper, Joe Hart, and his rather animated movements prior to the penalties being taken. Now, Joe Hart is not the first and will not be the last goalkeeper to attempt to put the penalty-taker off by moving around animatedly on the goal-line.


If you recall Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ antics in the 1984 European Cup Final, you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, Hart’s decision to do things differently, to go against the conventional wisdom of keeping things the same – not trying to do anything differently, when under intense pressure; became the focus of my critique.


Given that we, as humans, have approximately 100milliseconds to process appropriate visual information and another 100milliseconds to enervate the muscles in order produce an accurate and effective response commensurate with elite-level performance, then routine, practice and a calm-head become priorities.


Why would anyone seek to introduce more time-consuming variables and distractions into what should be a well-established and reliable routine? Well, it may be that if England’s incumbent manager during the 2012 Euros, Roy Hodgson, words are anything to go by; Joe Hart didn’t reliably and fastidiously practice, or maybe even have, a well-honed penalty shoot-out routine.


Lighten up, Roy

“Penalty shootouts are a hazardous way of deciding a game of football. It was decided upon because it was seen as slightly less hazardous than the toss of a coin, but you’re pretty much in the same ballpark.” Roy Hodgson, England Manager (2012-2016)


I am reminded of the oft-quoted Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.” Hodgson’s language smacks of a malaise, a lethargy, an avoidance-culture where a pessimistic outlook may have proliferated the belief that chance, and fortune, has a more significant outcome-influence than effortful and deliberate practice. If England do not, and have not, deliberately practiced and replicated the precise conditions that players are likely to encounter in high-pressure penalty shoot-outs, then how can excellence become habitual?


Practice makes perfect?

Anders Ericson’s (1993) theory of deliberate practice, and 10,000-hour principle, suggests that expert performance is attained through sustained engagement in high-quality practice (that may not be intrinsically rewarding or enjoyable); makes-use of high-quality and task-appropriate resources, and is accompanied by appropriate motivation towards the task[s].


Ericson argues that engagement in such deliberate practice[s] enables experts to acquire the cognitive, perceptual and motor abilities to prepare and pick from several possible contextually-relevant responses that allows the performer to bypass the limits (within reason) imposed by memory and serial reaction-time constraints, thus enabling expert performance. Whilst [quality] practice does not make perfect, it does significantly contribute to the habit of excellence!


Encouragingly, according to Jordan Pickford – England’s first-choice goalkeeper – the team has already been preparing for the eventuality of penalty shoot-outs in this year’s World Cup in Russia. “We’ve been doing the walk from the halfway line…we’re doing a lot of work to be prepared for how we’d want to go about it,” he said ahead of the tournament in which England’s chances were downplayed.


Reading between the lines (of a likely 4-3-3 system), maybe Gareth Southgate has learnt from previous practices and sought to integrate principles from performance psychology into England’s World Cup preparations – erudite stuff, indeed. Will it make a difference? Time will tell. C’mon England!


Image: PA Images