For English soccer fans, it is an all too familiar story. The national side gets to a major tournament with high hopes, get through to the knockout stages, battle through a match plus extra time after something goes wrong (usually, it seems, a player sent off) – and then go crashing out with a dismal display of penalty taking. The England team has one of the worst records in international soccer, winning only one out of six penalty shootouts in the World Cup and Euro Championships. The Germans, on the other hand, have the opposite record: not losing a shootout in major tournaments since going out to Czechoslovakia in Euro 76, they now have a 5-1 record of wins, including two against England. As former England striker Gary Lineker once put it "Football is a game with 22 people and in the end the Germans win on penalties".

But can research be used to increase the chances of scoring those all-important spot kicks?

Two recent papers from the International Journal of Sport Psychology look at penalty taking, and an article just published in the Journal of Sports Sciences also examines whether penalty taking is all in the mind. One of the paper authors, sport psychologist Geir Jordet from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has been recruited by the Dutch national team coach to help with the national side, which has almost as bad a record (1-4) in major tournaments as the English.

Bakker et al. (2006) examine ‘gaze behaviour’ in penalty shooting, and suggest that unwanted effects are mediated by changes in gaze behaviour. When aiming, players often look at where they aim, and they aim at where they look. Instructions not to shoot within reach of the keeper or outside the goal often direct the player’s gaze to the area to-be-avoided, resulting in more unsuccessful shots. When visual attention is drawn to the to-be-avoided area there is probably not sufficient time to redirect attention to the proper location necessary for accurate aiming. These findings indicate that unwanted effects following the persistent wish not to miss may increase the probability of missing a decisive penalty.

Some players and coaches believe that a penalty shootout is a ‘lottery’, with luck playing the largest role in deciding the outcome. But a study by Jordet et al. (2006) which interviewed professional footballers from the Netherlands and Sweden found that subscribers to the lottery view were more likely to miss than were those who were confident and believed that their destiny was in their own hands.

More recently, Jordet and collegues (2007) analysed 41 shootouts, comprising 409 penalty kicks, from the World Cup, European Championships and Copa America between 1976 and 2004. The study found that the biggest factors affecting the success of a kick were the order of the shot, and the degree of pressure on the penalty taker. When missing a kick means defeat for the entire team, the success rate plummets to 52%. But when a successful kick guarantees a win, 93% of attempts go in.

The complexities of penalties have led some coaches to give up on training for them. Before the 1998 World Cup, England coach Glenn Hoddle declared that his team would not practise them in training because the pressure of a shootout is impossible to simulate. True to form, England exited the tournament on penalties.

Sport psychologist Jordet, however, suggests that players should rehearse the entire routine, including the lonely walk from the centre circle to take their kick. He also stresses that players should have a fixed routine to block out thoughts of failure, similar to that used by rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England to rugby union World Cup victory in 2003. Taking your time also helps: Jordet’s team has discovered that players who pause for less than half a second before beginning their run-up succeed only 63% of the time, whereas those who compose themselves for longer enjoy an 81% success rate.

So it seems there are things that can be done to increase your chances of success when facing up to the goalkeeper with the hopes of a nation weighing on your shoulders. What England fans may want to know though, is whether current national coach Steve McLaren is taking note of the latest research.

Penalty shooting and gaze behavior: unwanted effects of the wish not to miss. Bakker, F. C.; Oudejans, R. R. D.; Binsch, O.; Kamp, J. van der / International Journal of Sport Psychology, 2006, Vol. 37, No. 2/3, pp. 265-280, 24 ref.

The "Russian roulette" of soccer?: Perceived control and anxiety in a major tournament penalty shootout. Jordet, G.; Elferink-Gemser, M. T.; Lemmink, K. A. P. M.; Visscher, C. / International Journal of Sport Psychology, 2006, Vol. 37, No. 2/3, pp. 281-298, 34 ref.

Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress,skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Jordet, G.; Hartman, E.; Visscher, C.; Koen, A. P. M.; Lemmink, K. A. P. M. / Journal of Sports Sciences, 2007, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 121-129, 27 ref.

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