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Health, Sports & Psychology

How to smash it like Shearer

Updated Thursday, 10th June 2010

We speak to Caroline Heaney, a full-time lecturer in sport and fitness at The Open University, about the science behind penalty-taking

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Perfect penalty-taking isn't just about smashing it like Shearer. Though there's a lot of luck and pure skill involved, there's also a selection of tactics proven by academic research to enhance a player's chances of taking a good penalty, as our Strategic Shoot Out game illustrates.

So, during this year’s World Cup, what should managers and players be doing to get an advantage when it comes to penalty taking?

Choosing the right five players

First, let's think about the players. A manager needs to choose five players to take part in a penalty shoot-out so player selection is crucial. The order in which they take the penalties is also important – research by Tim McGarry and Ian M. Franks suggest the best player should take the last penalty and the lowest ranked player should take the first.

Player screen

Experience is important too, particularly of tense situations so the number of years on the pitch and international caps is important to consider. Accuracy is also, naturally, crucial. The more goals they've scored in tense situations, the more chance they have of scoring a penalty accurately. This in turn ties into confidence and the more confident a player is, the more chance they have at scoring.

But here comes a surprise. Caroline Heaney says that high status can actually diminish a player’s ability to score penalties because they are under more pressure due to higher expectations.

Focus is also essential with things like injury and personal problems (eg. messy love lives being splashed over the papers) really denting a player’s penalty taking ability.

Choosing the right tactics

Tactic screen

There’s a number of tactics discussed in the world of sports psychology that could contribute towards taking a winning penalty. For example, using positive self-talk just before a player takes the goal can help. As Caroline says: “A penalty taker needs a moment to compose himself and use psych techniques to get himself ready, such as imagery – visualise what they will do in their head; it could even be saying a positive phrase to themselves to build confidence before taking kick.”

A lot of athletes, whichever field, will often run through their performance in their mind, so a player should visualise taking and scoring the penalty. But getting ahead of themselves and visualising their penalty celebrations may be detrimental, as Caroline points out, because it places the player focus too far ahead and takes their mind off the task at hand.

High status can actually diminish a player’s ability to score penalties because they are under more pressure due to higher expectations.

Taking time to prepare a penalty is important. “Research suggests that if players rush the penalty and quickly go into it without composing themselves, they are more likely to miss,” Caroline says. “Avoiding eye contact with the keeper also shows a low level of confidence and these people in turn miss penalties more often.” These are all part of avoidance tactics which have been proven to damage a player’s chances in a penalty situation.

Focus is essential too. “People do this by using cue-words, eg ‘focus’, or a player may focus on goals for the game that he wants to achieve. Not allowing themselves to be distracted by thinking of the brain as a set volume also helps – if they can fill this with positive stuff, they will leave less room for negative distractions.”

So now you’ve read this, think you can put it into action? Play our Strategic Shoot Out game.

Useful links

Want to learn more about this? Check out the new Open University course, Sport and Exercise Psychology: a case study approach.

Listen to a podcast by Caroline Heaney on the OU's community website for students and alumni

BBC article on taking penalties

Goal post image linking to this article: timparkinson Attribution 2.0 Generic license







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