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Health, Sports & Psychology

What makes the perfect penalty?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005

A striker and a psychologist compare notes on what makes the perfect penalty

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Mark Bright Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Mark Bright, former football striker, explains why he thinks confidence and good contact with the ball is the secret to perfect penalties:

"I was very surprised when I first heard about the memory aspect of taking a penalty. I’m sure most football professionals never think too deeply when it comes to the moment to take the kick.

As to whether I agreed with any of the research I was met with? In general I’d have to say no. I think players of professional ability can fool the goalkeeper into thinking they are going to shoot one way, only to fake it and shoot the other. To be honest I think confidence, holding one’s nerve, good contact on the ball, ability not to crack under pressure lies behind the perfect penalty kick.

I know there is probably a scientific solution to every problem but football is different - ask any penalty taker.

When I was with the psychologist Peter Naish, who believes that taking the perfect penalty is all to do with practice, I was showed an experiment using a chess board and memorising chess formations. He said that penalty taking, like chess, was all to do with memory. It’s all very well on a chess board but in reality in the heat of the moment in a stadium of 80,000 screaming fans it’s easy to forget which way the penalty taker put it last time! My overall feelings about the filming were that I was really intrigued to listen to what the experts had to say but in reality I know it’s different. I know there is probably a scientific solution to every problem but football is different - ask any penalty taker."

Peter Naish thinks that penalty power is in the brain, not the boot:

"Mark is a typical skilled lay-person: extremely clever at what he does but not fully aware of how he does it. In fact, it is quite difficult, with skills such as Mark’s, for the practitioner to look inside himself or herself and discover what’s going on; it requires an oblique approach from someone on the outside.

Here’s an example: most of us can ride a bicycle and so can answer the question "how do you turn left"? Answer: "turn the handlebars left and lean over that way". Wrong! Research shows that, momentarily, we turn the handlebars right. That causes a leftward lean, ready for the left turn. We can all turn left, yet we don’t know how, so it’s no good asking.

Mark mentions not thinking too deeply, yet trying to fool the goalkeeper. We do many things on two levels, such as thinking where to put the ball (or where to fake it) but not thinking about what the feet, legs and body will do to achieve it. The more we practice, the more our actions become automatic skills - unconscious memories of how to react. These memories take over when thinking fails, such as in front of 80,000 fans. Whether we are skilled at chess, football or even ordinary activities, practice enables us to respond automatically to patterns in the environment. Mark couldn’t remember the pattern of the chess position too well but take a non-footballing athlete, however fit, and get him to try saving a few penalties: he won’t do too well!"






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