Mentally preparing to score, or save, a game-defining goal


Walk the walk, take your time, breathe and score. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But as Euro 2020 prepares to enter the knockout stage, and with it coming the jeopardy of a penalty shootout, you can be sure that at least one player will forget the basic principles of scoring with a free shot from 12 yards and send his team crashing out of the competition.

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That is perhaps a brutal way of looking at it. When you add in the pressure of walking from the centre circle to the penalty spot, maybe towards a set of hostile opposition supporters and an imposing goalkeeper, and then think about the implications of failure and triggering the disappointment of millions of people, the apparently simple task becomes an altogether different challenge. And then you miss.

“I have had a couple of decades of thinking it through,” England manager Gareth Southgate said, without irony, when asked to recall his penalty shootout miss against Germany in the Euro ’96 semifinal that ended a nation’s hopes of reaching the final.

Roberto Baggio experienced the ultimate agony when his penalty in the 1994 World Cup final shootout for Italy against Brazil flew over the crossbar in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and handed victory to the Brazilians.

“It’s the same sense of bitterness as in 1994,” Baggio said in 2017. “It hasn’t diminished, and I don’t think it will ever go away.”

No matter how a shootout goes or how many penalties are scored, there is always a crestfallen player needing to be consoled by their teammates at the end of it. And it is never the goalkeeper — with the exception of Manchester United’s David de Gea, who failed to save a single spot kick in the Europa League final and then missed himself in a 11-10 penalties defeat at the hands of Villarreal.

The goalkeeper can’t really lose in a shootout, unless he has to take one of the penalties.

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“From a keeper’s perspective, penalties bring less of a threat state and more of a challenge and an opportunity to be a hero,” performance psychologist Tom Young told ESPN.

Eric Steele, formerly United’s goalkeepers coach, agrees with Young and says that law changes, such as keepers having to have one foot on the line with VAR closely watching, have tipped the penalty odds firmly in favour of the taker.

“It used to be a 50-50 duel,” Steele told ESPN. “But I think it has gone to 70-30 now.”

So far at Euro 2020, there have been 14 penalties taken and 12 of those have been on target, with eight scored and four saved — Gareth Bale fired his spot kick for Wales over the bar against Turkey, and Gerard Moreno hit the post for Spain against Poland. Four saves from 12 on-target penalties points to the dominance of takers. At Russia 2018, 29 penalties were awarded and 22 were scored, so keepers are clearly on the losing side of the argument.

“You now have the likes of [Bruno] Fernandes and [Marcus] Rashford, who just walk up and look at the keeper before striking the ball, that’s how confident they are,” Steele said. “But the attackers now know if they do that, as long as you hit it with pace and power, you will score,”

But there is a Southgate or Baggio at every major tournament, so scoring penalties is not as straightforward as the statistics suggest, even though so much time is spent on the training ground and in the data suite on preparing for success with penalties.

Penalty shootouts are no longer left to chance, with players not expected simply to “pick a corner and don’t change your mind,” as the mantra often went before in-depth analysis and psychology came into play. Both penalty takers and goalkeepers are given every possible shred of information to help them win the duel with their opponent, but footballers aren’t computers, so human error will always play its part.

“In 2008, Manchester United used the same German company as Chelsea [for penalty data],” Steele said. “They had over 16,000 penalties on their database and we went to them for all the Champions League games and would pay for a package of information.

“So, in the 2008 Champions League final every Chelsea penalty in the shootout went to Edwin van der Sar’s left until it got to [Nicolas] Anelka. Chelsea decided that Edwin had a weakness on his left-hand side and every one went to his left until Anelka took his and went the other way. Edwin saved it and became a hero. Anelka was absolutely bollocked by Chelsea for going against the information they had.”

Sometimes, both the goalkeeper and the taker know where the penalty will go, even before the ball is kicked. A taker will have his routine and the keeper will know all about it, so it becomes a battle of wills.

England captain Harry Kane, who has scored 44 of his 51 career penalties, has not missed a spot kick since Kosovo’s Arijanet Muric saved in a Euro 2020 qualifier in September 2019. The Tottenham Hotspur forward is almost certain to be the first man on Southgate’s list if England go into a shootout in the weeks ahead and, in an interview with The Times, he admitted that his penalty routine has become anything but a secret.

“My run-up is always the same,” Kane said. “With technology now, keepers know some players might run up differently if they’re taking it to their right compared to taking it to their left. So I try to take that out of the equation. If they do guess right, I’m backing myself with the power and hopefully the accuracy that they’re not going to save it.

“I feel like I’m always the one in control. I can go left, I can go right, I can go down the middle. I have the same routine every time I take a penalty. Whether I’m going left or right, it’s always the same. It stops goalkeepers from studying me because there’s nothing to study.”

Harry Kane doesn’t change his run-up regardless of where he intends on placing his penalty. MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

As Kane’s approach shows, the psychology of taking penalties is as important as the technique. Having the strength of mind to stick to a tried-and-tested routine is crucial when the pressure is at its most intense. And psychologist Young, the author of “The Making of a Leader,” says that all players — penalty experts or otherwise — can succeed by following some basic principles.

“I remember one coach saying there is no point practising penalties as you can’t replicate the pressure,” Young told ESPN. “They were right, of course you can’t, but you can try.

“I’d ask players to practice the walk and see it as another element of their routine. The best players use ‘the walk’ to their advantage, take ownership of the critical moment and build it in to their routine. Next time there is a shootout, pay attention to the walk and you should see some different approaches.”

At the 2018 World Cup, having lost six of the previous seven penalty shootouts, England didn’t leave anything to chance as they prepared for the knockout rounds in Russia, and in the second round, they defeated Colombia 5-4 on penalties in Moscow.

Jordan Pickford saved from a crestfallen Carlos Bacca at the 2018 World Cup. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

“In 2018, England had a psychologist as part of the backroom staff and I think you could tell they’d worked on the penalties,” Young said. “Each player seemed to have a consistent routine that was specific to them.

“Watch out for a player’s breathing or the pace at which they go through their routine. Non-penalty takers [those who wouldn’t usually take one in a game or for their clubs] might subconsciously speed up in order to ‘get it over with.’

“Psychologist Geir Jordet actually examined all penalties ever taken in the Euros, World Cup and Champions League. One of the findings was that players who turn their backs on the keeper [avoidance] when preparing to take the kick are more likely to miss. Also, the quicker a player reacts to the referee’s whistle, the more likely they’ll fail to score.

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SATURDAY, JUNE 26
• Wales vs. Denmark (11:50 a.m. ET)
• Italy vs. Austria (2:50 p.m. ET)
• Chicago vs. Philadelphia (8 p.m. ET)
• Portland vs. Minnesota (11 p.m. ET)

SUNDAY, JUNE 27
• Netherlands vs. Czech Rep (11:50 a.m. ET)
• Belgium vs. Portugal (2:50 p.m. ET)
• NYCFC vs. D.C. United (6 p.m. ET)
• Dallas vs. New England (9 p.m. ET)

MONDAY, JUNE 28
• Croatia vs. Spain (11:50 a.m. ET)
• France vs. Switzerland (2:50 p.m. ET)

TUESDAY, JUNE 29
• England vs. Germany (11:50 a.m. ET)
• Sweden vs. Ukraine (2:50 p.m. ET)

“All these things feed into a player’s preparation, especially if they’re not used to taking penalties. So, face the keeper and remember the whistle is not a starter’s gun!”

Jamie Carragher was the classic non-penalty taker when he volunteered to take a spot kick for England against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal. The Liverpool defender had scored twice in two previous shootouts for his club, but his experience was limited to those two spot kicks. Nonetheless, after impressing in training, he was selected to take one against Portugal — and missed.

“I was put on in the 118th minute solely to take a penalty,” Carragher told ESPN. “I don’t think I even touched the ball before I took my kick.

“I actually scored my penalty, but I didn’t wait for the referee to blow his whistle, so I had to retake it and that’s when it was like, ‘Whoa, what now?’ It blew my mind and I started to worry about the keeper knowing where I would put the ball. So I went the other way with my second penalty and he saved it.”

During his time at United, Steele memorably teed up goalkeeper Ben Foster for a shootout against Tottenham in the 2009 EFL Cup final by showing him footage of previous Spurs penalties on an iPod. Foster’s save from Jamie O’Hara’s penalty was enough to win the cup for United.

“People tried to claim that we cheated,” Steele said. “It’s all about detail, but it ultimately comes down to personal choice. You can have all the information in the world, but you still go on the gut feeling of the goalkeeper on the night.”

Penalty shootouts are football’s equivalent of Russian roulette in that, eventually, it is going to go badly wrong. Somebody has to miss.

While knowing that the odds are stacked against them, goalkeepers know that their own tricks can influence a player to miss the target or hit the ball poorly enough for it to be saved. Bruce Grobbelaar famously did his “spaghetti legs” act during the 1984 European Cup final shootout for Liverpool against AS Roma, pretending to go weak at the knees before the shots were taken. Liverpool won after misses by Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani.

But such tactics don’t always work. England’s Joe Hart attempted to distract Italy’s players during a Euro 2012 quarterfinal shootout by pulling faces and making loud noises. Andrea Pirlo was so unaffected by Hart’s antics that he scored with a “Panenka” chip to help steer Italy to victory.

“When I used to work with Peter [Schmeichel], he would say that it’s a long walk for the penalty taker,” Steele said. “So he never used to get involved until they got into the penalty area, and then he would focus and show his size.

“How much is going on their mind? When do you say something or do something? When I work with keepers, I say that you have to make an impact when the taker gets to within 25 yards. But I’m a big believer in staying as big as you can.

“[Former Liverpool goalkeeper] Pepe Reina and Schmeichel had that great strength. Schmeichel wouldn’t dive early — he would deliberately stay as big as he could for as long as possible.”

Young also sees key areas where goalkeepers are successfully attempting to distract the taker in the moments before the ball is kicked.

“In Jordet’s research, they found that the longer the keeper makes the kicker wait, the more likely they are to miss,” Young said. “So watch out for keepers leaving a towel or drink away from the goal.”

England’s shootout win against Colombia in 2018 proved that even teams with the worst records can overcome their history. A year later, England won another shootout when beating Switzerland in a UEFA Nations League third-place playoff.

Some teams are better than others, though. Germany have won their past six shootouts and haven’t lost one since 1976, when Antonin Panenka’s legendary penalty, which now bears his name, sealed a 7-5 shootout win for Czechoslovakia in the European Championship final.

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And Carragher, who twice won shootouts with Liverpool, admits that he felt a sense of invincibility in a club shirt that he never experienced with England with penalties.

“I never lost one with Liverpool and always had the belief that we would win them,” Carragher said. “It was different with England. You felt that you would lose before you even started.

“Maybe that was purely psychological, because with Liverpool we knew we had a winning history in shootouts. We never had that with England.”

But as players from the 16 remaining teams at Euro 2020 start to intensify their penalty practising, Young has one message to help them: “Don’t blank out the fear.”

“I think one of the lingering misconceptions of psychology is still that it’s all about positive thinking,” he said. “You have to acknowledge the unhelpful thoughts and feelings you’re having, as opposed to trying to push them away.

“Nerves are a way of recognising we are getting ready to perform. I’d ask a player to focus on maintaining a rational mindset, concentrate on what they can control [routine, pace and plan] and potentially use breathing or grounding techniques to stay in the present moment.

“The key here is that they would’ve practiced all of these elements over a period of time — not just expecting them to turn up and wing it on the day.

“If they’ve prepared thoroughly, and followed their routine, they’ve done all they can do. You can’t guarantee the right result, but you’ve given yourself a better chance.”

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