My favourite book on sport is On Penalties by Andrew Anthony. It was written in 2001, when, after losses in two World Cups and one European Championship, an England defeat on penalties seemed to have become inevitable.
Successive England management teams had, by their own admission, been casual in their preparation and planning for penalties (“We never practised,” confirmed Chris Waddle, who missed in England’s first competitive shoot-out in 1990), despite the fact that shoot-outs had been a part of the international game for decades. Yosef Dagan is credited with originating the penalty shoot-out after watching his native Israeli team lose a 1968 Olympic quarter-final game against Bulgaria when, after deadlock at the end of extra time, the match was decided on the drawing of lots. England managers saw the penalty shoot-out that replaced the drawing of lots as just another lottery; they didn’t ask the team to practise them because they believed it was impossible to recreate on the training ground that same feeling of pressure felt during the real shoot-out. Andrew Anthony – and many of the ex-professional footballers interviewed for On Penalties – disagreed with this logic.
“I have never understood the line of argument which says there is no point in practising because it’s completely different on the day,” says Anthony. “Can you imagine Tiger Woods not bothering with four or five-foot puts on the practice green because there is no pressure involved?” To further challenge the idea that practice and preparation is largely irrelevant, Anthony investigated the physical and psychological science of sport and discovered how repeating the same action of scoring a penalty kick multiple times on the training ground embeds a physical ‘muscle memory’ of what the right kick feels like, as well as a positive mental visualisation of seeing the ball hit the target time and time again. For players, embedding both of these experiences in the mind and body can help override the effect of pressure when the penalty shoot-out finally comes around.
It took a man who has been haunted by a penalty miss of his own for over 20 years to finally de-mystify penalties for us. On July 3rd, England won their first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out, just before midnight on Moscow time, perhaps heralding a new dawn for the England team.
Even if England fail to progress further, Gareth Southgate has dispelled the myth that a penalty shoot-out is as random as a flip of a coin, an unpredictable lottery impossible to prepare for. He has done this through meticulous planning, repetition and psychology, all part of a plan and a strategic approach to the penalty-shoot out never before attempted by an England manager.
Under Southgate, players undergo psychometric testing to help select who will take the penalties. The list of penalty takers is regularly updated and discussed throughout the tournament and amended depending on the physical and mental condition of the players. Southgate also insists that his players practise penalties at the end of training sessions when they are physically and mentally exhausted in order to simulate the intense pressure-cooker of a World Cup shoot-out.
I think the story of England’s first World Cup penalty shoot-out win is an inspiring one that shows what experience, planning and strategy can deliver. You’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to have a plan and a strategy, focus, a clear vision of what you want to achieve and then follow it through and go for it. That’s how we do things at LAW Creative. We’ve won a few trophies for our cabinet by working this way. Let’s hope England can do the same.
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