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Penalty shoot-outs: why are English footballers so anxious?

England’s football fans are not just worried about Thursday’s last-ditch stand against Uruguay: they’re also anxious about their national team’s perennial failure at penalty shoot-outs should they qualify for the knock-out stage of the World Cup.

England have lost six out of seven penalty shoot-outs, the worst record of any major footballing nation. Yet Roy Hodgson recently told the Daily Telegraph that practising hadn’t helped his team and attributed their failure at shoot-outs to a “psychological block”.

There is now a plethora of views as to why the English footballers can’t get their act together over shoot-outs. The common strand is that the unrelenting series of losses has made English players not only increasingly anxious but that they are now suffering from the stereotype of losing.

Ben Lyttleton, in his new book, Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, specifically links the English team’s inability to perform under pressure – the “choke effect” – to its history of losses that have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Two issues stand out in trying to understand what is happening with penalties. The first is technique and the second is the mind-set of the players. The two are inter-related.

While Hodgson insists that practice hasn’t helped his team, the rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward argues that practice for shoot-outs is everything and should be focused on year round. Woodward stresses that players need to establish an unchanging, consistent technique through constant routine so that this is embedded in their performance.

Criticising the randomness of England’s penalty practice sessions at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Woodward said: “I would do it differently. At the end of every training session, I would make every player take a penalty, and incentivise them: ‘You’re not leaving till you’ve all scored’.”

There is psychological sense in Woodward’s approach. Ian Williamson, a consultant psychologist and former rugby player, observes that English footballers “hope” for a win in penalty shoot-outs, whereas footballers from other countries “believe” they will win.

The distinction is down to whether players are able to have the delusional mind-set that is required in sport to win. When this is eroded, for example by a series of failures, the omnipotent belief system that enables a player to focus exclusively on a win is undermined. In this respect, practice is an essential component in creating the delusion of winning – and winning at all costs.

Dr. Geir Jordet, director of psychology at the Norwegian Centre of Football Excellence, has studied penalty shoot-outs extensively and highlights two behavioural obstacles exhibited by English players.

The first is that English players take the fastest time over penalty kicks. Gareth Southgate, whose weak penalty shot was famously saved by a German goalkeeper, leading to England’s exit from Euro 96, expresses the dread of the moment in his book, Woody and Nord: A Football Friendship. “All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with.” Other players have described as a kind of purgatory the long wait for the referee’s go-ahead to take the kick.

The other behavioural difference noted by Jordet is the English players’ habit of not facing the goalkeeper as they walk back to prepare their run-up. These two behaviours are called Hastening and Hiding and are indicators of stress.

The penalty shoot-out is unquestionably pivotal in the game and requires players to be not only focused – to a delusional degree – but also to be free in expressing their aggression. Unlike the dynamics of team playing, the penalty shoot-out stands out because it is an individual player who determines the success or failure of the team and who faces the goalkeeper alone.

But is the stress undoubtedly felt by English penalty-takers due to a fear of failure, or are they in fact demonstrating an unconscious fear of success?

The act of facing the goalkeeper and kicking the ball into the net represents on a symbolic level a triumph over the paternal figure of the goalkeeper. The player who “scores”, as the sexual jargon indicates, has managed to overcome the father figure and penetrate into the sacred and protected female area of the net – i.e. the vagina.

This is the classic Oedipal scenario Freud describes of the child who wants to kill the father (the goalkeeper) and possess mother for himself.

But why should English players find the shoot-out more stressful than others? Is it perhaps because the English game is imbued with a “macho” identity that is not as dominant in some other countries? Does this intense “macho” character point to some underlying anxiety about the feminine aspects of the game?

Ian Williamson argues that not only do the English want to get the kick over with as quickly as possible but they “kick” the ball as if what is most important is to be powerful and fast. This is markedly different from, for example, French players who tend to “caress” the ball and take their time over the kick. The difference in sexual attitudes could not be clearer.

Most English players are drawn from relatively uneducated working-class backgrounds. Physical strength and prowess are prized, as is the success of the team. Individual competitiveness is also encouraged but within certain limits. It is common to find in these communities fathers who want their sons to do the jobs they have done but who may be actively suspicious and discouraging when their sons aspire to further education and white-collar jobs.

The “macho” culture also discourages putting any value on feelings, thinking and psychology. Competition is good as long as it doesn’t involve rising above one’s station and transcending the barriers of opportunity. The envy of a more privileged and “softer” intellectual elite may be a psychological stumbling block when it comes to surpassing one’s father. Oedipal triumph has its own penalties. ·

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