World Cup 2014: Behind the Penalty, the Shrinks

Updated: 27 June 2014 14:57 IST

Taking a penalty can be stressful for players. It's no surprise that when the World Cup moves into the knockout phase, where penalty shootouts determine tied matches, psychologists are there in hand-holding mode.

World Cup 2014: Behind the Penalty, the Shrinks
Thought scoring on a penalty was easy? Think again. © AP

Paris:

Penalty-taking: a no-brainer, right? There you are, 11 metres (12 yards) from the goal -- no defender in front, as much runup as you want and a keeper who cannot move off his line. What's not to like?

Well... how about heart-stopping stress? The pressure of knowing that with a single kick, you will become either a national hero or a national joke?

It's no surprise that when the World Cup moves into the knockout phase, where penalty shootouts determine tied matches, psychologists are there in hand-holding mode.

Players can be "crippled" by the shootout, says Geir Jordet, a professor in sport psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, who has discreetly counselled many stars on how to cope with the ordeal.

"One player told me that as he was in the centre circle, waiting to walk to the penalty spot, all he could think was, 'does it show on television that my knees are shaking so much, I'm so nervous?'"

The world's most confident penalty-takers are Germany, which has won all four of its World Cup shooutouts.

At the other end of the scale is England, which wretchedly has lost all three and in 1998 even brought in a faith healer to try to overcome the players' inner demons.

"England couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo," the great physicist Stephen Hawking said in May, using an expression rarely heard in cosmology.

Introduced nearly 123 years ago, a penalty attempt will result in a score between two-thirds and three-quarters of the time, according to data from top-flight European club football.

But this statistical advantage for the striker is a mental advantage for the keeper, says Jordet.

If the keeper fails to save a penalty, he will get sympathy; if he succeeds, he will be covered in glory.

"The shooter, though, always faces the expectation that he should score. You know what's expected of you, and if you don't score, you become the scapegoat for the whole team and the whole nation."

According to mathematicians at Liverpool's John Moores University, the perfect penalty is a ball that is struck high and in the corner at between 90 and 104 kilometres (55-65 miles) per hour.

Anything faster boosts the risk of inaccuracy -- which explains why the "just blast it" principle so often fails -- and anything slower is easier for the goalie to intercept.

The tension between the laws of physics and the state of the mind has bred innumerable tactics as sides try to outfox one another.

Jordet says his team has studied videos of every single shootout in the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League and interviewed nearly three dozen players to build up ideas about the duel.

Goalies, for instance, love "look-at-me" tricks to distract the striker.

Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly moves in the 1980s earned him the nickname of "Spaghetti Legs" -- a tactic that inspired his club successor, Jerzy Dudek, in a famous shootout in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. Fans put together a novelty dance song, "Du the Dudek," in his honour.

On the striker's side, there's help, too. For mental strength, strikers should be supported by team-mates -- the group huddle is important -- and coaches must be willing to talk about penalty dread.

And the watchword is practice, again and again. One technique, derived from research in the 1990s by Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary in Canada, is "quiet eye training."

In this, a striker uses an eye tracker device to condition himself to gaze at a target spot -- the cherished top left and right corners of the goal -- before stepping up for the kick.

By rehearsing over and over, the player not only improves speed and accuracy, but also focuses on the task in hand, making it easier to shut out pressure, crowd noise and the goalkeeper.



Topics : FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil Football
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