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'The idea you can’t prepare is complete rubbish' - Why penalty shootouts are no lottery

Tim Wigmore, author of The Best: How Elite Athletes are Made, is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Marcus Rashford prepares for his penalty against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
Marcus Rashford prepares for his penalty against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
Image: Elmar Kremser/SVEN SIMON

ENGLAND’S PENALTY SHOOT-OUT win over Colombia in the last-16 of the 2018 World Cup was greeted as less a triumph than it was a kind of exorcism, what with it being the first time England had managed to avoid losing a World Cup shootout. 

For Gareth Southgate and his team, however, it was a consequence of their methodical practice. 

Another consequence should be disabusing everyone of the notion that penalties are a lottery and not worth practicing. 

“The idea you can’t prepare is complete rubbish”, says Tim Wigmore on this week’s Behind the Lines

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Tim is the co-author of The Best: How Elite Athletes are Made, and Southgate’s approach to spot kicks is among the book’s many case studies. 

Prior to Southgate’s arrival, penalty practice was minimal at England sessions. When it did happen, the focus was on preparing for penalties, rather than the unique dynamics of a shootout. 

After England were knocked out of Euro 2012 on penalties by Italy, Roy Hodgson lamented that their penalty preparations were of no benefit, saying it was impossible to reproduce the “tired legs, the pressure, and the nervous tension.” Glenn Hoddle sang a similar tune after the ’98 World Cup. 

Southgate took a different approach. 

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, he conducted psychometric tests with each of his players to determine who was best suited to take a spot kick, and then addressed the “tired legs” issue by holding penalty practice at the end of heavy sessions. 

They also built in the mechanics of the shootout, so players lined up on the half-way line and were asked to recreate the long walk to the penalty spot. Sometimes, to increase pressure, they had to tell the goalkeeper where they were aiming. 

“We interviewed Marcus Rashford”, says Tim, “and he spoke about how England were open in talking about that traumatic history with penalty shootouts. 

“They sought to use that as a positive. When you’re England in a penalty shootout, the default is, ‘You will lose.’ That’s what is expected. So you’ve got the chance to write a different, and more positive story.” 

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They also developed routines to deal with the pressure. The primary one was a process in which Jordan Pickford always handed England players the ball prior to their spot-kick, which became a way of grounding the tension of a World Cup knockout game in the familiarity of training. 

Rashford scored his spot kick against Colombia, and then held up his end of the routine in approaching Pickford and wishing him luck on the next penalty. Pickford then saved Carlos Bacca’s penalty by diving in the direction England’s coaching staff told him to go, following an analysis of Bacca’s previous penalties. 

Taking one’s time is also crucial: Wigmore quotes a study that analysed 366 penalties and found that takers who shot within one second of the referee’s whistle scored 58% of the time, whereas those who took longer than one second converted 80% of their penalties.

“You can’t totally replicate the pressure, but if you’re doing exams in school, you’ll do past papers under the same time conditions as it’s an obvious thing to do and makes it a little more familiar. 

“It’s not the same as the exam itself, but it makes the exam a lot less difficult. England did a lot of research on shootouts and looked at it so methodically, and England, having once been in the dark ages on this, now have more cutting edge than anyone else on shootouts in the world. So we might see England win a few more shootouts in the years ahead.” 

The notion that penalties are “a lottery” and not worth thoroughly practising is a kind of pre-emptive excuse for losing, says Wigmore. 

“If you fail and call it a lottery, you’ve given yourself a comfort blanket. If you do all this research and lose anyway, people will say, ‘Well I told you it would make no difference, mate, you should have been practising other things and wouldn’t have needed to get the shootout.’

“England were practising for months and months, a big difference to that lottery mindset, which is a kind of get out of jail free card.” 

Listen to the full interview with Tim Wigmore by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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