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England fail at penalties because they are a mental, not technical, action

Thursday 6th July 2017
After England U21's lost to Germany on penalties, manager Aidy Boothroyd stated that he and his team had practised them for weeks. The issue, though, is that penalties are not a technical exercise. They are a mental one, and replicating the same performance under pressure is about far more than mere ability.
I was eight years of age. As a part of my summer, where my parents were desperate for me to expend my energy elsewhere as they proceeded to toil through work, I was sent to a rugby camp for young children. I was always more a football kid myself, but I enjoyed the greater physicality and athletic challenges of the egg-shaped counterpart.

During the lunch break, a few friends and I surrounded a bin, and from a distance of about five or six metres, all took turns in chucking our bottles into it. None of us failed. Not once. It was very easy and, actually, a little boring. The coach of the camp saw, from afar, each one of us repeatedly sink out bottles into the wide bin, and decided to play a little experiment with us. He gathered together all of the kids at the camp, around 60 to 70, lined the five of us up and gave us each one chance to again throw our bottles int the bin. It was from exactly the same distance, using the same bottle, throwing it into the same bin. What we had to do was exactly the same, the only difference was the fact that we were engulfed by a rather large crowd; the only difference was pressure.

It proceeded that every single throw was errant, either missing wide of the mark or dropping short, all of us failing to replicate the same technique that was so successful just a few minutes earlier. Using what had happened, the coach then stepped up and highlighted the influence of pressure, stating that being able to replicate the same technique over and over again is as much a mental skill as it is a technical skill; it is dependent on our ability to perform under pressure, rather perform regardless of context.

In a very similar way, penalties and their dangers have haunted the dreams of many an England fan. There has long been a debate centred on whether teams should practice penalties. Should they work on the technique of striking a ball, attempting to replicate the same process over and over again without any deviation or error, or should they trust their natural ability as professional footballers, hoping that they are able to simply turn up when the moment matters most?

There is no right or wrong answer. It is not that simple. After England u21's penalty loss to Germany, manager Aidy Boothroyd revealed that he and his team had been working on their spot kicks for weeks beforehand:

"We have practised and practised and practised penalties. We've looked at good practice, bad practice, the speed penalties are taken at - we've gone through it all. In the end, their goalkeeper makes two good saves from guys that usually put them in with their eyes closed."

But working on penalties in practice, studying them in great detail, highlighting the pros and cons of the various approaches do not sufficiently help players deal with pressure. While better technique allows a greater margin for error and is more easily replicable, it is the mental fortitude and focus that allows players to repeat their technique even in the most demanding of circumstances.

England do not lose penalties because they are worse or better players. They do not lose penalties from bad or good luck. They lose penalties because they the lack mental skill and strength to perform at their best, even at an action as simple as kicking a ball, when it matters most. Pressure, unfortunately, makes a mess of us all, from an eight-year-old kid to an international footballer.
Andrew Dowdeswell

A sport obsessed 20 something who just really wants Arsenal to finally win the league. Please Wenger, what the hell happened to you?!


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