History yet again has repeated itself. Harry Kane misses a crucial penalty for England football team as they bow out of World Cup 2022 in Qatar. On so many occasions before, similar occurrences have arisen where missed penalties play huge part in England being eliminated from major championships; think back to when Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed penalties in 1990, Gareth Southgate in Euro 96, Paul Ince and David Batty in France 1998, David Beckham and Darius Vassell in 2004, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in 2006, Ashley Young and Ashley Cole in 2012, and Rashford Sancho and Saka in the European Championship Cup Final shoot-out in 2020 after extra time.
A professional footballer puts the ball on the penalty spot to take a penalty for their team to progress to the next round of the European Championship or World Cup. He is 12 meters out with a free shot in a one on one situation. He is expected to score as the nation awaits with all eyes on the moment. The player stands waiting, selecting the target to where they intend to kick the ball. The referee blows the whistle.
Various thoughts can go through players minds at this key moment – some helpful, some not so helpful. It can go all go great, or so horribly wrong from here in the following seconds. Some execute as they had intended and hit their intended target – it is up to the reaction of the goalkeeper in this instance.
For others however, like some of those listed above, the outcome may not be the one intended. Some players have reported their minds to race as they stood over the ball in a way it normally wouldn’t and this can have various outcomes. Some stutter on their run up including an extra and unintended shuffle to kick the ball in a way they normally wouldn’t resulting in different outcome than what they had intended. Others kick to opposite side they intended, with no understanding of why they just did that. Others do something erratic that they can’t quite understand and miss the target completely.
Sport Psychology research has shown an interesting thing about the way skilled practitioners sometimes make the exact error they are specifically trying to avoid. When a penalty taker places the ball on the penalty spot, they might often tell themselves to aim in a certain direction while being conscious not to miss either left or right or over the cross-bar. In a non-pressurised situation, a skilled player would invariably succeed in executing what they wanted to do with the ball.
However, in a competitive game with high levels of pressure, the daunting task of ‘not missing’ can sometimes become too great (See article on dealing with pressure). Too often, the net result is that the player kicks the ball to exactly where they were trying not to hit it. Since this is the exact thing they set out to not do, we call it the “ironic error”.
So what is happening?
When the brain seeks to make the body perform in a specific manner, it relies on two mental processes – an operating process and a monitoring process.
The operating process is responsible for identifying all the steps that will allow us to achieve a desired outcome. If you are going to kick low to goal-keepers left, this might include picking out your exact target of where you want to hit it, starting your run up from the correct spot, staying over the ball on the strike, and executing the kick as desired. For a seasoned professional, this is simple, right?
Simultaneously, a monitoring process is subconsciously at work. This works like a radar sweeping for information on what could go wrong. In relation to a penalty, that might be missing right or left or avoiding getting under the ball and kicking it over the bar. It might be avoiding where the goalie is going and making mind up at last fraction of second, based on where the goalkeeper dives. Once the monitoring process has identified these dangers, it informs the operating process to try harder to find key information that will help the athlete execute its desired outcome; ie hit the drive to the intended spot to score the goal. Both processes work under one control system and operate together as part of a feedback loop.
The system normally works reasonably well and provides us with the effective mental control to do what we intend. It means that a player taking a penalty under zero pressure will generally succeed in putting the ball very accurately to the desired target and will be generally satisfied that the ball went exactly where it was intended.
What can go wrong?
However, in a high stakes competition where a player feels pressure; eg any major competitive scenario, a player may succumb to pressure induced by performance anxiety at key moments. When a player is on the cusp of eternal glory or crushing defeat, the mental space required in their brain for the operating process to function can often be consumed by the mental load or anxiety from feeling under pressure. When this happens, the operating process (“I know what I need to do”) and anxiety (“I am worried”) compete for the same limited mental space. When this occurs, the operating process becomes much less effective at making the player aware of the desired result.
Concurrently, the monitoring process remains largely unaffected under pressure. This is because it works on a subconscious level and it doesn’t take up any cognitive space. This means that by being anxious and feeling under pressure, the monitoring process becomes more prevalent than the operating process. When it carries out a sweep for information on what could go wrong under pressure – and here’s the irony in all this – it brings what could go wrong to the forefront of the person’s consciousness.
In other words, the very mental process that should help the player not to hit the ball off target or to where the goal-keeper is going can be the very reason that he ends up being more likely to hit it to where he had not intended – ie wide or over the bar or straight at the goal-keeper. By attempting to avoid the error, the mind is drawn ever closer to focusing on it.
Recent research has found that more neurotic players are more prone to such ironic errors. However, those most susceptible of the incidence of ironic error are those who mask their performance anxiety under pressure while trying to look nonchalant or “cool”. The reason is that their brains are overloaded by statements that limit their behaviour, such as “be cool” and “don’t show that you’re anxious”.
How can players avoid poor skill execution due to incidence of ironic errors? Anxiety control is central to alleviating the pressure and this may be addressed by using specific relaxation strategies. Reducing the anxiety increases the scope of the operating process to be more in control!
A player could use techniques to control breathing (during competition) or “progressive muscle relaxation” (ideally pre-competition), which involves a series of muscle tensing exercises followed by intervals of relaxation at short intervals allowing the body to feel relaxed.
An additional strategy might be to boost ones confidence with use of positive self talk to buffer the level at which the anxiety might have such an impact. An alternative might be to rephrase negative instructions in a positive way. Instead of a player telling himself “don’t hit the ball over the bar” he should be instructing himself to pick the precise point where he wants to hit the ball and focus on that.
It may also be purely ironic (or maybe not) that Harry Kane's practiced a missed penalty in a comedy skit with ex Rugby international Jonny Wilkinson only months before the World Cup and this may have come back to haunt him when the pressure was at it's greatest. See video clip below
Are you interested in learning more about sport psychology, leadership and winning culture? Take a look at my new online course where you can learn how effective use of sport psychology can enhance your coaching and athlete performance. Course link here: www.udemy.com/course/applied-sport-psychology-and-leadership-in-sport/
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Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychology consultant with the Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport