England following the science on winning penalty shoot-outs

Experts can see that years of academic work and psychological preparation helped the football team in their recent victory over Switzerland, and could prove key against the Netherlands

July 10, 2024
Munich, Germany - June 5 banner for the uefa european football match in munich at the old town of munich on June 5, 2024
Source: iStock/FooTToo

Although English football fans complain that the “lottery” of penalty shoot-outs has often gone against them in major tournaments, sports psychologists have long maintained that academic research can help – and that the team are following the science in Euro 2024.

Having been knocked out of tournaments on penalties on six occasions between 1990 and 2012, England have triumphed in three of their last four shoot-outs under manager Gareth Southgate, including a faultless display to beat Switzerland last weekend.

Their recent change in fortune has not been an accident but is the result of scientific expertise and preparation with sports psychologists since Mr Southgate became manager, according to Geir Jordet, professor of sports and psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

Professor Jordet’s work on social psychology – including years of research and peer-reviewed papers on penalty shoot-outs – indirectly fed into England’s new and improved process via a dedicated five-man penalty project group at the Football Association, along with other breakthroughs.

While the England camp refuse to reveal their exact techniques to the press, that research was on display in the team’s recent quarter-final victory.

Professor Jordet said a four-phase process explained in a paper of his had become the “foundation for their approach…to gain more control over the penalty shoot-outs”. Other elements that come from academia include a “buddy system” so players are less isolated, an efficient team huddle, the positioning of where players stand, how they celebrate and taking more time with their spot kicks.

“These are things we’ve spoken about for 15 years, and it’s fantastic to see that now we’re getting there and there is widespread adoption of some of these principles, and that’s of course very fun,” said Professor Jordet.

“But it’s also a little bit scary that players and teams are adopting this knowledge and it’s a part of what’s happening…on the big stage.”

The influence of such language on England is clear. Speaking to the BBC on the eve of the semi-final, Mr Southgate said penalties were not a lottery, but “something that you can prepare for and that you can take some control of”.

According to reports, England have also consulted Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor of managerial economics and strategy at the London School of Economics, about penalties.

Jon Rhodes, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Plymouth and an expert on performance routines and imagery, said it was obvious that captain Harry Kane and the rest of the players were following a “well-planned, well-developed, well-rehearsed” mental process and a routine that was grounded in academia.

“That’s the point of science – we can test what works, see what doesn’t work and improve on it, which is what they’ve been doing. That’s what Gareth Southgate has done very well at…to connect the players through these routines, which are very well-rehearsed and are science-backed,” Dr Rhodes said.

Professor Jordet, who recently published Pressure: Lessons from the Psychology of the Penalty Shootout, agreed that Mr Southgate, who infamously missed a penalty in England’s Euro 1996 defeat to Germany, had played a big role as part of the FA’s “knowledge-based, academia-positive” environment.

That approach was a break in tradition from football’s conservative nature, which is partly why he thinks it has taken a long time for psychology to be welcome in the sport.

“I think academia has played a role in football with more tangible contributions – we’ve had a physical revolution in the last 20 years or so, an analytics and data revolution, but penalty shoot-outs are about psychology,” he said.

“It’s about the emotional, social aspect; it’s much more vague and abstract…and that’s much more difficult for football to embrace.”

Professor Jordet said academics had historically struggled to communicate their findings to sports practitioners, but he hoped the attention being paid to psychologists would trigger more research in this area.

According to the evidence, England’s win over Switzerland means they are more likely to triumph in their next shoot-out – which is good news for fans ahead of their semi-final against the Netherlands this evening.

Professor Jordet estimated that England’s seven years of preparation and their robust processes gave them a 60 per cent chance of victory against the Dutch if the match were to go beyond extra time.

“The probability is based on limited data…but of course there’s no guarantee and, England being England, there could be other factors here as well,” he added.

England’s process failed them in the European Championships final against Italy in 2021, with the players who missed penalties all receiving vile abuse online from fans. Professor Jordet said this, too, was a failure of sports psychology to learn from the 50 years of “pain” since penalty shoot-outs were introduced.

“We’ve tossed players out into these events without giving them strategies or support…and they’ve come back and failed and become scapegoats for their whole country,” he said.

“I feel like I’m on a mission to help these players, and for that I’m ecstatic that we’re getting somewhere now.”

And according to Dr Rhodes, Mr Southgate has used academic principles to create a team in which the players feel protected so that player well-being now comes first, no matter the result.

“We win and lose together as a team, and that’s been amazing to watch as a psychologist.

“I can look at this and look at the research and say what Gareth Southgate is doing is [that] he’s employing the best sports psychology techniques in this really pressure-heavy environment, and clearly the players are thriving.”


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