“Anxiety can creep into the mind of the penalty taker when they ponder the unknown – which way the goalkeeper may go and the perceived threat of missing,” says Aston Villa sports psychologist Tom Bates. No matter how often you’ve kicked that ball in training, this ‘fear’ can make taking a penalty feel like an alien act. To combat this you need to do the following:
Go to rehearsals
“As much as possible, you should train for penalties as if they were full-blooded tournament shootouts,” says Bates. At Brentford, the players used to wait in the centre circle, then perform the walk of doom up to the spot, meaning both kickers and keepers rehearse the scenario in full.
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Reinforce the rewards
“Make it a competitive shootout to replicate the pressure element too,” says Bates. Divide up into two teams with a ‘punishment’ of additional laps of the pitch for the team that loses the shootout contest. There’s your incentive.
Picture your celebration
When you convert a penalty in training, have a set physical celebration – maybe a clenched fist or a hand clap. Then focus your mind on the here and now – not the future (‘Which way will the goalkeeper go?’), not the past (‘We’ve lost on penalties before’) – and do that celebration again. “This anchoring technique works by reminding you of the success you had before and it aids your focus.”
Win it in your head
“Visualisation is a tangible concept,” says Bates. “Running through your penalty kick in your mind will spark a neurological reaction with an emotional outcome, with the advantage that it will boost your confidence.” See yourself succeed from the spot before you step up to take it.
Tell yourself it’s in
“Self-talk is something we do all the time, even though we may not realise it,” says Bates. Positive thoughts, backed up with statements you tell yourself such as ‘I can do this: I can put this away’, can help focus the mind on the task in hand and dismiss self-doubt.
You’ll see Cristiano Ronaldo do it before whacking in an unstoppable free-kick from 25 yards. Beckham does the same. What is it? Take a deep breath and we’ll tell you. “It’s a centering technique,” says Bates. “Players use a deep, slow inhale of air to focus their attention on the centre of the body – with the effect of calming them and giving them a sense of control over the move that they’re about to make.”
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