The mental pressure of penalties

What goes through a footballer's mind when they're playing?...
05 June 2018

Interview with 

Bradley Busch, Inner Drive


What goes through a player's mind when they play? How much of an impact does it have on their performance? Chris Smith and Katie Haylor spoke to Bradley Busch, a psychologist with the company Inner Drive, to learn what goes on in the mind of a player. First up, Chris asked about the scope of the business...

Bradley - Hi Chris, Yeah. We do quite a lot of work in football. Generally, players come to us in one of two ways: the first is either if they’ve been referred to us by a team mate. We’ve recently had quite a few players approach us after they’ve read our book “Release Your Inner Drive.” And what we’re seeing more and more recently is a number of players starting to work with us and be recommended either by people around them, so people like their coaches or their agents, and more and more their parents as well.

Chris - Who have you worked with who we might have heard of?

Bradley - Due to confidentiality and psychologist’s ethics, we can’t talk about some specific names, but we can talk about some of the clubs that they play for. We’ve worked with players from Man United, from Tottenham, from West Ham. We’ve got a couple who will be playing at the World Cup.

Chris - Wow. So we’re expecting great things then. No pressure on you Bradley.

Bradley - Fingers crossed.

Chris - Talking of pressure: arguably and it always comes down to this doesn’t it at the World Cup - penalties. That must be something that strikers dread?

Bradley - Some do. Some really relish it and look forward to taking centre stage and being the guy who takes the shot that wins the match for their country.

Chris - What do you do to help them to make sure that they don’t fluff?

Bradley - There’s actually quite a lot of research that probably isn’t used as well as it should be around how teams can do better at penalties for this World Cup. For example, we know that going first in a penalty shoot out in the World Cup increases your chances of winning by about 20 percent.

Chris - Really. Why?

Bradley - Generally speaking it’s linked to stress. Essentially, stress can really hinder performance, and going second and know that if you miss your team is out is more stressful than if you go first because you know that there’s still another chance for your team to go through.

Other stuff that we’ve seen: looking at England, and we tend to have one of the worst penalty records out of all the international teams.

Chris - No, really?

Bradley - I think we have about a one in five record of winning penalty shoot outs. And what one study found was that England players rush their penalty kick after the referee blows his whistle far quicker than all the other countries. So the reaction time between the referee blowing his whistle and them taking the penalty is about 0.2 seconds. Just to kind of give that some comparison; Usain Bolt would be happy with that.

Chris - What’s Germany do? Because Germany always characteristically beat us at penalties so do they pause for longer is that what you’re saying?

Bradley - Yeah. And not even that much longer. Spain used to have a similar problem but they’ve got better in the last few tournaments. The top teams tend to wait - top teams in terms of penalty success tend to wait about 0.8 to 1 second. So not much longer but just having a moment to have a deep breath, compose yourself. Essentially it seems like the England players historically have wanted to rush it and get it out of the way.

Chris - Are you saying we peak too soon?

Bradley - Well, I think they want to kind of get it out of the way really.

Chris - Why does it make a difference if you delay?

Bradley - Essentially, penalty shoot out is often not linked too much to ability because everyone has the ability at that level. It’s often linked to stress; for example anything you can do to reduce stress will help. Having a deep breath and taking a moment to compose your thoughts. There’s a big thing around focusing on what you want, not what you don’t want. So, for example, to give it a step back from football, if I tell you to think of any fruit you want but don’t think of a banana.

Chris- The first think I’m unpeeling in my brain is, yeah.

Bradley - Yeah. And because, generally speaking, the way brain works is we tend to not really register the word don’t so much. And so, if the payers are thinking don’t miss, don’t hit it over, don’t be the guy who loses it for my team it bring all those thoughts, the things they want to avoid to the forefront. Whereas, if they can take a deep breathe and focus on what they want, and pick their spot, and not change their mind I think it generally improves performance.

Chris - Does it also help to make the goalie sweat a bit because all the time you’re standing there not kicking the ball they are experiencing mounting stress levels, which is going to put them off more?

Bradley - The research today is focussed more on what the impact has on the player taking the penalty. However, there is some really interesting stuff goalkeepers cad do to increase their chances. They found that if a goalie was to stay in the middle of the goal and never actually not dive,he’d be twice as likely to save the penalty.

And the reason they don’t do this one of two reasons: one is towards game theory, which is kind of if you do that all the time people will know that and so won’t become effective. But also there’s this concept called like an action bias where people want to do things. If I dive and I don’t save it at least people will see that I’ve tried, whereas the worry is that if I stay in the middle and I don’t save it I’ll come in for the criticism. So, therefore, it’s the illusion of doing something often trumps the logical thing would be to sometimes stand still.

Chris - So just very briefly for us, Bradley, can you give us some bullet points of  advice that you give top performers of how to be at the top of their game?

Bradley - Sure. And a lot of the advice we give them comes from a range of… it’s not just sports psychology, it might come from educational psychology, or neuroscience.

The three top tips, I guess:

One - We teach players to focus on what they can control on the pitch not what they can’t change. A lot of players who might be tempted to focus on the stuff they can’t change, such as mistakes in the past or referee decisions or what the crowd are saying. Whereas helping them be process focussed and focussing on their role, their responsibility and playing what they see. Not getting ahead of themselves and catastrophising will be the first area.

The second would be around helping peoples and athletes develop their self-talk. And when psychologists talk about self-talk, it’s not really this cheesy overly positive X factor just because you say you’re good somehow it makes you good. It’s more about are you talking to yourself in a helpful or unhelpful way? Are you helping yourself give yourself instructions on what to do better? Essentially if we were to write down everything you say to yourself and read it back to you, would that script be helpful or would it be something that hinders you?

Chris - Just very briefly the third one, quickly.

Bradley - The third one is helping athletes off the pitch improve their training mindset and resilience, so using mistakes as learning curves. Making sure they're focussing on development and not just short term performance so that they get better over time.


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