The European Championships to date have shown that Penalty shoot outs have the capacity to unnerve professional players to such a degree that they struggle to perform what should ordinarily be a pretty simple task – hit the target from 12 yards.

Penalties will be missed due to good goalkeeping but there is no excuse for blazing the ball wide or over the bar in a 1 v 1 situation from such a short distance. It wouldn’t be the Euro’s without someone going home, having fluffed a penalty kick in a penalty shoot out.

It would appear to be straight forward for a professional footballer to score from 12 yards past a goalkeeper, yet many highly skilled footballers miss when it matters most. Even Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest player, missed a penalty in the shootout at the final of the Copa América in June 2016. His Argentina side went on to lose 4-2 to Chile overall.

It was never more evident than in the quarter final between Italy and Germany. After the game finished 1 – 1 after extra time the penalty shoot out threw up an unusual sudden death scenario that required 9 penalties each to separate the two teams. See shoot-out here:

Italian Simeone Zaza with a never ending shuffle missed on his left foot and here is what he said afterwards:

Germany’s Thomas Muller missed as he was looking at the Italian keeper rather than the ball on striking the ball. Mesut Ozil missed off the post for the Gerrmans while Italian Striker Pelle blazed wide with a chance to put the game beyond reach. Bonucci (who had scored in the game from a penalty) chose to go the opposite side and an excellent save from Neuer kept it out before German captain Bastian Schweinsteiger blazed over the bar needlessly. The game was finalised with a successful German spot kick after Man Utd and Italian player Darmian missed.

Research has shown an interesting thing about the way in which players miss vital penalties as they often make the exact error they are trying to avoid. When a player places the ball on the penalty spot, he would often tell himself to aim in a certain direction. Some might tell themselves to aim in a certain direction but not miss. In a less pressurised environment, they would find the back of the net with ease most of the time.

However, in a match with insurmountable levels of pressure, often in a stadium full of screaming fans, the pressure can become too great. (See article on dealing with pressure). More often than not, if a player misses by failure to hit target, it will be a case that the player has put the ball exactly where he was trying not to hit it. Ie Don’t miss left in Pelle’s case and the ball goes too far left. Since this is the thing he set out to not do, we call it the “ironic error”. It is very similar to a golfer standing on a tee box trying “not to hit the ball in the lake” when very often, that is exactly where it goes.


(FILES) This taken on July 02
(FILES) This file photo taken on July 02, 2016 shows Germany’s midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger reacting after missing a spot-kick during a penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2016 quarter-final football match between Germany and Italy at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux on July 2, 2016. Germany striker Mario Gomez has been ruled out of the rest of Euro 2016 through injury while Sami Khedira and captain Bastian Schweinsteiger are doubts for the semi-final, the German Football Federation (DFB) said on July 3, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTOVINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

So what happened?

Why exactly does such a performance error occur? 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 take a penalty, this would include taking the usual number of steps back, thinking of the exact target where you want to hit the ball, running up and scoring on the aimed target. 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 left or hitting the post. 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 score the penalty. 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 on the training pitch 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 competition such as Euro 2016, 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 will be consumed by the mental load 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 with the operating process becoming 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 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 left is the very reason that he ends up being more likely to hit it too far left. 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 these ironic errors. However, those most susceptible of the incidence of ironic error are those who mask their performance anxiety under pressure by 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”.


The fix

How can players avoid the notoriety of missing penalties due to incidence of ironic errors? Anxiety control is central to alleviating the pressure and this may be addressed by using specific relaxation strategies. A player could use techniques to control breathing; or “progressive muscle relaxation”, which involves tensing up a group of muscles as tight as possible and holding them like that for a few seconds. The muscles are then progressively relaxed to their previous state and the player experiences less anxiety as a result.

An additional strategy might be to boost ones confidence 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 left post” he should be instructing himself to pick the precise point where he wants the ball to strike the net.

Now we have seen this already have an impact. Let’s see if it continues as we move through the knockout stages.

This article is reliably informed by the research work on the incidence of ironic errors in sport by Mr Recep Gorgulu (Phd candidate in Sport Psychology at Bangor University) & Dr Tim Woodman (Lecturer in Sport Psychology at Bangor University)


Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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