With the Women’s dramatic World Cup loss in penalty kicks, I thought I would reflect on the psychology of taking a penalty kick. While many onlookers see it as an “automatic”, there’s much more to it than simply putting the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net.
Left, right or middle? High or low? Power or placement? Body position and body language. These are all parts of the thought process before you put the ball on the line twelve yards out from goal. I remember specifically the last time I took a pk (penalty kick) at a competitive level. It was my senior year of college at home against division rival Lock Haven University (where two of my sisters played soccer). We were tied 1-1 and we got a pk midway through the second half. I took the ball with confidence to the line. My approach was the same as always but psychologically, it was different. I was facing a goalie who I knew too well; he was a good friend of mine who played on my club team. During the offseason I had been working on an approach where I open up my hips so that it looked like I was going to my left but I would hit it with the inside of my right, putting it side netting on the right side. This was the first time I had an opportunity to use it in a game. The whistle blew and I struck the ball with pace, it was heading for the side netting…and the keeper stuffed it. After the game we chatted briefly and he said to me, “you struck it well, but I know that you’re a good player and would try to go to my left.” We ended up losing the game 2-1. I had flash backs of the missed penalty for days.
Many of you watched the finals of the Women’s World Cup and witnessed how tough penalty’s can be psychologically. Shannon Boxx was the first USWNT player to take her PK against Japan. Before she approached the line I questioned, “which side will she go to?” Previously against Brazil she had taken two penalty’s because on her first attempt the goalie went forward on the goal-line making the save (which is not legal). In her second attempt she went to the same side, this time finding the back of the net. That’s twice she went to her right, the Japanese goalie surely was aware of where Boxx went previously. Again, Boxx went right, the Japanese goalie making a miraculous foot save as she flew through the air. How do you choose which side you should go to? Should you go for pace or accuracy?
As you get older and progress in the game, the strategy of a penalty kick changes. When you’re younger, the pace at which you hit the ball isn’t as important as placing it. As you develop you will find that a penalty becomes a guessing game for the keeper, they will pick a side and stay committed to that direction. Therefore, striking the ball with more power becomes more important because if they guess the right direction you still give yourself a chance if the keeper can’t catch up to the ball. With all these different situations, how can you assure that you find the back of the net?
- Pick a Side and Stay Committed – Before you even pick the ball up you should have decided which side you are going to go. Do not switch sides in your head, stay committed.
- Placement or Power? – Are you going to try to place it into the side netting or are you going to try to hit it with enough pace that the keeper won’t have a chance to react and catch up to it. Once again, pick your strategy, and stick to it.
- Hit the Target – Probably the most important rule. If you don’t hit the frame you don’t even give yourself a chance to score. I like to call this the “Baggio” rule because of Roberto Baggio’s skied pk against Brazil in the 94 World Cup Final.
- Be Confident – I know the stresses that come with taking a penalty. Your heart will probably be pounding and you might have some negative thoughts. This is what I do. Since we already picked a side (and stayed committed to that side) and decided if we were going to hit it with power or place it, before you hit your pk, close your eyes and visualize you stepping up to your pk and hitting the back of the net where you decided to go. I know it sounds silly, but it will help with your nerves and increase your confidence.
- Practice – There are too many coaches that don’t incorporate practicing penalty kicks in their practices. Then when you get into a penalty situation, everybody just looks at each other. Have a plan and make sure your players know the plan. Have the five players who are going to take a penalty pre-selected and make sure they know who they are so it’s not a surprise. I’ve played for several teams where a shoot-out situation has come upon us and the coach says, “who wants to take one?” Being prepared to take a penalty will help with the nerves.
If you used the five keys above and the keeper made the save, you can’t hang your head. Even the best players in the world have missed a penalty at the biggest stages. Roberto Baggio in the 94′ World Cup Final, John Terry in the 08′ Champions League Final (a penalty shoot-out where Christiano Ronaldo also missed), and Carli Lloyd in the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final. And when you do score, be proud and celebrate with your teammates, you’ve just conquered one of the most mentally challenging aspects of the game.