Monday, 28 May 2012

The goalscorer's fear of the penalty shoot-out

With apologies to Pater Handke and Wim Wenders.

It’s never easy to admit responsibility for your mistakes and face up to your shortcomings. The line between being unnecessarily negative and realistic about your limitations is a fine one and acknowledging that you’ve fucked up seems, for some, to be an admission of defeat and an attitude that is discouraged in some quarters, especially in the professional sporting arena. However, most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that mistakes are essential if you want to be ultimately successful. But when the price of failure is humiliation, abuse and represents a threat to your livelihood, it is perhaps easier to look around for someone or something else to blame.

This is why the penalty shoot-out can be regarded as the ultimate panacea in football. It's arbitrary nature makes it easy for players, coaches and fans to absolve themselves of blame or defend their team for not winning a match over ninety minutes or extra time. Penalty shoot-outs are a dreadful way to lose a football match and are a lottery. While the former is almost certainly true, the latter is not and as long as that conception remains, the chances of a team succeeding through penalties are reduced.

In the absence of replays, penalty shoot-outs are the most efficient and exciting way of separating two teams where two hours of football has been unable to do so. Scoring from a penalty is, on the surface, ludicrously simple: the player, the ball, 12 yards and only the keeper to beat. What could be easier and what could be more terrifying when the alternative is pain and misery? And the closer you get to the Final, the greater the pressure and the stronger the likelihood of failure. The shoot-out is the ultimate test of a player’s class and bottle. Nine times out of ten, a professional footballer should score a penalty in training with their eyes closed. This makes the shoot-out a contest that takes place almost entirely in the mind. One thing that they are most definitely not is a lottery.

A lottery is a game of chance: a series of randomly selected numbers. Penalties are not random, there is no luck involved in taking a penalty. In fact, dodgy penalty spots aside, the goalkeeper in the only external factor. By calling penalties a lottery, you’re introducing an element of fortune or even fate that does not exist. However, it does provide the team who lost the shoot-out with the emotional crutch required to cope with their failure. We gave everything we had but just wasn’t meant to be. Honour is satisfied, blame is apportioned, all that is left is to deal with the emotional scars of defeat and that is nothing that an advertising contract with a Pizza restaurant chain can’t fix.

But is this attitude healthy? By players and coaches consigning their penalty angst to the ether, are they denying themselves to chance to improve their technique? According to this study by Anna Stodter & Matt Pain at Loughborough University, Stuart Pearce’s England Under 21 team practiced penalties in differing conditions for 2 years and lo and behold won a penalty shoot-out in the corresponding Under 21 tournament. This is hardly conclusive evidence that training and development works but it must surely be preferable to leaving it to chance. Especially when you consider that chance has almost nothing to do with it.

Without looking at the statistics, I would suggest that it is extremely unlikely for any team to win a major international knock out competition, club or international, without having to go through at least one penalty shoot-out. Surely it behoves coaches to not leave penalties to chance. I’m sure that the procedure is not quite a slap dash as it appears but you do wonder if teams, traditionally better at penalties like Germany, put more thought into the shoot-out than teams that traditionally are not so good at them like... oh I don’t know, England for instance.

Penalties are brilliant. They’re dramatic, conclusive, and emotional and I can only imagine that the winners never feel more alive when they are over. A true professional should relish the challenge and embrace it without fear of failure. They should step to step up the mark, place the ball on the spot, give the ‘keeper the eyes and with ice coursing through the veins slot the ball home.

It's what Kipling would have done.