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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
How to take the perfect penalty
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Ruud van Nistelrooy
Ruud van Nistelrooy is the ideal penalty taker, says professor
Footballers need more help in overcoming the stress of taking penalties, says a sports psychologist.

Professor Andy Lane says that players need psychological as well as physical training to beat the high-stakes pressure of penalties.

This could mean training with tapes of crowds barracking players - and introducing forfeits for penalty practice sessions.

Too many players lack a systematic approach to penalties, he says.

Professor Lane, at the University of Wolverhampton, says that in the unstressed atmosphere of training sessions, professional players have the skill to consistently hit a target area within the goal.

'Mental rehearsal'

But the psychological pressure can leave them apparently unable to repeat this during a match - and penalties can be missed or saved.

Alan Shearer
Alan Shearer sends the keeper the wrong way in Euro 2000

England's footballers have been notoriously unsuccessful with penalty shoot-outs in international tournaments.

To increase players' chances of scoring, Professor Lane says footballers need to develop a consistent, rehearsed approach to penalty taking, so that they will know exactly what to do when they step up to the spot.

This type of "mental rehearsal" is a way of improving confidence and tackling "butterflies in the stomach", he says.

As an example of how it should be done, he points to rugby union player, Jonny Wilkinson.

"He has a pre-set routine, not a random set of steps. It's a re-enactment, a well-rehearsed process.

"But if you watch soccer players, they do different things every time. And it's possible that they haven't really thought about where it's going to go."

The familiarity of the process - and the removal of uncertainty about how to take the penalty - should reduce the impact of nervousness, he says.

Keeper's nightmare

Professor Lane also argues that always hitting the ball in the same place isn't necessarily going to make it that much easier for a goalkeeper.

He says that research shows that over 80% of well-struck, well-placed penalties will result in a goal, regardless of the efforts of the keeper.

Jonny Wilkinson
The professor praises Jonny Wilkinson's rehearsed run-up

And he says that the most likely place to score is high to the right or left of the goalkeeper.

Shooting in the mid-range or lower part of the goal increases the goalkeeper's chances, he says - because that is where they are most likely to dive.

Hitting the right area of the goal should not be difficult for skilled footballers, says Professor Lane, as long as players can control their anxiety and can focus on striking the ball.

This means that footballers, who have developed a penalty-taking routine, should practice with a simulation of the kind of distractions facing players on the pitch - such as crowd noises and shouts from players.

"It is important to make the imagery as real as possible. By doing this it is likely that the player experiences some of the emotions experiences in an actual game," he says.

Once players have become accustomed to this, he says they can "switch off" these outside influences, and concentrate on scoring.

Put on the spot

Players also need to build risk into the practicing of penalties - so that they can learn to cope with the pressure.

This could be a financial forfeit, he says, or a punishment such as having to drive a "stupid car" to work.

If players cannot control their anxiety, and do not have a settled plan for taking penalties, their chances of scoring are going to plummet.

Anxiety has a physical impact on footballers' skills, he says, as well as taking away players' ability to focus on the penalty.

"They might start thinking about what will happen if they miss - and about other things going on around them - and their concentration is diminished," he says.

Professor Lane says that the two penalty takers that he currently admires are Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United and Alan Shearer of Newcastle United.

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