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Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 09:07 UK
The art of taking a penalty

Darius Vassell misses the crucial penalty kick in the quarter-final defeat to Portugal to send England crashing out of Euro 2004

"Penalties are a marriage of technique and mentality."

That is the verdict of sports psychologist Andy Barton on the seemingly simple task of sending the ball past a goalkeeper and into the net from just 12 yards out.

But as both elite and amateur footballers - not to mention millions of fans across the world - know, penalties are a complex and unpredictable affair.

Barton tells BBC Sport why a player's mind will be his most potent weapon when faced with the task of sending a nation into ecstasy - or, in some cases, agony - during Euro 2008.

Lesson One:

To achieve consistency there needs to be something more than luck. That key ingredient is self-belief.

Take the example of Germany. The thing that spurred them on was their penalty shoot-out defeat by Czechoslovakia at the 1976 European Championships.

Greet it as an opportunity rather than something to be feared

Sport psychologist Andy Barton on taking penalties
From then on they just practised and practised. They have won their last five penalty shoot-outs and, overall, have missed very few penalties in that time. They created this belief that they are very good at taking penalties.

And it works both ways. They believe they are very good and the other team believes they are very good. It has a negative impact on the opposition.

Lesson Two:

Let the stress get to you, and it's going to have a negative affect on your ability to take a spot-kick.

A great example is the England penalties in the quarter final shoot-out against Portugal at Euro 2004. You only have to look at the body language of the players to know who was most likely to score.

The England team looked almost defeated before they started.

Compare that to Cristiano Ronaldo. His shoulders were back and his chest was puffed out. He was greeting it as an opportunity rather than something to be feared.

Lesson Three:

When they have fear, a lot of players stay safe and aim to take the percentage penalty.

The attitude towards taking a penalty is very important.

The really good penalty takers will hit them hard and wide with real confidence. They give the keeper no chance of saving the ball at all.

Michael Ballack
Ballack shows real assurance and copybook technique as he connects
Think of Alan Shearer or Michael Ballack. You are never going to touch a penalty Ballack takes. German players have different attitudes to taking penalties.

In the same way that a golfer has a routine and goes through it time and time again, it's crucial for a player taking a penalty to have routine and to make it very consistent.

The other thing is when you practise, to do so with pressure - such as people shouting [abuse] behind the goal at you. So when you do it in real circumstances you are used to stress.

If that same player was out on a training field and had no pressure on him at all, it's very likely that they'll be able to kick the ball where they want to in the back of the net.

It's when the added pressure of many thousands of people are watching that the mental state changes.

Lesson Four:

Technique is driven by the mental state a person is in.

If the mind fears something, it's going to have an impact on how the body feels - the muscles are going to become tense, the heart is going to be beating fast and the breathing is going to change.

All that is going to have an impact on technique and the player's ability to kick the ball cleanly into the net.

One big sign of someone being highly stressed, when the fight or flight response kicks in, is that people tend to become very tunnel-visioned.

You will actually see them staring down into the ground, very fixed.

Someone more at ease tends to look up more and be aware of more things around them, using their peripheral vision which relaxes them more.

People who look down at the floor tend to take more shallow breaths and plod forward from the centre circle because all the signs are that they don't want to be taking a penalty.

This is when they are hyper-nervous and over-aroused, which will have a negative impact on their performance.

Lesson Five:

Put a smile on your face and have a chat with yourself.

Your body language has a massive impact on how you feel.

Taking your head back and even putting a smile on your face, can have an impact on how you feel about something. So there are certain ways of tricking yourself into a more positive state.

Luigi Di Biagio
A missed penalty can live with a player for a lifetime

Another thing is the internal dialogue.

What people are doing something they fear, they tend to use negative language: "Don't miss, don't make yourself look like an idiot, don't get a bad contact on the ball."

When they do that, because our nervous system cannot represent a negative, we actually end up seeing it as a positive. We end up playing a movie of missing the penalty in our mind.

So it's very important to use positive language to yourself, tell yourself precisely where you want the ball to go. Then trust your ability and skill to actually perform it.

Lesson Six:

Get your routine established - it triggers you into a more positive frame of mind.

Any penalty that's missed in a pressure situation would be down to nerves or the ability of the goalkeeper.

Back at Euro 2004, the England players looked fearful against Portugal. Steven Gerrard was shaking his head when David Beckham missed the first penalty - that really isn't a good sign.

The routine is for taking your mind away from thinking about taking the penalty.

That's what Jonny Wilkinson does when he's taking kicks in rugby - keeps him really focused on the task in hand.

Lesson Seven:

Switch your "left-side" brain thinking off when taking a penalty - it has a negative impact.

The left side is more about thinking, that's where we have our internal dialogue and chat to ourselves.

Ignore that - you want to concentrate upon doing the things that come naturally to you.

uses logic
practical and safe
facts rule
detail orientated

uses feeling
spacial perception
risk taking
imagination rules
The right side of the brain is more creative and it drives the left side of the body. That's why quite often left-footed players can be quite creative because they are more "right-brained".

When people stress, you are firing off the synthetic nervous system.

That kicks off your adrenalin and that's where the fast heartbeat, muscle tension and tunnel vision comes in.

This goes back to a time when we were more tribal and hunted - it's a hangover from those days.

We don't need to run away as prey but we have still got that and it translates into other areas such as sport.

Lesson Eight:

All good penalty takers have one thing in common - the ability to control their emotions and to focus on the present.

I work on routines like changing internal dialogues from negative to positive. You can have a lot of people who are quite extrovert who can handle pressure.

A lot of penalty takers are quite introverted characters but on the plus side they tend to be more focused on what they are doing.

An extrovert can be more relaxed but their minds tend to wander.

Lesson Nine:

Cultural beliefs are very powerful.

Germany 's women's hockey team at the 2004 Olympics
As a nation, Germany has an enviable penalty shoot-out record

That's why teams like Manchester United and Chelsea will very often score goals in the very last minute.

A lot of people think they are very lucky, but there is an internal belief that they deserve to win and the players carry that out.

Our belief system is very powerful.

So if Germans believe that they are going to win on penalties then they are going to act that out.

If the team they are playing against believes that Germany are the best penalty takers, they are going to be concerned about that and it will have a negative impact upon them.

Andy Barton was talking to BBC Sport's Chris Whyatt.

see also
Terry 'haunted' by penalty miss
25 May 08 |  Chelsea
Ronaldo shrugs off penalty miss
22 May 08 |  Football
England beaten on penalties again
01 Jul 06 |  World Cup 2006
Taking the perfect penalty
30 Aug 05 |  Skills
Portugal break England hearts
24 Jun 04 |  Euro 2004

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