How To Master Taking Penalties Under Extreme Pressure
Written by James Donnelly
Practicing a few penalties at the end of training is the most common strategy used by players and coaches for improving success rate in matches.
Whether you go top bins, bottom corner or for a cheeky panenka down the middle is totally down to personal preference. However are you missing the most important aspect?
If we accept that every professional footballer on the planet has the ability to strike a ball and easily hit almost any part of a 24x8 ft target from a distance of 12 yards when under no pressure...then we can obtain that the technical aspect of taking a penalty has minimal influence on the outcome in a match situation.
What's of far greater influence is the mental aspect.
Can you still strike the ball how you want to when millions of people are watching, your legs feel like jelly, you're fatigued and there are life-changing consequences attached to whether you score?
Can you control your thoughts and stick to your plan when the keepers stance is forcing you to have second thoughts about which way to go?
Practicing penalties in training cannot replicate that pressure.
All it can do is help you decide what the most appropriate type of penalty is for you to dispatch in a real match.
A penalty where even if the keeper guessed right, the power or placement would mean it still has a great chance of getting passed them...and you're able to do it again and again. With enough practice any player can do that.
For me when you boil it down, there are only 2 ways a player can get even remotely close to being prepared for the pressure of a real match penalty shootout:
1. Deep visualisation (imagining in detail that they're actually in that scenario right now).
2. Re-living the exact same scenario they have been through one or more times already, again within the mind.
When a pro footballer is regarded as "not good at penalties", for me it plainly means that they don't have the mental tools to succeed under the pressure of that situation. It cannot mean that they don't have the capability to strike a ball cleanly and hit a 24x8 ft target from 12 yards.
Because a brilliant penalty can still be stopped by a brilliant save. So missing a penalty does not make you "bad at penalties", it's how the penalty is missed which is the key detail.
This means that being great at penalties in training can give little to no indication that you'll also be great in a real match situation. It's only one part of the equation and its not the most influential part.
The best penalty takers must be the few players who have the most experience or greatest capacity to deal with extreme mental pressure, because what's going on in your head will directly influence your run up and the power and placement you put behind the strike.
If the keeper goes the right way and saves then it's just bad luck...but the approach, direction and quality of the strike is completely within the players control.
This means that the key to taking good penalties must be to master the mental side...
Which would then mean by default that the players with the greatest chance of success in a penalty shootout are the ones who are the most experienced in terms of being in high pressure situations and coping with mental stress...
Because any player can practice getting good at hitting one point of a 24x8 ft target from 12 yards and have a chance of the keeper not reaching it...
But relatively few can do it to the same standard when you add an almighty dose of pressure and life-changing consequence if they miss.
Equally as important is developing the mental capacity to process and deal with intensified failure if you do miss, which has a strong correlation with age simply because the older you are, the more setbacks or failures you are likely to have had to process.
You can do nothing but admire the courage of any player willing to step up and take a penalty, especially in a sudden death shootout. But we can also analyse opportunities for improvement when the power, connection and placement of the strike is way off what was planned, that is the mind directly sabotaging technical performance.
As I write this I am thinking of the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy where England missed 3/5 penalties and Italy missed 2/5, however it can be applied to any match which goes to penalties in your career.
Which way the keeper goes is luck, but as you may have heard me say before, there are things you can do which can make you LUCKIER.
If you want to work on your mental game but you're not quite sure where to start, our sports Psychologist Barney has put together an entire football psychology video course that you can follow inside the Matchfit Squad training platform.
Barney covers everything from: visualisation and thinking clearly under pressure, to blocking out distractions and self-talk.
It's a real game-changer and something I strongly recommend every one of our players goes through.
>>> Here's a look inside the course
James "penalties are mental" Donnelly