Many international footballers have missed penalties in FIFA World Cups over the years. Whether it be Italy’s Roberto Baggio in the 1994 final; or Frank Lampard in the 2006 quarter final defeat to Portugal, the pressure on a world stage sometimes gets the better of these high quality players. Their psychological strength seems to be overridden by the situation when thousands of people are watching in the stadium and millions at home.


Specifically, England hold the worst record in FIFA world cup penalty shootouts – three losses in as many attempts. More recently, they lost the Euro 2012 quarter final to Italy on penalties. Following an early exit from the competition in 2014, they will not have the opportunity to take part in a knockout stage shootout. However, it will be interesting to see how the other nations fair following extra time. The question is: how do footballers with vast amounts of experience, skill and quality succumb to the pressure of taking a penalty?

The psychological route an individual takes when a new demand (penalty taking) is encountered can be described by the Stress Process (McGrath, 1970):

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If there is an imbalance between the ability of the performer and perceived demands of an activity (McGrath, 1970), state anxiety or arousal changes occur. This article will focus on the effect of state anxiety on penalty shootout performance.

First of all, the emotion must be triggered. During a football world cup, the importance and pressure of the event can cause these feelings to occur. Anxiety may be sparked by past experiences (negative or positive) of the individual or team. Thoughts, such as the fear of missing and uncertainty can have a detrimental impact on performance. Penalty shootout anxiety, known as competitive state anxiety may be caused by a number of factors however the way in which it is perceived dictates how it affects performance. Anxiety has commonly been associated with reduced performance levels through association with negativity. The control model of competitive state anxiety (Jones, 1995) shows that anxiety can have a direction – facilitative or debilitative. Therefore two footballers in a penalty shootout may experience the same symptoms of anxiety, but interpret them differently.

Control Model of Competitive State Anxiety (Jones, 1995):

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The symptoms, regardless of direction, that commonly occur are increases in muscle tension affecting coordination; an increase in heart rate and sweating; while lactate and epinephrine levels can rise. Psychologically, anxiety can cause concentration changes such as loss of awareness due to mantel tension or poor selective perception. The debilitative physiological and attentional changes that occur are the factors which lead to ‘choking’.

‘Choking’ is a process which all high level sportsmen and women want to avoid. Poor control of state anxiety can develop to ‘choking’ in important circumstances. Hanin (1980) proposed that athletes in sport have an optimum state of anxiety where performance levels are potentially at their best. This theory is known as the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning. Each player has their own bandwidth (or zone) where they perform best and everyone is different. The zone for each footballer determines whether the direction of anxiety facilitates or debilitates performance.

Not only do footballers aim to improve their emotional control during the tournament, but also their motor skills – the ability to place penalty kicks with accuracy, pace and speed of thought. The strategy which the England manager, Roy Hodgson, used was to eliminate goalkeepers in training so the team did not normalise their penalty taking against only Joe Hart, Ben Foster or Fraser Forster. Instead, he challenged the players to hit certain areas of the goal: bottom right and left hand corners; top left and right hand corners; and top centre. This practice technique is known as simulation training (an on-site technique to manage anxiety).

Before a group stage exit was anticipated, England recruited one of the world’s leading sports psychologists – Dr. Steve Peters. The predominant reason behind the appointment was to rectify England’s recent misery in penalty shootouts on the world stage. However, how does a sports psychologist help to manage the anxiety levels of the players?

Anxiety management techniques psychologists use can be divided into somatic or cognitive. Somatic refers to managing anxiety physiologically, whereas cognitive management regulates anxiety psychologically. These techniques are used in order to counteract and eliminate the symptoms which anxiety causes. Prior to the use of some of these techniques, certain measurements of anxiety levels during competition may be made, through the use of self-report questionnaires or observation of physiological responses.

Somatic anxiety management techniques:

  • Breathing (or Centering)

Control of the player’s breathing in order to regulate the respiratory system prior to performance is vital. The player will take up a comfortable position in a relaxing and peaceful environment. The aim of the exercises is to cause breathing to be smooth, deep, rhythmical so that the player is calm, confident and in control of their body. The inhale: exhale ratio advised is 1:2.

  • Biofeedback (Greenberg, 1990)

Machines e.g. EEG (electroencephalogram), EMG (electromyogram), GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) monitor various signals emitted by the player being monitored in a situation of high anxiety. This may be a change in: heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, brain activity, perspiration levels. Over a long period of time by experimenting in different situations of anxiety in a laboratory, the participant recognises the development of anxiety symptoms. As a result, players aim to regulate anxiety by changing thoughts and thought stopping techniques e.g. cue words in order to re-focus.

  • PMR – Progressive Muscle Relaxation (Jacobsen, 1932)

A commonly used method in many sports. This directly reduces muscle tension through the contraction and relaxation of separate muscle groups. It allows the athlete to create awareness of relaxation and tension within the body. Therefore, these individuals can develop an understanding of when muscle tension develops and how it feels comparatively. They have the ability to control the anxiety symptoms of muscle tension.

Cognitive anxiety management techniques:

  • Relaxation Response (Benson & Procter, 1984)

Benson and Procter derived a technique from meditation. They proposed a strategy of managing anxiety levels with basic meditation components, without the religion or spirituality. Four key requirements to make relaxation response effective were put forward:

  1. Quiet place.
  2. Comfortable position.
  3. Mental device, such as a thought or a word.
  4. Passive attitude to the technique.
  • Autogenic Training (Schultz & Luthe, 1969)

Even though it is labelled as a cognitive technique, autogenic training involves performing exercises that specifically create a relaxed state of warmth and heaviness. The aims of the method are to regulate cardiac activity; regulate breathing; provide warmth to the core; and cool the temperature of the forehead.

The anxiety management techniques I have outlined are not the only ones around. These are just some of the methods psychologists may use with certain players at this year’s world cup. The aim is to manage the players’ anxiety levels in order to contain them within their individual bandwidth of optimal functioning.

Some countries will be using sports psychologists to work with players and manage anxiety levels; others will not. Will there be a significant difference in shootout performances for those with and without such professionals?

It will be interesting to see how will the likes of Brazil, Germany and Holland fair when anxiety strikes. And will Pirlo emulate his calm, confident and controlled nature from Euro 2012?

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