This past weekend, England fell short in capturing the European Championship with a heartbreaking loss against Italy. England has never won the European Championship. After 120 minutes of soccer, the game remained deadlocked at 1-1. That meant turning to the most anxiety-inducing invention of modern sports: the penalty kick shootout. A brutal mano-a-mano, shooter vs. goalkeeper contest with the hopes of a nation resting squarely on the shoulders of those poor players. Italy won the shootout 3-2.
Pundits will dissect the game-day decisions. Did the manager choose the right players to kick? Should England really have gone with a 19-year-old in the crucial final spot? But what I want to do is dive into the science and psychology of the shootout to learn what’s going on, what works best, and what does this mean for handling pressure-filled situations away from the pitch?
First, the basics. Pressure causes stress. As we’ve outlined at The Growth Equation before, stress shifts just about everything. From your perception of time and distance, to the level and variety of emotions experienced, to the connection between your brain and muscles. When it comes to penalty kicks, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that psychology dominates.
According to work that came out of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, while fatigue and skill impact performance, the importance of the mind has a greater effect on whether a player scores or misses. (Granted, everyone is good at the world level they studied, but the impact of being great versus good mattered less than how big of a kick this was.) Let’s dive into a few other factors that impact successful shootouts.
According to research, achieving a higher status as a player generally means they perform worse in shootouts. When researchers tracked the performance of players in penalty kicks over their career, after a player won the equivalent of an MVP award, they got significantly worse at making penalty kicks. Furthermore, they change their coping mechanisms, engaging in “escapist self-regulatory behaviors.”
This effect is seen outside of sport. The higher your status, the more you have to lose. Your reputation, perceived authority, and skill are all on the line. When we have more to lose, we change the way we handle a challenge. We tend to divert to “protect the ego” mode. We play not to lose instead of playing to win.
Pause, Don’t Rush
When faced with a threat, we tend to either adopt an approach or avoidance orientation. During approach motivation, positive emotions swirl, we feel the momentum behind us, and we are encouraged to take on a challenge, even if it might be difficult. During avoidance, the opposite occurs: fear, anxiety, and doubt cause contraction. We shrink away, trying to avoid harm.
During the shootouts, players who missed shots tended to shoot quicker and look away from the goalie. The stress and anxiety that came with the pressure push the athletes to escape, to get it over with it, to put an end to the situation by getting the heck out of there. On the other hand, those players who tended to score took longer to shoot, they slowed things down, and basically approached the situation instead of avoiding it.
Be In Control
Our perception of control is like an ignition switch, turning on our ability to navigate difficult situations more deliberately. If we believe that we are in control, that we can have a say in the outcome, we’re more likely to see a situation as a challenge that can be handled, instead of as a threat.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the players who feel like they are in control perform better in shootouts. The ones who think that it all comes down to luck or chance experience higher levels of debilitating anxiety, and their performance suffers as a result.
Winning and Losing are contagious
When it comes to shootouts, momentum matters. If your team lost a recent shootout, that memory carries over, and you’re more likely to miss. If your team has been on a successful run, you’re more likely to make your shot. But it’s not just past events that impact present performance. According to one study, when players celebrated after making a shot, the chances of the team pulling through and winning that shootout went up.
Good vibes are contagious. And unfortunately so are bad ones. We can either build or kill momentum, we can either spread anxiety and fear, or confidence and hope. It’s not just our emotions that can spread like wildfire amongst our team or colleagues, but our hormones follow suit too. We can get a surge of testosterone, increasing our likelihood of winning, or a hit of cortisol, sending us towards stress.
In this illuminating research, it is important to remember that we are playing in the margins here. No single action guarantees success. It just nudges us ever so slightly into having a bit better or worse shot at performing a difficult task when under immense pressure. Even so, learning from the struggle, triumph, and heartbreak of sports most nerve-racking challenges provides some powerful insights on how we can navigate stress, anxiety, and pressure in our own lives.