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Psychological Warfare and Penalties

Written By Justin on Monday, March 26, 2012 | 10:23:00 AM

Joe Hart picked a psychological fight with Scott Sinclair of Swansea and won. At the time, it was widely reported that he was shouting, "You won't beat me!" at Sinclair, but it looks to me as if he's saying, "Don't wait for me!" I suspect what he meant by that is, don't wait for me to commit myself and then shoot the other way, because I'm not going to. Regardless, it sparked a lot of discussion about whether the tactic was worth trying, and whether or not referees would be likely to see it as eclipsing sportsmanlike conduct.

Shooters have every advantage when it comes to penalties, except for one: pressure. They're expected to score, while nobody will blame the keeper. What Joe Hart did is pile just that little bit of extra pressure on Sinclair. It's bad enough the whole stadium watching, but now the goalkeeper is making it personal? Some players - those with plenty of battle-hardened experience - will not be put off by this, and maybe Sinclair wasn't, either. But he missed.

My immediate response to this was thinking that it isn't worth whatever slight advantage may be gained. The odds are still strongly in favor of the shooter, and how silly are you going to look and feel if you're bleating at him and then he scores? But if you're willing to accept that as a consequence, then perhaps it's worth it.

There are more subtle ways of getting the same message across. I knew a goalkeeper who, before a penalty, used to loudly instruct one of his players to start making a run just as the penalty was taken, so he could kick it out to him once he'd saved it. Again, a small way to introduce the idea of missing into the shooter's mind. Golf instructors always say that the last thought you should have before swinging is a positive one. If there's water down the left, your last thought should be "hit it right" and NOT "don't hit it left." So any way of introducing a negative thought to the kicker can help your odds ever so slightly.

Let's accept one fact: well-taken penalties are rarely saved. Most saves come from shots hit too close to the keeper and at an optimum height - two or three feet off the ground. Sometimes you'll guess correctly and make a save at full stretch, as Tom Heaton did so magnificently against Steven Gerrard in the Carling Cup Final, but most often, you see penalties saved when the shooter is tentative and cautious. All the missed penalties in the African Cup of Nations final seemed to be the result of paralyzing tension, manifested in either wild misses or timid, cautious prods. Maybe the smartest thing Joe Hart did wasn't shouting at Scott Sinclair, but just holding his ground, as he said he would. Guessing is a fine, time-honored way of dealing with penalties, but just make sure you've got reason to guess. If the shooter looks nervous and uncertain - afraid to miss - maybe that's the time to see if you can just react to his shot.

Just don't do this

Whether or not you choose to actively engage the shooter might come down to your personality. I got a real kick out of seeing Joe Hart do it, but it's something I wouldn't do myself. Whether I won or lost that individual battle, chances are it could start a back-and-forth with that player that I would find distracting. Some relish that kind of aggro, but for me, it's just asking for trouble.

There are, of course, other psychological tricks keepers play before penalties. Time wasting, wandering out to the spot to have a word with the ref, complaining about the shooter's placement of the ball on the spot, stretching for the crossbar to look big... You see variations of these every weekend around the world. Joe Hart came up with something a little different, and it seemed to work. Will he do it again, or was it a one-time inspiration? And would you try the same tactic yourself, or do you have your own tricks? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.


Frankie said...

Hi Justin,

First of all, a great blog. Really enjoyed reading it.

Is there any solo exercises that you could recommended to improve the basic technique such as diving, parrying dealing with crosses for a beginner keeper like me? (I'm just starting to turn out for my friend's amateur team)

JOHN said...

Well, i usually just look as confident as possible. No berating, no arguing with the ref, no"the ball should be placed elsewhere"stuff. I just act as if nothing had happened. I even look at the shooter with a smirk, as if saying"the pressure´s on you and you´re not going to score". I really don´t know if it works. I´m kind of good at penalty kicks, having been scored on 3 times over 12 penalties in the last years, but only 3 of those were wide shots, so I guess studying the kicker, his run and how he places his feet might be more effective. Still, I´ll take any advantage I can get

Justin said...

That's a great record, John. If it works, keep doing it!

Mike said...

I always like to walk to the line smiling and first looking at the shooter and winking at him or blowing him a kiss (im aware of how weird that sounds!) anything to throw him off his game and doing kind of a dudek dance and making myself as big as possible.

Sam said...

Once had a little fiddle with my crotch in a penalty shootout for the last two penalties.

They both completely missed the target. Little mind games can certainly work, but leave you looking like a bit of a tit if they don't.