In the world of classical music, many instrumentalists and vocalists have come up with elaborate ways to calm their nerves before a performance or worse–an audition. Some practice meditation, others sit down beforehand and visualize positive outcomes. Still others put their performance in context of the briefness of life, their tiny stature relative to enormous expansiveness of the universe.
Yet most if not all professional musicians agree that the best way to avoid letting their nerves get the best of them is to practice as much as possible so that their underlying technique will shine through any form of anxiety.
It’s for that reason I’m not too certain Roy Hodgson’s preparation for the possibility of England taking penalties in the World Cup this June is a good use of time or resources:
Hodgson, who was in charge when England were beaten on penalties by Italy at Euro 2012, believes a professional sports psychologist could help his players handle the pressure of a shootout.
“It will be about their character, their confidence and their ability to block out the next morning’s headlines,” he added. “If a psychologist can find a way to block that out, then we’d be very, very happy.”
There are several assumptions here. The first is that England’s penalty takers are more affected by nerves than their counterparts. This must be the case, because it follows from this that nerves adversely affect England’s ability to take spot kicks more than other teams (regardless of the individual players, even).
Second, it also negates the effectiveness of the goalkeepers. The idea here is that penalties taken confidently are more likely to go in than penalties taken while nervous over and above the ability of the opposing keeper, though there is no evidence to support this that I’m aware of.
Third, it denies the role of variation or luck in penalty kicks. Perhaps what is more significant isn’t that England has gone out of 6 of their last 10 major tournaments on penalties, but that the games themselves had to go to penalties at all.
I would argue that, like the musicians, the best way for England to overcome nerves in spot kicks is to practice practice practice. Not that it will change the outcome in an exercise mostly determined by chance, but at least ensure their basic shooting ability is on par with their likely knock-out stage opponents.