The Penalty Shot Shivers

How To Conquer Your Fears From The 12-Yard Line

Graphic by Eric Bent

Karim Haroun, centre midfielder for the Stingers, knows how to take a penalty shot—he converted four out of four penalties during the fall season.

His approach, however, seems much more deliberate than psychological.

“I avoid eye contact with the keeper. […] When the ref blows the whistle, I just take my time, take a deep breath, and go for it,” he said. “I choose my spot and hit it hard and precise.”
Scoring penalty shots, however, is a bit of a mystery.

Some, like Haroun, have it down, but, though the task is essentially simple—akin to hitting the side of a barn from only 11 metres away, and the goalie has to choose where to jump in advance, since the penalty doesn’t allow enough time for a reaction—many choke under the pressure, and not just college or amateur players.

During the 2011 Copa America, South America’s international tournament, Brazil, ranked within the top five teams in the world, went to penalties with Paraguay, but their kickers missed all four shots taken.

Although Haroun’s penalty-taking style is pretty relaxed, it’s still not a simple task for him either.

“You have to be really focused while taking the penalty kick,” Haroun said. “Otherwise you’re going to be stressed out and you’re probably going to miss it.”

Despite only looking at the ball and avoiding eye contact with the keeper in order to maintain concentration, he still gets involved in his own mental games.

“The number-one stress concern for a penalty kick taker is the fact that ‘all eyes are on him or her’ to score in a situation where there’s a high percent success ratio,” said Lloyd Barker, head coach of Concordia’s men’s soccer team. “In other words, everyone’s watching me about to attempt something I should succeed at.”

Even with a skilled keeper, a well-placed shot from 12 yards out into any of the four corners is almost a guaranteed goal.

According to a study referenced in the Science of Soccer Online—a blog by Dr. Jay Williams—an exercise science professor at Virginia Tech, 85 per cent of penalty kicks shot on target result in goals. However, penalties are much more complicated and stressful than the statistics reveal, according to Montreal sports psychologist Lior Doron.

“There are many outcome-related factors that create stress in a penalty kicker, [such as] the outcome of scoring, winning, and particularly being the centre of attention since everyone is watching the specific play,” said Doron.

“As athletes move up in the competitive realm […] the psychological factors become even more important, as much as 90 per cent or more,” said Doron.

Doron, after receiving psychology and sports administration bachelor’s degrees at Concordia and a master’s in sports psychology from the Université de Montreal, started Flow in Sports, a company that works with athletes of all ages and competitive levels.

“I teach athletes to focus more on the process rather than the outcome,” he said, adding players have much more control over the process. Doron noted numerous ways to mentally prepare for the pressure of a penalty kick.

“Emphasize what needs to be done,” he said. “Have a plan; create a ‘what if’ scenario. Each player should develop a short list of unique moves; the more detailed the strategy, the better.” Both Doron and Barker said a player must learn to cope with the stress of a penalty kick.

“Getting over nerves is not possible,” Barker said. “Managing and controlling nerves is the key. There are breathing exercises that help to control that adrenaline rush.”

“Rather than worrying about having this nervousness, just allow it to go through your body; embrace the moment,” said Doron. “We all have these butterfly moments but the idea is to actually want to get them rather than avoid them.”

In the second-to-last game of the season against the Université de Sherbrooke, the Stingers were down 1-0 when Haroun stepped up to the spot with only five minutes left on the clock.

Despite having gone to the left in all of his previous penalty kicks throughout the season, after the ref blew the whistle, he made the gutsy decision to direct a low, hard shot to the right.

“Later in the game, you’ll have more stress taking a penalty, but you just have to manage it,” he said. “That was the most stressful penalty I took last year.” Doron notes that even if a penalty-taker does everything right, there are sometimes factors out of his or her control.

“The truth is that the player only needs slight adjustments. […] Changing one per cent of the thinking [can mean] that the outcome can be totally different,” Doron said. “Other times you just need to give credit to the other player or the team and the fact that with the exact same mindset, the outcome might turn your way the next time.”