|One-on-one – the kicker must get the ball past the goal keeper|
Ties in international football tournaments are decided by penalties, in which a series of kickers attempt to get the ball past the keeper in a one-on-one situation. It’s a high stress situation and missing a penalty is the low point of many a career.
Some coaches believe it’s impossible to recreate the pressure of the penalty situation. England manager Glenn Hoddle in 1998 admitted his team hadn’t practiced because it was a waste of time. The last manager, Fabio Capello, described penalties as a “lottery.” Psychologists would beg to differ.
Research by Greg Wood and Mark Wilson at the University of Exeter shows that penalty takers have more success when they shoot for either of the top two corners of the goal, and more importantly, that accuracy is improved when the kicker focuses for a moment on the spot they want to hit. Where the eyes look, the ball tends to go (video) and the pause is thought to allow pre-programming of the kick to occur. This may sound obvious, but many penalty takers often focus on the goalkeeper, rather than on their intended target.
Now in their latest research into what’s known as “the Quiet Eye” method, Wood and Wilson have tested whether, as well as linking the visual and motor systems, the training has a psychological benefit too, helping strikers feel more in control, thus preventing them from choking in a high-pressure situation.
Twenty university-level football players were split into two groups. One group underwent Quiet Eye training for three weeks, taking 10 kicks a week, each time calling out the corner they were aiming for, staring momentarily at their target (for about a second), and then beginning their run up and executing the kick. The other group merely practised the same number of kicks each week (the only advice they received was to aim for the top corners of the goal). All participants wore an eye-tracker while training and the same goalkeeper was used throughout.
Next there was a “retention week” when the players filled-out psych questionnaires after practising the same approach to penalty kicks as before. Then the following week a competitive penalty shoot-out between the two groups provided the crucial test. A £100 prize for the best team helped ramp up the stress levels, and a new goal keeper arrived and was described to them as a specialist at saving penalties. Eye-movements were recorded throughout and more psych questionnaires completed.
The researchers were particularly interested in the players’ feelings of control, their expectations of success, and confidence in coping with pressure. The key finding is that all groups showed increases in these measures during the “retention week”, but only the Quiet Eye group exhibited these benefits in the competitive situation. Moreover, increases in these feelings of control correlated with the aiming behaviour that Quiet Eye training encourages. The more the players focused on their target, the more in control they felt. Although these feelings of control didn’t correlate with performance, only the Quiet Eye training group showed improvements in performance during the competitive situation compared with baseline.
The study has its limitations, as the authors acknowledged. For example, it’s possible the Quiet Eye training led to more feelings of control and confidence under pressure simply because it was a more detailed training format than the simple practise routines that the other group went through. Also, the Quiet Eye group didn’t actually report less anxiety than the other group (that said, the eye movement training increased feelings of control, and players who felt more in control generally felt less anxious). Finally, can we be sure that the Quiet-Eye group’s calling out of their targets during training didn’t play any part in their later feelings of control?
These issues notwithstanding, the researchers concluded: “the results of this study show that the benefits of Quiet Eye-training transcend visuomotor control adaptations, and can have a positive impact on the control beliefs of the performer.”
Greg Wood, and Mark R. Wilson (2012). Quiet-eye training, perceived control and performing under pressure. Psychology of Sport and Exercise DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.05.003