Women’s World Cup: pressure and penalties

Psychologist Professor Marc Jones on the stress of penalty shoot-outs and tournament football

Desire to help your teammates can be a strong motivation, says Prof Marc Jones

Desire to help your teammates can be a strong motivation, says Prof Marc Jones

By Professor Marc Jones, Professor of Psychology

High-profile World Cup football is watched by millions of fans around the world and with that comes pressure. National glory awaits the winners but to get there, players deal with a raft of pressures on and off the pitch.

If you look at the England Women’s football team, there's a big expectation on them to do well in the tournament but that brings a lot of stress as well, even for those who are experienced.

There's some interesting research around what they call a ‘team halo effect’, which means that when teams do well the team gets the success but when a team fails, an individual gets singled out for the failure. This is heightened in knock-out tournament football.

Additionally, if you're playing normally in a club then there's a game in a week's time, it comes around very quickly and players get the chance to right any wrongs. In tournament football, there’s no such luck – if you make a mistake and you're out of that tournament, it might be months before your next game for England, Scotland or Wales. Indeed, they may never get that chance again.

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Some of the research that we've been involved in has been looking at how people respond psychologically and physiologically to stress and some of the factors that have an impact on performance under stress.

We've just done some work with professional footballers where we've been able to predict people who respond physiologically in a ‘challenge way’ – where they show increased cardiac output and decreased vascular resistance under stress – to perform better.

But for some players the stress may be: ‘I'm about to play in a game, the opposition looks strong, we could lose this game’ and this becomes an avoidance response. We can see how that gets manifested in behaviours – players not asking for the ball, maybe being perceived as hiding on the field, they're not in a situation where they're trying to influence the game.

Alternatively, some players may rise to the occasion and actively seek to influence the game, ‘grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck’.

As psychologists, to help players deal with this stress we look at three areas: 

What's really interesting is when you look through lots of sporting autobiographies of people who've achieved a great deal is that fear of failure is a powerful stimulant to success. I think we've got this paradox always in performance environments on pressure being both helpful and unhelpful.

World Cup games can be won or lost on a single penalty

On the one hand, a fear of failure can be something that's unhelpful. If a player thinks: ‘I'm worried about making a mistake and I'm worried about letting my teammates down’, they may hide in the game, play it safe, not play to their full potential. That becomes a problem.

But if that fear of failure is: ‘I don't want to mess up, I don’t want to let my teammates down, because of this I will get out there, get my first tackle in hard. I will make sure that I'm calling for the ball’. That fear of failure is a stimulus to positive behaviours for the team and the player.

One of the unique pressures of World Cups are penalty shoot-outs. Great theatre for those of us watching it, but for players it is a make-or-break situation where one mistake can be the difference between winning and losing.

There are elements of it that are designed to put people under pressure – the walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot and that time to think about it, the enormity of the situation, the opportunity for success and the opportunity for failure.

What is your intention?

I could talk about penalties for ages and there are a number of different strategies that the players could use to enhance their performance in a penalty shoot-out. But I will defer to Marcello Lippi who was the manager of the men's Italian football team at the 2006 World Cup final when they beat France after it went to a penalty shootout.

He simply asked his players: ‘what is your intention?’. That's all he asked them.

He just got them to think about what they wanted to do in that situation. I think that's a really good illustration of how people can cope with the demands of a penalty shoot-out, that they only think about what they want to do.

Where do I want to kick this? Where do I want to put the ball? I go out and do that.

Under those pressure situations, there's a tendency to overthink and over complicate things, thinking about the consequences. But by getting people to think simply about what their intention is, is a really great example of psychology in practice.

It illustrates what all of the strategies that people use for penalty shoot-outs ultimately come down to: thinking what you want to do and focusing your attention purely on that.

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