Fall - 2012 Penalty1

Published on November 28th, 2012


The Psychology of Penalty Shootouts – Why do England Always Lose?

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen, HiNT

The popular perception of penalty shootouts is that the outcome depends on luck and coincidence. But do you believe there is a coincidence in England always losing penalty shootouts, while Germany always wins? Based on research, we now know that this explanation needs some clarification. In the following article I will present some psychological and cultural explanations, which demonstrate that the English self-doubt in this area is not at all coincidental. 

No matter where your interests lie within football, this may sound familiar to you: the teams have played for 90 minutes, plus extra time, followed by another grueling 30 minutes of extra play. At this point nothing distinguishes the teams, and the winner needs to be decided outside the regular game. So the players get ready for glory or for nightmare, namely the penalty shootout. The pressure on the players is now immense. Millions watch as they place the ball in position and get ready, with the expectations of a whole nation on their shoulders. You can see the expression in their eyes; they look concerned but try to appear relaxed and focused.

They are probably aware that the consequence of failure will lead to personal trauma. One example of this is the English player Stuart Pearce after his miss against Germany in the semi-finals in the 1990 World Cup, where he used several years to recover psychologically from the traumatic experience. He later wrote: “My world collapsed. The walk back to the center circle was a nightmare as the first onrush of tears pricked at my eyes.”

Penalty shootouts and underperformance

We know that psychology plays a part in these kinds of situations, but exactly what role does it play? And why do players from certain national teams appear more confident and hit the target more often compared to others? This phenomenon can be explained by recent studies on penalty shootouts.  The researcher Geir Jordet states that high public expectations of a team are linked to inferior performance. His data material consists of the eight most merited European nations where he obtained videos from penalty shootouts in two major international tournaments (World Cup and European Championships).

He analyzed all 200 shots taken by players representing these teams. The results showed significant relationships between team status, self-regulation strategies, and performance. Players from countries that, at the time of the penalty shootout, either had many international club titles or featured many internationally decorated players, spent less time preparing their shots and were less successful from the penalty spot than players from countries with lower public status. The data suggests that especially English players may have underperformed in previous international soccer tournaments because of high public status.

Pressure and expectations´ role in a penalty miss

According to Jordet’s research it is possible to detect the psychological pressure the players are under by observing the way they take their penalties. A penalty shootout is probably one of the most challenging psychological situations a player may experience, and his research shows that players under extreme pressure take their penalties twice as fast. The explanation for this is that a state of pressure is so psychologically uncomfortable that the players will be finished with it as soon as possible.

The problem is that the faster the players take the penalty, the less chance it is that they score. Players that start running towards the ball less than 0, 2 seconds after the referee has blown the whistle score on 57% of the penalties, while players who use longer time score on around 80%. With an average of 0, 28 seconds the English penalty shooters are among the world’s fastest. This may seem like a minor detail but its practical implications are dramatic.

English culture and the pressure to succeed

You have probably heard Gary Lineker’s expression: “Soccer is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball, and one referee who makes a slew of mistakes, and in the end Germany always wins.” When it comes to penalty shoot-outs the outcome may seem coincidental, but in the end we all know that England always lose. Since 1990 England has been knocked out on penalty shootouts in over 50% of the tournaments that they have participated in. While Germany and Argentina have won over 70% of the penalty shoot-outs they have been involved in, England has won only 17%.

Jordet argues that the biggest problem for the English team is pressure from the surroundings. English players are exposed to far more pressure compared to players from other countries. Further on, England is one of the world’s most individualistic nations and the culture puts a lot of pressure on the individual. The English culture is characterized by its focus on high expectations and the individual factor when it comes to success. It follows that if a culture has a need for heroes, it would at the same time long for scapegoats. History also shows that the English media has had a long tradition for pointing out scapegoats following failure.

Expectations and realism

The findings from Jordet’s study suggest that penalty shootouts are not decided by the player’s technique but rather from the player’s ability to control nerves and anxiety. This knowledge can also be used in other areas within sports, and of course also in life in general. Research on stress has found that in order to maintain a good mental health, it is important to keep a balance between expectancies put on the individual, and the opportunities this individual has to deal with them. The expectations put on you, both from yourself and from the surroundings, should be realistic, and if not it could totally block the prospects of a good performance. You have probably observed that the biggest stars with the highest expectations often miss penalties. This is not a coincidence since the players with the greatest skills are naturally burdened with the most pressure.

It is unlikely that the only reason for English failure in penalty shootouts is coincidence, bad luck, or skills. Although these factors certainly play a role, the pattern in the results from Jordet’s study are too obvious to ignore. There is no doubt that the English media has placed unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of the national football team in front of every tournament they have been involved in. In addition, the English players do not necessarily have the greatest skills, which make the high expectations even more unrealistic.

One may speculate whether the “culture of expectations” has become one of England’s biggest obstacles to success in big tournaments. This may now change since for the time being, England does not have the big names and they are not being considered as real title contenders. The English players now have lower expectations on their shoulders, and as a result England may increase its chances to succeed, at least when it comes to penalty shootouts.


Further reading:

Jordet, Geir (2009) “Why do English players fail in soccer penalty shootouts? A study of team status, self-regulation, and choking under pressure.” Journal of Sports Sciences. 27(2): 97–106.



*Cover photo by John Candy, second photo by Ben Paarmann, third photo by Nick Sarebi

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3 Responses to The Psychology of Penalty Shootouts – Why do England Always Lose?

  1. Jo Jakobsen says:

    Let me add that, as regards the difference between England and Germany, it is also down to Uli Stielike. As some of the readers will remember, Stielike, a magnificent defender in his time and prime, missed what he thought was a decisive penalty in the shootout against France in the 1982 World Cup semi-finals (though the Germans of course went on to win). Uli subsequently suffered a breakdown, tears flowing and hands covering his eyes for the rest of the thriller, with the arms of that nice fellow Littbarski providing (or trying to anyway) some console. Well, after Uli’s breakdown no German has ever missed a in a penalty shootout in a World Cup or a European Championship game – and they’ve played a few of these. Why no further misses? Because Uli set the standard of behavior for a German should he miss a penalty; it has become expected behavior. And what German (or footballer in general) would want to be seen (by a billion people, incidentally) reacting that way? It is only human, you might say. Of course, but if we all started behaving like humans all the time, our worldview and the world as such would soon collapse. So Stuart Pearce’s reaction eight years later – he was sad, but actually mostly irritated; his breakdown came later, in private – actually helped cause the opposite of what Jordet’s thesis argues: it really became accepted behavior for the English to react relatively calmly (manly?) to a penalty miss, so they subconsciously became quite good at it (misses, not penalties, that is). But the main point of the author really stands: it’s culture and psychology.

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