In any sport there are situations in which the importance of the psychological aspect becomes really noticeable. Penalties are a good example of this type of situation .
When players have to take penalties they often feel under pressure, especially if the penalties are decisive in a team’s qualification for a championship. When feeling under pressure it is more difficult to be precise, because it is difficult to maintain an optimal level of concentration . That is why in order to have more chances to take a penalty successfully, skills such as concentration must be trained.
What is it to concentrate on?
Knowing how to concentrate is knowing how to pay attention to what is really important at a given moment. In order to master this skill, it is necessary to learn how to differentiate the different focuses of attention, to know how to change from one to another depending on the context, and to regain concentration if it is lost due to some distraction.
The direction of the focus can be internal (e.g., on one’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings) or external (e.g., on the environment such as the crowd, the goal, or the ball). The width of the focus can be wide (e.g. looking at various aspects of the game) or narrow (e.g. looking at a specific place inside the goal where they are trying to put the ball).
When the different focuses are brought together, four types of attention control arise: assessment, analysis, preparation, and action. One way to improve penalty training is to have players practice all these types so that they learn to use the most appropriate one .
How does it affect concentration on penalties?
The coach can make use of the evaluation (broad, external focus) by putting up videos about penalties that may or may not end in a goal so that players can evaluate the characteristics of both.
To train the analysis (broad and internal focus), players can practice reflecting on the thoughts they have during the penalties, noting which ones have helped them the most and which ones have not. Another way to use this focus is by reflecting on the penalties they have taken in the competition and noting two things they have done well and one thing they need to improve.
The preparation (close and internal focus), can be done during the competition and during training . To do this, once the players know they have to take a penalty, they can practice switching to this type of focus. The best way to start using this type of attention control is by taking a deep breath. Four breaths are usually enough to focus at that very moment. Once they are focused they can tell themselves what steps they are going to take when they take the penalty, or if it is easier they can visualize themselves taking the penalty successfully.
Finally, it’s time for action (narrow, external focus). To do this, when the referee blows the whistle, the players must take their time, without rushing, keeping the focus mentally for at least 10 seconds and focusing on the place where they want to send the ball. Once they are clear about where they want to shoot the ball they must shoot firmly, without hesitation .
Mistakes and distractions
Players often lose their concentration, among other reasons, because of distractions. If they use a type of attention control that is not appropriate for the activity at that particular moment, players are often distracted by details that are not important at that moment . That is why it is important to practice the different types of spotlights and gain practice in exercises in which they get used to maintaining concentration.
Another way to train concentration on penalties is by reflecting on their sources of distraction. They need to recognize whether what distracts them is internal (such as lack of self-confidence, a negative internal monologue) or external (such as the audience clapping and shouting in the stands). Being aware of the aspects that worry them is the first step to be able to maintain concentration and perform optimally .
Once the distractions have been identified, the next step is to refocus attention. To do this, players can use phrases or words to help them. Since the inner monologue is very personal, the players themselves have to think about and choose the words or phrases that work for them (e.g. ‘let’s go for it’, ‘you can do it’).
The advantages of simulation
Finally, a practice used especially by elite athletes is the simulation of aspects of competition. The aim is to recreate a training environment as close as possible to the competition so that when players have to take a penalty in an important match they do not notice the difference.
One of the aspects of competition that is different from training and that increases the pressure on players is the sound, for example, of the referee’s whistle when he signals the start of the penalty, or the shouting of the crowd. In training, players do not usually hear these types of sounds, so if they get used to training as close as possible to the championships, they will be better prepared for when they have to take penalties. Another way to recreate the atmosphere of the championships, especially when the event is approaching, is to train in the same clothes as the competition.
Alicia Plaza, Psychologist