Get Your Head Right For The Shoot Out…Or Pay The Penalty

Recent article published in Soccer IQ (Issue 3, Nov 2011, pages 46-47)

Get your head right for the shoot-out…or pay the penalty!

Simon Hartley

Be World Class

It’s the 17th July 1994. It’s the world cup final in the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, USA. Brazil and Italy are deadlocked at 0-0 after extra time and the world cup will be settled by a penalty shoot-out. Dunga of Brazil has just netted to make it 3-2 to the South Americans. Up steps Roberto Baggio, arguably the world’s best player at the time. If he scores, Italy’s hopes are alive. If he misses, Brazil will win.

I am sure you know the rest. He missed! The world’s best player failed to hit the target from 12 yards. To be honest, his shot was nowhere near the target. It is a shot he would probably convert 99 times out of 100. However, on this occasion, something interfered. Obviously it is not an isolated incident. Baggio is not the only player to have missed a crucial penalty. So, what happens in a player’s mind when they step to take the kick and how can you ensure that the same doesn’t happen to you?

Many people will say the answer is ‘pressure’. To a certain extent, that’s right. However, if we want to understand what actually goes on, and ensure that we don’t fall into the same trap as Roberto Baggio, we need to look a little deeper. We need to know what exactly goes through our heads when we experience ‘pressure’.

I believe that pressure is imaginary. The only way that we can experience pressure is through our imagination. We create the experience of pressure. It cannot come from anywhere except our imagination. Let me explain how it works.

We feel pressure when we start to imagine the future. In Baggio’s case, he may start to imagine what will happen if he misses. He might imagine the scenes of despair back home in Italy, or the newspaper and TV headlines. He might start to imagine that his job is to realize the hopes of a nation and make the dreams of millions come true. All of these images are related to future events (i.e. things that might happen as a result of the penalty kick that he is about to take). The only way we can ever experience the future is through our imagination. The only way we can experience the past is through our memories.

When we experience pressure, we often forget the very simple job that we have to do. We complicate it because we get caught up in our imagination. Remember, imagination is fantasy. The job right in front of us is reality. Roberto Baggio may have got the job wrong. He may have started to think that his job was to score. Maybe he imagined that his job was to keep Italian hopes alive or to carry the dreams of a nation. I suspect that he forgot that his very simple job was to kick a ball 12 yards into an 8 foot x 24 foot rectangle.

If we asked a golfer to sink a 3 foot putt on a flat green, he’d probably say that he had a simple job. If we told him that the Earth would be destroyed if he missed, he might imagine his task was now to save the World. Is the job to sink a 3 foot putt or save the World? If the answer is ‘save the World’, imagine the pressure! However in reality it is still a simple 3 foot putt.

When you walk up to take that sudden death penalty kick, remember your simple job and focus on kicking the ball 12 yards into that rectangle. You can do that with your eyes shut!

Three Top Tips for Players

1. Remember the simple job – to kick the ball 12 yards into the rectangle.

2. If you’re feeling pressure, it is because you’re creating it in your imagination. Forget the future, focus on the here and now.

3. The best way to focus on the moment, is to use your senses. Focus on seeing, hearing and feeling the shot.

Three Top Tips for Managers & Coaches

1. If you feel nervous, it’s likely to rub off on the players. Learn to control your emotions.

2. If you’re feeling pressure, it’s also because you’re creating it in your imagination. Rather than getting caught up in the future, and the outcome, keep your mind focused on the present.

3. Focus on helping the players to do their simple job.

To access a FREE WEBINAR entitled ‘Pressure…What Pressure?’, register your details at the top of the page at

Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time, and Be World Class. For more information, visit and