We hear a lot of chatter about penalties, especially during international tournaments. Pundits and managers seem to be split on the art of the shootout. In one camp you have the ‘of course you should practice penalties’. In the other, ‘you just can’t recreate the pressure of a shootout’. What we never seem to hear is how you might go about practicing them properly.
I recently stumbled upon an interview with Sir Clive Woodward and Roy Hodgson. During the conversation, the rugby world cup winning coach spoke about his time as Director of Football at Southampton. He goes into detail about how he brought in Johnny Wilkinson’s kicking coach to work with the academy, which at the time included Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott. They devised a novel way of recording penalty techniques, and made some interesting findings.
It became apparent that the players would take a different run up every-time they took a penalty. Despite aiming for the same spot, they would use a variety of techniques to do so. This leads Woodward to conclude that practicing penalties should focus on repeating the exact same action over and over again. He draws parallels with Tiger Woods, and of course Johnny Wilkinson. The purpose of repetitive practice is to minimise the margin of error when the pressure is actually on.
Raymond Verheijen recently articulated this point in under 140 characters: “Coaches & players often say penalties can not be trained because there is no pressure. If that is true, why do they practice free kicks?” If you aren’t familiar with Verheijen, look him up! Ray Wilkins made a peculiar rant about him on TalkSport, for making the distinction between fitness and freshness.
The iconic free kick takers tend to have a meticulously choreographed routine. Counting steps backwards, the power stance, breathing, touching hair and anything else in-between placing the ball and actually striking it. You wonder if taking this much care over penalties wouldn’t garner more successful results. Yes, even when the pressure is on!