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I think we've had that discussion before, you and I :-).

I entirely agree with you. They should practice penalties, a lot. yet, I will give the US players a reluctant pass this time (not as much next time).

I will give them a pass because the psychological pressures can be enormous and really screw with your confidence. I remember Christian Vieri (another top class player and goal scorer in his day) saying (in some tv program a year or so ago) he didn't like taking penalties. He was an extraordinarily skilled and precise Italian center forward but when it came to penalties:"the goalkeeper always looked like the Hulk". It's clear evidence of emotion twisting reality.

In my days as a goalkeeper, I felt very little pressure at penalty time, all I needed was a screw up on the part of the shooter and I would stop the kick (so long as I didn't screw up). I was 6'4" back then (many decades ago) but it was evident to me that there was no way I could cover the whole goal; a totally focused (cold minded even), precise shooter would get me every time, but if I could mess with his concentration then I could get him to screw up.

This US team is young and it's not even the US first team. They are in a mildly prestigious international tournament, which is totally new to them, and they are essentially battling to look good so as to advance their careers. For those kids, a screw up in something as simple, and as important, as penalty in an international competition, is a level of mental pressure I don't think any of them have experienced before. If seasoned top class professionals fall to this mental pressure every so often, I'm not going to come down hard on kids for whom all this is new.

I don't know if you pay any attention to shooting competitions, but the psychological effects are very much present. When talking about top class shooters, in whatever shooting discipline, we are talking about people who have little problem in putting shot after shot into the same hole, nearly on demand. The skill is not questioned. Moreover, in certain competitions, they can rehearse as many times as they want (in their own shooting ranges) the exact same course of fire that they will shoot in competition. Yet, there are plenty of times when the pressure of the match gets to them and they make silly mistakes. You'd think shooting, like penalty taking is simply a game of precision, but it is in fact, also, a psychological game in which those who can withstand the pressure better are those who win.

John Pepple

Thanks for your interesting and insightful comments. No, I haven't followed shooting competitions.

I myself when I took a penalty kick never once looked at the goalie, except out of my peripheral vision to ensure he was standing in the center and not off to the side. Other than that, I looked solely at the ball, so if the goalie looked like the Hulk, I wasn't aware of it. I thought of my job as making sure the ball was placed accurately and if not accurately, then kicked with power. If the goalie somehow managed to get to my well-placed shot -- and it only happened once on a very muddy field when I couldn't get much power behind my shot -- my attitude was, "I did what I could."

This was nothing but intramural soccer at the University of Minnesota. I remember watching two other teams play a rather vicious game. They were both foreign, and I think it was an Arab team against an Iranian team. The Arabs had a penalty, and the shot was placed perfectly. The Iranian goalie dived the right way, but he couldn't dive far enough to reach the ball. That's what I always think of as the way that things should be.

I wonder if the answer isn't teams offering bonuses to shooters who shoot accurately.

Charles N. Steele

Your analysis makes sense to me, although I hardly know the game at all, I confess.

But I do know some strategy and psychology. The "psychology" argument that situation should favor the goalkeeper is crazy.

First, consider kicker. If odds are in kicker's favor (and they should be, b/c from other sports and activities we know first mover has advantage, plus ball moves faster than human) then kicker has upper hand. If he doesn't feel confident when he has odds in his favor, he has emotional problems. Are we supposed to think soccer players are snowflakes, ready to melt at slightest adversity? And remember, if he misses, the team isn't worse off.

Consider goalkeeper. Odds are against him, and if he fails, team is down 1. His team has nothing to gain, only to lose.

From the standpoint of physiology and physics, situation favors the kicker...if he's skilled.

Psychology? Going a bit deeper, the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, described a scenario in which an armed robber pursued by samurai runs into a windowless one room hut. "Oh no!" he thinks, "I'm trapped!" "Oh no!" cry the samurai, "he's in a fortified position!" But in fact, observes Musashi, the situation is that he's a robber in a hut surrounded by samurai.

The psychological factors are imposed by human attitudes. If one practices something a lot, one has confidence. So if kickers really do feel stress, then maybe they really are unpracticed snowflakes.

John Pepple

Snowflakes, yes!


John, the way you took those penalties is the right way. Specifically, you did them as a precision exercise and there might as well have been no goalkeeper. My job, when I was the goalie (in the same sort of matches as you) was to turn that precision exercise into something more akin to a dribble where you have to react to me, where I put myself into your subconscious and make you think you have to beat me, where in reality you don't. The moment I do that, I introduce doubt and that's to my advantage as a goalie, especially since a penalty called against my team is basically considered that we are down one goal from that point on.

Calling them snowflakes is, I think taking it too far. Being a snowflake is a form of entitlement:"I ought to succeed just because I exist" and I don't think that's the case with this US team. In any endeavor, what makes you consistently good is training, practice and experience. Training so that you learn how to do it right; practice so that you get to do it right consistently (amateurs practice until they do it right, professionals practice until they can't do it wrong); experience so that when circumstances aren't neat and clean (as on the practice field, or the dojo,or the range) you get to do it enough times right and wrong to learn why and how you failed and get to the point that your mind is only focused on problem solving and not your technique. Even with a great deal of training, practice and experience, you still get mental lapses. Messi is no snowflake but in the example John gave, it wasn't a question of skill but a mental lapse that led to that shot going over the bar.

My own experience in the dojo, on the field or the shooting range reflect this. Specifically, when experience is not that deep, external circumstances (a crowd, different temperatures, uneven ground, the relative importance of the moment in your life etc..) that you haven't known before will trip you up. the more experience you have the less they will, but it can still happen, since being human we are fallible. To take things as they exactly are and be solid (mentally and physically) in your skills takes a lot of training, practice and experience. A young samurai, in Charles' example, who has never fought in tight close quarters will not know well how his skills are still apply no matter the setting. A seasoned fighter won't have that problem but a seasoned fighter in the middle of a divorce is likely to have something nagging at his mind that can get in the way.

In the case of this young US team, the players are young twenty somethings whose training hasn't been with the master coaches, whose practice and experience is limited to the less competitive MLS (compared to La Liga, Serie A or the Premiership) and for whom this tournament is something totally new. Specifically, this is their unique chance to be considered for the World Cup team, where millions of people would get to see them, where, if they do well, they could get to play for real high level teams in Europe, and make more money and have an easier life, and if they mess up then maybe none of the good things will happen and in ten years they will have to start another profession in order to make ends meet. That's an enormous amount of pressure and if that's in your mind, even subconsciously, as you're walking up to the penalty spot, the odds of you failing are high.

Because they are kids, I will give the US team a pass on those missed penalties, this time. But the more training, practice and experience they get, the less acceptable it becomes.

John Pepple

Ok, Terry, you've convinced me that aren't snowflakes. And I like your distinction between an amateur practicing to get it right and a professional practicing to avoid getting it wrong. I'll have to remember that.


John Pepple

Oops. That THEY aren't snowflakes.

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