Lotteries, Penalty Shoot Outs & Positive Psychology

Posted on June 28, 2012

Whenever there is a penalty shoot-out during a football tournament, I will wager with you that that the pundits “back in the studio” will use the word lottery on several occasions as the cameraman homes in on managers picking the poor bastards charged with (unless they are playing England) potentially letting their nation down in front of a world wide audience (I can actually hear Alan Hansen’s voice in my head as I write this). However, the last time I checked, winning the lottery, as in the jackpot, offered you just a one in fourteen million chance of a life spent clearing your doormat of begging letters and losing all your friends, so to compare it with a penalty shoot-out is a bit ambitious, except in the case of England of course, where one in fourteen million is probably about right. They did win one, against Spain in 1996, since then they have lost to Germany, Argentina, Portugal (twice) and now Italy and previous to that, Germany again, in 1990.

Trying to understand this unfortunate English phenomenon is not easy, as you would have to assume that if you are more realistic and compare a penalty shoot-out to the toss of a coin rather than a lottery, you would conclude that England would have perhaps lost four and won three or vice versa. I was convinced during the world cup in 2006 that England would beat Portugal on penalties, purely because I thought the law of averages would come in to play after they had beaten us by the same method at Euro 2004, but alas, with England, the law of averages does not seem to come in to play. If we are to believe the pundits (and with England’s record I am beginning to) and accept that it is a lottery, based on the fact there is a tournament every two years, we may have to wait twenty eight million years for our next success, in fact, those odds lengthen when you take in to account we might not qualify for all the tournaments. Depressing statistics indeed, unless of course you are Chris Waddle, who might well have been forgiven by then.

Chris Waddle consoled by Matthaus in 1990

Enough of the lottery, what about psychology? I read a blog by a friend of mine recently which was about positive psychology (read here) and whilst it wasn’t about football, it made me wonder what must be in the psychological make up of a British footballer compared to that of one from Germany for instance, a team who have been ruthlessly dispatching penalties since a shock defeat to the Czech’s in 1976. The FA spend a lot of money on sports psychologists to try and overcome this problem and Glen Hoddle even attempted to employ a spiritual healer (Eileen Drewery) at the world cup in 1998, but none of it has worked, so it is either impossible to re-programme the psychological nature of an individual or the psychologists employed by the FA are not very good at the jobs. Either way, the FA appears to be wasting their money. It is quite possible that if someone is psychologically negative, there is nothing anyone can do about it, in which case we are better off discovering which one of the two our footballers are and never let the negative ones near a penalty spot. However, if you then discover that your best eleven footballers are psychologically negative, you are pretty much fucked.

My wacky theory is this: There were 14 million people watching the England v Italy game on the BBC and whilst the majority of them felt reasonably confident when Gerrard and Rooney took their penalties, the pendulum swung to negative when Ashley Young stepped forward. Perhaps in his own mind, Ashley Young, who had either under performed or simply wasn’t good enough throughout the tournament, could through a sixth sense, feel the lack of belief back home and even in his own players? With thoughts like that taking over your body, you really have not got a hope, no matter how fine a player you are. Many scientists (normally mad Californian’s) say that there are often unusual surges of electrical activity caused by foreboding humans before natural disasters or terrorist attacks……perhaps the negativity of fourteen million Englishman can be transferred in to a football player a few thousand miles away? Chuck in a few million Scotsman willing him to miss and I have to say it must be a pretty potent force to deal with, particularly if you didn’t fancy taking the penalty in the first place.

When all said and done, positive psychologists are positive that positive psychology can be trained and that people suffering negative psychology can become positive. People who are psychologically negative believe that being psychologically negative is in the DNA and that psychologically negative people will never be psychologically positive. Personally I am psychologically negative to English penalty takers and the sports scientists at the FA who are supposed to make our psychologically negative footballers psychologically positive. It may be just my own psychological negativity, but I am psychologically positive about one thing and that is that the members of the FA must be psychologically positive if they think that six out of seven penalty failures since 1990 is a positive return from well paid sports psychologists.

Now that I have sorted that one out for you, I will leave you with these penalty stats since 1990:


Waddle, Pearce, Batty, Southgate,  Beckham, Ince, Lampard, Gerrard, Carragher, Vassell, Young, A Cole.


Lineker, Platt (3) Beardsley,Gascoigne (2) Pearce (2) Shearer (2) Sheringham, Merson, Owen (2), Lampard, Terry, Hargreaves (2) Joe Cole, Gerrard, Rooney.

Who would have said that Paul Gascoigne was psychologically positive enough to take penalties?


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