Jeff Whitley

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It’s play off semi-final Monday at the Stadium of Light. The dramatic penalty shoot-out has finished. Defeated Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy is seething; he directs his anger at a plastic bucket; his dream of leading the Wearsiders back to the Premiership is over for now.

McCarthy has just witnessed the sixth Sunderland penalty. And Jeff Whitley is the man to incur the manager’s wrath. Whitley, in an attempt to outwit Crystal Palace keeper Nico Vaessen, has fluffed his spot kick. Vaessen saves easily. Palace score and win. The Black Cats are out.

Whitley joins a long, notorious line of penalty takers who, under pressure, have failed to find the net from twelve yards. The burden of defeat rests heavily on their shoulders.

As the two teams gathered in the centre circle pre-penalties, it was clear that Palace’s innovative manager, Ian Dowie, was impressing upon his players, indeed demanding, the need for clear, decisive thinking. Make up your mind. Choose a spot. Hit it hard. With purpose. Do not waver. Indecision costs promotion.

Dowie, as a student of the psychology of sports, will have been keenly aware that any uncertainty manifests itself in one certain outcome. A missed penalty. Think David Batty and his infamous France World Cup miss. As Batty stood in the centre circle waiting his turn to shoot; he told Alan Shearer that he was going to blast his pen down the middle. So why, then, did he attempt to place the ball?

To forge the vital mindset of clarity, concentration and certainty, it is essential to engage in thorough psychological rehearsal. For the penalty shoot out, reconstruct the walk to the centre circle; gather in a huddle; imagine the crowd. Choose your spot. Build a routine. Repeat.

This forges appropriate positive mental habits. Those ex-England managers who suggested that it was unnecessary to practise penalties were wrong.

Without key thought patterns to fall back on, inexperienced or under prepared spot kickers leave themselves vulnerable to the vagaries of anarchic, disordered minds.

When the pressure is on, the mind, in an attempt to handle it, becomes over active. It infiltrates new, alternative, negative, strategies. So, decisiveness is replaced by stress-filled anxiety. The player hits and hopes. The force has become stronger than the capacity to handle it.

Not for the greats, however. Michael Johnson, the 200/400m superstar, once said, ‘I love the pressure. You have to embrace it; understand it; absorb it; make it your own and use it to your advantage. Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of a great opportunity. The pressure builds and builds until the defining moment, and that is the time I crave’.

The Sports Psychology Summary…

For Crystal Palace, their Stadium of Light shoot-out success was testimony to the motivational skills of their young manager. He had no doubts about his players. The players had no doubts about their manager. Ergo, the players had no doubt about themselves. Suffused in this aura of confidence, the positive equilibrium, winning was never in doubt.