Choking in penalty shootouts is an area which has been widely studied among sport psychologists. Much research has looked at the reasons as to why players choke, however there is very little research looking at intervention programmes to prevent it from happening. We shall look at two intervention strategies which can help prevent a player from choking.
The main research around choking has been linked to an athlete’s attention when executing a particular skill. Wulf, Hob and Prinz (1998) attempted to address this issue by researching into a persons internal and external focus of attention. Internal focus is where a person would focus on their body movements and external focus is where a person would focus on the effects the body movements have on the environment (Wulf, McConnel, Gartner & Schwarz, 2002). Wulf, McNevin and Shea (2001) proposed the constrained action hypothesis which argues that if a person directs their attention internally during skill execution this will interfere with natural control processes. External focus promotes more automatic processes, which will lead to better learning. Bell and Hardy compared different types of attention focus (internal,proximal external and distal external) on male golfers when performing a pitch shot. Results showed that golfers who were assigned a distal external focus of attention performed better and more accurately than those who were assigned an internal focus of attention.
Wulf et al. (1998) looked at how different types of instruction can affect complex motor skill learning. The experiment consisted of participants performing slalom type movements on a ski simulator. One group were given internal focus instructions (focus on your feet) and another were given external focus instructions (focus on wheels of the platform). After three days of practice using their instructions, it was found that the group who were given external instructions improved in their performance. This research is evidence of the constrained action hypothesis. However it should be noted that much of Wulfs work has focused primary around the learning of motor skills.
Focusing on the outcomes and external attention are very important for the learning of complex motor skills. Therefore as well as focusing on the type of attention it is also important to look at the type of feedback that is given during learning. Shea and Wulf (1999) argued that feedback can be important if it takes the players attention away from their movements and onto the effects of those movements. This was researched using a stabilometer task where two groups were instructed to focus on either internal or external attention and two groups were given feedback about internal focus or external focus. From the results it was found that participants who were given external focus feedback performed better in the balancing task than those given internal focus feedback.
Wulf et al. (2002) also looked at the effects of feedback on the learning of sport skills. In one of their experiments they asked experienced football players to shoot a ball into a target. Players were either given internal feedback or external feedback. Overall external focus feedback led to greater accuracy in the shooting task than internal focus. From the research it can be seen that focusing externally than internally has more benefits for an elite performer. When a player takes a penalty, instead of focusing internally and on the body movements that are needed to hit the ball, they could focus externally on the flight of the ball and where they want it to go in the goal. This can also relate very closely to the explicit monitoring theory where in a high-pressured situation a player will start to monitor how they should consciously execute a skill. External focus will prevent this from happening as it allows a person to execute a skill more automatically. Not only is it important for the player to focus their attention, but it is also important for the coaches to realise the effects that feedback can have on their players. An example of an intervention programme would be to allow players to take multiple penalties in training sessions, but to have an external focus of attention. Coaches could also provide external feedback to help benefit the players.
The second intervention strategy that can be used would be to develop preperformance routines for taking a penalty. In football the penalty kick is a self paced skill and this means that it requires very little attention from the performer to initiate the action (Jackson & Baker, 2001). A preperformance routine “ is a sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete systematically engages in before performance of a sport skill” (Moran, 1996, P. 177). In self paced sport events, the ideal penalty kick would be one where the situation automatically triggers a behaviour where the player will not be consciously thinking about what to do and will perform the execution automatically. The purpose of a routine is for a performer to put themselves in a focused and confident state before they excecute a skill and to stay in the same state throughout the skill (Singer, 2002). Singer (2002) designed a five-step strategy to help athletes through the preperformance state and the actual performance state. The first step is readying and this is where the athlete will establish a routine which will involve their body position. Step two is imaging and this is where the athlete must imagine or picture themself performing at their best. Step three is focusing external attention on an external relevant cue. Step four is executing with a quiet mind and Step five is evaluating and this is where the athlete can evaluate the outcome and the previous four strategies that were just implemented. Much research has been conducted looking at how these routines improve performance. Lidor and Mayan (2005) looked at the effectiveness of preperformance routines when learning a motor skill. The study involved participants learning a volleyball serve using either a motor or cognitive emphasized preperformance routine. From the results it was found that a motor emphasized routine benefitted the learners performance. Within the routines the participants were told to focus on external cues which also helped performance and can be linked to the studies conducted by Wulf.
From previous research on penalties we have seen that speeding up to take a penalty, results in a worse performance. Preperformance routines will allow a player to go through a number of stages before taking a penalty. It will allow the player to take their time as they will be going through the routine before the shot. This in turn could improve performance by allowing the player to execute the skill automatically and in a confident state. However it can be argued that even though these intervention strategies could improve performance it is still very hard to put a football player in the same high pressured situation that they would be experiencing within a game. There has been some research by Oudejans and Pijpers (2009) looking into training with anxiety to help prevent choking, however it will be very difficult to reenact the same pressure experienced in a stadium with thousands of supporters.
Furthermore it is important for coaches and managers to realise how these different factors can affect their players. The Media plays a huge role with inducing pressure on players and therefore if managers can acknowledge this and understand the different mechanisms that cause choking then possibly they will put less pressure on their team. To reduce a players chance of choking in penalties, more research will need to be conducted looking at whether different interventions will have a long-term effect on players. Very little research has been focused around preperformance routines and external focus when taking penalties and therefore this could be a key area to explore in more depth.