Reflections on The 2018 FIFA World Cup

Gareth J. Mole, an Australian sports psychologist, shares his thoughts on the 2018 FIFA World Cup and in particular penalty shootouts.

Colombian football fan
One of our sports psychologists is married to a football mad Colombian.

The FIFA football (soccer) World Cup that recently wrapped up in Russia is arguably the biggest sporting tournament of them all and with that comes a unique opportunity to look at some of the psychological aspects that are associated with such a high profile, pressurised competition. In this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest we’ll focus mainly on how the knock out games are decided when the competing teams are deadlocked as well as a suggestion on how they could be determined without the need for the infamous penalty shoot out.

Of the 16 sudden death matches at the recently concluded World Cup, a quarter had to be decided by a penalty shoot out. For those of you who either don’t follow soccer or don’t follow the FIFA World Cup the penalty shoot out comes at the end of 120 minutes of play (90 minutes of normal time and 30 of extra time) when neither of the competing teams is winning. Teams take turns to kick from the penalty spot until each has taken five kicks. However, if one side has scored more successful kicks than the other could possibly reach with all of its remaining attempt, the shoot-out immediately ends regardless of the number of kicks remaining. If at the end of these five rounds the teams have scored an equal number of successful goals, additional rounds of one kick each will be used until the tie is broken hence the term “sudden death” (don’t get me started on what needs to be done to prepare players mentally during a sporting moment that contains the word “death”).

The first thing to mention about shoot outs is the fact that they’re not really a test of footballing abilities and therefore assuming that good footballers make good penalty takers would be a mistake. In many ways, particularly for the penalty taker (rather than the goalkeepers) it’s more like golf or shooting than soccer in that the ball is still, the target is known and there are no teammates to help you out. Mentally astute athletes of other target based individuals sports (such as golf) use action-orientated pre-shot (attempt) routines to help them “stick to the process” and it was no surprise to see that the teams who had been/were working with qualified sport psychologists seemed to use routines more effectively during these deciders.

Plug Alert: If you’re an athlete of a sport that has some “closed skills” (actions are self-paced that take place in a stable, predictable environment and the performer knows what to do and when – common examples are penalty shots in soccer / all golf shots) and you don’t currently use routines before you attempt these closed skills then you might like to Get In Touch to ask about how one of our team of performance psychologists can help you develop some. Or, if you’re on a budget then try our online, self guided Mental Toughness course Metuf.

Given that the penalty shoot-out is not really a true test of footballing qualities in the purest sense then one does have to ask the question about why it’s used to decide the winner of some of the most important soccer matches ever played (the 1994 Fifa World Cup final was decided by one).

When I was about fourteen I had an idea on how these deadlocks might better be decided and so I wrote to FIFA with the suggestion. Below, I have pasted this submission for your interest. They did reply saying it was dangerous for the players which to this day I don’t buy for a minute. I think the real reason is that the decisions makers like the “spectacle” of the shoot out and the interest they get which for them is ultimately more important than “fairness”. I would love to know your thoughts via the comment sections below.

“The Eliminator System” 

At the end of 90 minutes of a knock out football match, if the teams have scored an equal number of goals, the coach of each team must remove three of his / her players so that the first part of extra time is eight vs eight (or in the event of any red cards during normal time the number of players that were playing at 90 minutes less three players). This reduction in players will dramatically open up space on the pitch and increase the chances of goals being scored. After 15 minutes of extra time, if one team is ahead in the goals tally they are the winner. However, if the teams as still deadlocks at 105 minutes then a short break takes place (5 minutes) whereby the coach removes a further three players each and another 15 minutes is now played. Again, the winner is the team with the most goals scored at 120 minutes. In the unlikely event that both teams have scored an equal number of goals after this second period of extra time then instead of going to penalties the coach removes 3 more players meaning (if no red cards) 2 vs 2 for the final 15 minutes – after which golden goal (first team to score) takes places.

One of the appeals of this system is increasing the role of the coach in that he’ll need to be Tactically Wise to remove the right players in the right order. The other bonus of this system is that it will provide a huge advantage to “fair play” teams who end the match without having had anyone sent off. In 11 vs 11 soccer being reduced to 10 players as a result of a sending off is a disadvantage but we’ve seen many examples of teams rallying in these situations. But 8 vs 7 or 5 vs 4 or even 2 vs 1 is a different kettle of fish.