Germany: England’s spot-kick curse is a myth

Gazza’s tears: Agony after England’s loss on penalties in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. © Getty

Do we focus too much on the negative? For 30 years, England’s national football team has been losing penalty shootouts. But new research shows English players are far better than we think.

England is terrible at penalties. It’s an indisputable fact, from Gazza’s tears and Southgate’s humiliation to three agonising defeats in quarter-finals from the penalty spot. A curse hangs over English football.

Except it doesn’t. A new study from the University of Cologne in Germany looked at 700 penalties in international games and 5,000 in the top European leagues. Their conclusion: English players score the most penalties. More than world champions France, Spain, Brazil, and Germany.

Where England does perform below average is in the high-pressure penalty shootouts. But even here, the researchers say the results are statistically insignificant. England has been unlucky, but it hasn’t played enough shootouts to draw firm conclusions.

So, why do we expect the worst when an England player strides up to the penalty spot? Scientists put it down to negativity bias. Humans are hardwired to be negative, remember painful memories, and expect bad news.

It’s in our genes, says Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. “Back in our hunting and gathering days, we were better off being frightened of a spider or a snake a hundred times too often than one time too few. Too much fear wouldn’t kill you; too little surely would.”

But all that negativity can be self-fulfilling. The German researchers speculate that the media pressure heaped on England’s players gets into their heads. With all those nerves, they panic and hit the ball over the crossbar.

Off the pitch, psychologists warn that cognitive bias affects our mental health. Therapies include challenging negative assumptions with facts and positive counter-arguments. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are all recommended to take a step back from negativity and lift your mood.

At the 2018 World Cup, manager Gareth Southgate made the England team practise yoga, ride inflatable unicorns, and think positively. The result? They won their penalty-shootout against Colombia and finished fourth place. The curse is no more.

So, do we focus too much on the negative?

Mind games

No, say some. It’s all part of the beautiful game. Football (and life) is about drama. The highs and the lows, and the exhilarating feeling of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Life would be dull if we were always positive. Besides, by focusing on our weaknesses, we strive to improve and be better.

Others say, yes. That prehistoric brain, full of fear and worry, was useful when we lived in caves. But in the modern world, it stops us from being successful. Whether we are sitting an exam, writing an essay, or taking a penalty, we need to be able to think clearly. Instead of seeing the facts, our decisions are clouded by emotion.

You Decide

  1. When was the last time you did better at something than you thought you would?
  2. Is it better to hope for the best, or expect the worst?

Activities

  1. Think of a situation where you really want to do well. For example, at a game, a test, or a performance. Draw a picture of your mind and all your thoughts and feelings. Circle the thoughts you think are helpful.
  2. Choose your favourite sports star. Write them a motivational letter to prepare them for their next performance. You want them to do their best. Do you appeal to their head or their heart?

Some People Say...

“Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win.”

Gary Lineker, sports commentator and former English footballer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
One of the biggest problems we face is that our brains did not evolve to do most of the things we ask of them in the modern world. Over millions of years, we became champions at noticing danger and running away. Now, we live in societies that are relatively safe and risk-free compared to our prehistoric ancestors. But we choose to do things – like follow football teams and try to score penalties – which trigger these ancient mental and physical responses.
What do we not know?
The big question is, can we do anything about it? Evolutionary psychologists are doubtful. We were born negative, and that’s just the way we are. Sports coaches, motivational speakers, and mental health therapists all argue we can learn to be more positive or realistic. But then, do we always want to be? A positive mindset may help Wayne Rooney score more goals, but football supporters, as well as artists and writers, may enjoy embracing the darker side to human nature.

Word Watch

Gazza’s tears
According to football legend, the penalty curse began at the 1990 World Cup. The talented midfielder Paul Gascoigne (“Gazza”) was devastated after receiving a yellow card. His emotional response convinced the coach to keep him on the bench in the penalty shootout. West Germany won 4-3.
Southgate’s humiliation
In 1996, England faced Germany again in the Euros semi-final. Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty sent England out and made him the focus of the nation’s disappointment.
Penalty shootouts
Deciding a game on penalties was introduced in 1978. Before that date, tied games were settled by tossing a coin or drawing lots.
Statistically insignificant
72% of all players score their penalty in a shootout, but English players have only won 61%. The researchers say there are too few penalty shootouts to conclude anything from this. “In 20 years’ time,” they say, “everything will even out.”
Negativity bias
Also called the ‘bad is stronger than good’ effect. We have stronger emotional responses to bad events, criticism, and pain than we do to happy events, praise, and pleasure.
Rutger Bregman
His new book, Humankind, argues our negativity gives us a very unrealistic and despairing view of humanity.
Self-fulfilling
This works in two ways. Negativity affects our performance, but it also makes it harder to notice when good things happen. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.
Cognitive bias
Thoughts and beliefs that are not supported by evidence and facts.
Mindfulness
A recent study of 160 professional footballers in Iran showed that this form of meditation reduced their risk of injury.
Inflatable unicorns
Read the Guardian article in the Expert Links to find out about the unusual team-building and anxiety-busting activities the England players got up to at the World Cup.

Subjects

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