Monday, June 25, 2012

What can football learn from Olympians?


Was anyone else as amazed as I was to hear Steven Gerrard in his post-match interview suggesting that Italy ‘got lucky’ in the shoot-out in the Quarter Finals of Euro2012?

Once again the penalty shoot-out has exposed an Achilles heel for the England players. Many different reasons have been offered for this weakness, ranging from bad ‘luck’ to an inherent lack of belief, to poor execution and tactics. In my opinion the truth is that, with the implementation of a series of relatively simple steps, the team could significantly improve the likelihood of success in this element of the game.

It’s fair to say that England generally put up a reasonable fight in ‘open play’ and we saw them at their best recently when really fired up and fighting out of a corner against Sweden. Last night’s Italy match also saw some moments of brilliance which gave us all the optimism that we could pull off a win. And therein lies a key point: Comfort in ‘open play’. This is what our footballing superstars do day in, day out in their club roles and subsequently in normal play at a tournament. In a sporting sense, this is an ‘open skill’ and, as such, has no pre-agreed structure. To put it another way, it is down to the individual players to read, and then react to, the circumstances as they try to ‘outwit’ the opposition. By spending the majority of their time in this role, it makes sense that the majority of players are comfortable in such a scenario. And this is why there is a problem.

You see, in my opinion, when an outwitting player is put in the opposite situation (as in a ‘closed skill’) they are not comfortable and are likely to have less confidence and ultimately execute with less conviction. A closed skill is one that has a beginning, middle and an end, all of which are initiated by the individual. In the case of a penalty shoot-out, the team player must stand alone and experience a tense calmness, a rather different pressure to the norm for these open skill experts.

A great sport that mixes both these types of skill is tennis. There is the closed skill of a serve followed by open play. Some tennis players are masters of both and thrive as a result. Problems inevitably arise when a player has perfected one and not the other.

Because of the very nature of the sports, athletes and golfers are experts at executing closed skills effectively and here is where a solution could lie for England football players, should they choose to see it. Usually, though, football tends to look for solutions from within. My advice is simple: Consult those people who know, people who live and thrive in the environment that you do not. There are simple and effective ways to aid development of this type of skill and become more comfortable and competent under pressure.

We can then banish absurd statements such as ‘it’s all down to luck’ and ‘we are now not in control of this’ and ‘penalty shoot outs are a lottery’.

Some of the traits needed to execute in this environment are outlined in ‘The Champion In All of Us: 12 Rules For Success’. It is a book offering an insight into the mind and traits of an Olympian that apply to us all in everyday life. To order a signed copy, visit the books page on my website now.

  1. Matt Shillabeer

    Monday, June 25, 2012 - 17:26:53

    Hi Steve, very similar approach in triathlon. The main disciplines of swim, bike and run activities are less open than football i.e. A fixed start and finish point and potentially the fastest time between may win. However, get clobbered in the swim, have to react to a breakaway attempt on the bike or run, this soon becomes open. Where races can be won or lost or penalties given is between the main sports in transition. These are defintely closed type activities and not often practiced by pros and amateurs alike. Skill in these areas are as essential as the penalty taking. A good concept and showing an understanding of the mental skills through every element is the key. Matt

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