Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Keep calm and breathe

I finally got around to reading an article I'd torn out of the Wall Street Journal on June 6. It's about the techniques the Dutch soccer team are using to help them become more effective at penalty kicks (for those non-soccer fans, these are the shots from 12 yards out when it's just the guy kicking the ball and the goalie).

After reading it, I thought basketball coaches may be able to apply some of the learnings to free throws, basketball's version of the penalty kick.

Evidently, Holland is the second-worst team in the world in penalty kicks. They're strong in the other parts of the game, but for some reason -- most people think it's mental -- they've really struggled with the penalty kick. And it's an important part of the game. About 25 percent of all the games in major championships come down to penalty kicks.

"Dutch soccer authorities realized something had to be done. To help the national teams get over their penalty phobia -- the country's under-21 team has had similar problems -- they brought in sports psychologists and scoured hours of penalty videotape in a bid to master the shot's fine art."

While nerve-racking, about 70-80 percent of the shots go in. In other words, there's a good chance you're going to score. But that's not the case for the Dutch. Some blame the culture ("The individual doesn't feel comfortable.").

Regardless, the team brought in a noted expert in "sports performance anxiety." In his words:

"I tried to explain that taking a penalty is a psychological event. The higher the pressure, the more players miss. It's got little to do with skills of the players or the quality of the shots."

Based on his experience, the expert made the following recommendations:

1. Keep your eyes on the goalkeeper. "It's avoidance behavior." According to the expert: "The fight with the goalkeeper is starting."

2. Take your time. According to the expert's data, "Those who took more than 2.8 seconds to place the ball succeeded 77% of the time, while those who did it in less than 1.7 seconds made the shot 58% of the time." In addition, "Many winners also take a long pause between the whistle blowing (signaling that the player is clear to shoot) and their shot." To ensure a pause, the expert suggested that the players "pull up their socks and breathe deeply" before the shot.

3. Practice the feeling of isolation. "Every day at the end of training, the players would take one penalty, not more. the tension of a shootout scenario." Further, "players took the shots with no teammates standing nearby, to better replicate the isolation and fear of the real thing."

4. Manage errors when the occur. The expert "advised the players that after someone misses, his teammates should jog toward him, hug him and bring him back into the group." He told the players, "'If you miss, it's OK. It's my fault,' because he'd chosen them."

In June of last year, in an important shootout against England, 16 Dutch players took penalty shots. After Holland won the game on penalty kicks, one Dutch player said, "It was unbelievable. I just remembered, keep calm and breathe."