Winning Penalty Shootouts With Sport Psychology

Dave Kearney
8 min readJul 14, 2021


Some say penalty shootouts come down to luck. If your team isn’t mentally prepared, then nothing could be further from the truth.

Penalty taking during high stakes win-or-go-home scenarios is far more about each athlete’s current mental state and far less about their overall talent. It’s also definitely not a roll of the dice. Coaches who share this belief with their teams (as opposed to treating penalty shootouts a contest of skill and mental strength) also tend to get poorer results.

To start, let’s look at some of the data around penalty shootouts and paint a clear picture of how significant a role mindset plays in high pressure sporting (and other stressful life) situations.

Once we’ve confirmed how pressure affects players and causes them to underperform while under duress, let’s then look at how sport psychology techniques can help to improve team culture and the individual athlete’s handling of pressure. The end result will be that each athlete has an improved chance of scoring with a successful penalty kick.

Who you are and what you’ve done means nothing

Take the recent penalty shootout between England and Italy in the final of Euro 2021.

England’s second and third penalty takers, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have scored a combined 25 out of 28 penalties during their careers to date.

Marcus Rashford misses.

Given their historical records, the odds of both players missing should be about 1 in 100. Neither could want to score any single goal in their career more. But faced with the stress and pressure of the highest level of expectations, they both missed.

Was it really just exceptionally bad luck, or could additional mental skills training have given them the edge that might have changed the outcome?

What factors affect high stakes penalty taking?

We’re lucky to have a great data set of high stakes penalty shootouts from recent years. A detailed analysis of these sudden death penalty shootouts has shown some obvious and some not so obvious results:

  • The penalty taking skill of the taker correlated with higher scoring frequency.
  • Big name players actually had a lower scoring rate than expected. It has been suggested that their status actually lead to a greater internal sense of anxiety given the importance of the moment, leading to a drop in successful kicks for those players.
  • Players who had played the full game before taking the penalty were more fatigued, and consequently scored less often.
  • Experience doesn’t play a huge role: players under the age of 23 were more likely to score than players older than that age.
  • Players who knew that a successful kick would immediately lead to victory scored 92% of the time. Conversely, kicks to avoid being immediately eliminated were scored only 62% of the time. The potential for victory (a positive emotion) significantly outperformed the fear of instant elimination.

There are also plenty of solvable team and environmental factors that come into play when it comes to penalty taking success:

  • Ghosts from past shootouts impacted current results. Teams who have a history of losing shootouts having a more difficult time breaking that trend. The team’s culture and values may come into play here.
  • Players taking kicks later in the shootout were less likely to score than ones earlier in the shootout. The first kick in a shootout is about 15% more likely to be scored than the 4th kick in the same shootout. A longer wait time before shooting combined with the greater stresses felt later in the shootout combine to impact negatively impact later attempts on goal.
  • Players who took more time to take their penalty after the referee signalled it was ok to proceed were more successful than players who began their run up straight away. It is likely that those who let their anxiety overcome them moved more quickly in order to escape it (fight or flight reaction), leading to a poorer scoring performance. The results can be seen in the graphs below.
  • Finally, players who exuberantly celebrated their successful shots were more likely to be on the winning side of a penalty taking contest when compared with those whose celebrations were more muted or controlled.
    More expressive celebrations helped to boost the confidence of teammates kicking later in the shootout and potentially created an intimidating effect on the opposition, who were in turn more likely to miss the following penalty.

Hopefully the above points make it clear that there is a significant mental skills component to participating in a shootout and that the outcome of any given shootout is far from just luck. Trainable sport psychology skills, such as handling pressure, overcoming anxiety and maintaining self confidence are key to success in a shootout and can have a dramatic impact on the result.

So how can a team prepare better?

The mental skills preparation work completed by the coaches and athletes plays a significant role in the outcome of a sudden death shootout. But how can a team or individual prepare mentally for this kind of event?

Thankfully, sport psychology provides a number of tools that can help athletes gain the mental edge in these types of situations. Here are four techniques for making sure your athletes are better prepared to seize the moment and emerge victorious.

1. Plan using scenarios

“One potential scenario is that we haven’t won the game in normal time. If so, we go to a shootout. This exercise is about making sure we are fully prepared to win that way if we need to.”

Scenario planning is a team exercise (as described in this free mental training workbook) that can be used as a preparation tool to help a team become mentally prepared for a shootout.

Using scenario planning, a coach or mental skills coach can paint a picture of a wide range of game day scenarios in order to provide teams with a toolbox of shared responses to in game challenges. It helps athletes become accustomed with various adverse situations and boosts team confidence that “no matter what goes right or wrong, we have a plan for that”.

By painting the shootout as just one potential scenario, coaches can create a meaningful conversation about the penalty shootout without having it dominate the thoughts of the players during the actual game. A broad range of questions can be asked:

  1. Who will take the penalties?
  2. How can the rest of the team support those players in advance of the game and during the shootout?
  3. What can each player do to prepare for the emotional journey they will undertake?
  4. What support do those players need from coaches, sport psychologists and other teammates to maximise their chances of being relaxed and in the moment when it really counts?

2. Deliberately build confidence

“I have been chosen because I have earned the right to be here. My team trusts me. My coach trusts me. I trust my training. I trust myself. I have practiced this and I am ready. Let’s go!”

The coach should choose the penalty takers based on historical success and success on the training ground. The coach and the rest of the team should then row in behind the player that has been chosen. They have been chosen because they are the best choice to help the team progress.

The player should know that everyone trusts in their potential. He/she should also practice their own self talk in order to stay positive.

3. Use a process on the day

“I feel the ground under my feet. I hear the roar of the crowd celebrating my success. My breath is deep. I am relaxed as I exhale. Smile. I am going to do this. This is the moment that I was born for.”

The process of taking a penalty in a shootout is identical every time. There is the waiting, the walk to the spot, the placing of the ball, the waiting for the referee’s signal to proceed, the run up, the kick, the celebration. Each individual kick exists in isolation. There is no tactical game to be played other than making sure the ball goes into the back of the net.

Athletes who focus on the result of the kick increase their stress levels and are more likely to miss. Instead, developing a pre-planned process will help each penalty taker to mentally prepare and prevent their thoughts wandering into negative self-talk territory where stress and anxiety being to affect muscle control and confidence.

Instead, during the wait, there is ample time for individuals and the team to fill their time with breathing exercises, grounding exercises, muscle relaxation, positive self talk and mantras to stay calm and relaxed (to learn more about any of these, see the Champion’s Mind app).

4. Prepare in advance with visualization

It’s all well and good to practice penalty taking in silence on an empty training ground, but delivering the same result under the unforgiving spotlight of competition is not and will never be the same.

The key mental skill to use here is visualization. Visualization allows each athlete to rehearse not just taking the kick, but also helps acclimatise them to the noise of the crowd and to the emotions of the moment, meaning the athlete is more relaxed as they take their kick.

A good visualization script (which an athlete should record and listen back to) will include:

  • The feel of the stadium, the noise of the crowd, the emotions that will be experienced and how they feel.
  • Each stage of the penalty taking process, including waiting, walking, ball placement, kicking, celebrating.
  • The movement, the breathwork, the self talk and the mechanics of the shot itself.

This visualization script will help to pre-wire the brain with the mechanics of shooting under intense pressure. There is no other way to effectively practice the mental stressors that affect the kick except by visualizing it taking place within the cauldronic environment of the actual game itself.


There are very few moments in sport where the impact of self-confidence, anxiety, stress and pressure so overwhelmingly overtake the physical and technical abilities of an athlete in defining an outcome. But when they do, like in the case of a penalty shootout, they decide titles.

By using the 4 techniques of scenario planning, confidence building, adherence to process and visualization, players will be able to relax more, avoid destructive self-talk and minimise their anxiety. They will know that the result will be based on their preparation, and not just luck.

Want to run a complete mental skills training program like this for all your athletes? Try



Dave Kearney

Making mental skills training based on sport psychology best practice a normal thing for all athletes