England players suffer from the stereotype that they can’t win on penalties, according to research

This is one of the strongest stereotypes in world sport: The England national football team is bad at penalties. Surrounded whenever England find themselves in the knockout phase of an international tournament, this well-worn stereotype always stands out the most when England face historic rivals Germany.

The rivalry has featured two painful penalty shootouts, both of which ended with England’s head in England’s hands as Germany celebrated. With England set to face Germany once again on 29 June, in the last 16 of the Euro 2020 knockout phase, it seems that some parts of the country have collectively breathed a sigh of relief. If the match had to be decided on a penalty shoot-out, the stereotype dictated, England would definitely lose.

Our research shows that the notion that England are bad on penalties may have an impact on English players, making them appear worse when it comes to taking penalties. This means that perpetuating this stereotype isn’t just an unimportant scholarly pattern — it could actually prevent England players from performing well when they step into place.

It’s true, at the World Cup and the Euros, England were poor and Germany were impressive in penalty shootouts. England have won just two of the eight penalty shoot-outs they have faced, while Germany have won six of the seven they have competed in. England’s tally is one of the worst in world football, while Germany’s is one of the best.

And of course, there’s history here too. England lost to Germany on penalties in the semifinals of Euro 1996, just six years after England suffered the same fate, against the same foes, in the 1990 World Cup. England have never beaten Germany when their knockout match was decided from the penalty spot.

The stark contrast in fortunes between the two sides has fueled the stereotype that England are bad on penalties, and that facing Germany from the spot is very dangerous. Experts, journalists and even academics have helped cement these stereotypes into football folklore.

Stereotype threat

Far from being a harmless melodrama, research suggests this stereotype could hurt England’s chances in future penalty shootouts. That’s because of the so-called “stereotype threat”—the fear that people have that their performance will confirm negative stereotypes about the group to which they belong.

When girls solve math problems, for example, research shows that they perform worse if they are reminded of negative stereotypes about girls’ previous math abilities. The fear that they will conform to the stereotype consumes some of the brain’s bandwidth, reducing their working memory capacity and limiting their ability to solve problems. Research has shown that those who are highly skilled and invested heavily in their performance see the most reduction in stereotype threat.

However, in sporting tasks, stereotype threats seem to operate differently. That’s because expert sports skills become highly automated with practice, and are likely to be optimized when performed outside of conscious control. Penalty kicks are one such skill.

Penalty taking seems to be plagued by stereotypical threats as athletes turn their attention to monitoring their step-by-step performance, interfering with the automatic execution of skills. So, contrary to the idea of ​​working memory above, stereotype threats in sports can actually affect performance—not because they distract from executing a skill, but because they push too much attention on it.






Sports stereotypes

Stereotyped threats have been studied in a variety of sports, including basketball, golf, tennis, and even endurance and strength tasks.

For example, white men who competed in basketball saw their performance decline when they were reminded of the stereotype that “white men can’t jump.” Women perform worse than men on tennis serve when reminded of gender stereotypes about natural athletic ability. And in soccer, studies have found that female players performed worse at dribbling and shooting when they were told beforehand that women were bad at soccer.

Adding to this body of research, we have examined the national stereotype that England are bad at penalties. Our study participants unanimously agreed that “compared to the rest of the world of men’s football, England are terrible at penalty shootouts”.

The English footballers in our study scored fewer penalties when they were reminded of this national stereotype. But when players were pushed to question stereotypes, they performed better – they were less concerned about “messing up” and were able to take their penalties without being weighed down by years of England’s penalty woes.

Eliminate stereotypes

Our findings suggest that questioning penalty stereotypes can be key if England’s current team is to overcome their poor record in penalty shootouts. To do this, fans and the media must refrain from perpetuating the stereotype that England are uniquely terrible at penalty shoot-outs.

The media should avoid constant mention of penalties, and fans should avoid complaining about penalties. If the players believe that “everyone thought we were going to lose on penalties”, this negative stereotype might encourage the players to explicitly monitor their performance, with the ensuing breakdown of their natural and automatic skills.

Meanwhile, it is important for players and coaches to actively question and reject negative stereotypes. Players can, for example, remind each other that they always score penalties when playing for their club team, so there is no reason to believe that they cannot do the same in international football.

There is one potential positive to the penalty stereotype. Our previous work has shown that negative feedback from the opposing side can often motivate athletes, who are driven to “prove them wrong”. With German supporters more than happy to refer to England’s poor penalty shootout record, the England team could capitalize on this feedback, showing that a penalty shootout defeat — if it ever was — was inevitable.


Head to toe: Study reveals brain activity behind missed penalty kicks


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