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Why are Linfield still paying the penalty?

To say Linfield have a spot of bother when it comes to taking penalties would be an understatement. This season the Blues have scored just two out of the seven they have been awarded. Top local sports psychologist Mark Elliott tells Stuart McKinley how they can go about putting it right

When Linfield crashed out of the County Antrim Shield on Tuesday night after missing a second-half penalty that would have brought them level with Lisburn Distillery, manager David Jeffrey claimed that his side's spot-kick jinx was becoming as bad as a sick joke.

Well, it might be funny if it wasn't so serious.

The Blues have had trouble from the penalty spot over the last three seasons.

Since the beginning of the 2004-05 season the Blues have been awarded 35 penalties and missed 17 of them, five of those coming from the seven they have had during the current campaign.

Although they've usually got away with it, it was always going to bite them at some stage.

And this season the 12-yard curse has left it's teeth marks with a vengeance.

STRIKE ONE: Linfield go out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round 5-3 on aggregate after Peter Thompson misses a penalty in the first-leg against Gorica of Slovenia and that was repeated by Mark Dickson in the second-leg.

STRIKE TWO: First Peter Thompson and then Timmy Adamson miss from the spot as Linfield lose the CIS Cup semi-final shoot-out to Glentoran.

STRIKE THREE: Paul McAreavey fails to beat Philip Matthews and Lisburn Distillery hold onto their 2-1 lead to progress to the final of the County Antrim Shield.

It doesn't have to be like this for the Blues though, as leading sports psychologist Mark Elliott explains.

"There is little doubt that penalty taking has become a problem for Linfield and the statistics of missing 17 out of 35 bear that out," he said.

"Penalties tend to be missed by an inadequately prepared taker whose mind is too focused on the outcome, be it missing or scoring a goal.

"There may be a nervousness in the Linfield team about taking penalties because of their poor record and that is understandable, but that takes away from the concentration on the actual activity that creates the outcome.

"At the moment a penalty is being taken it is not the outcome that is important, it is the process of trying to make sure that there is a positive outcome that matters.

"The player needs to be focused on the process to maximise his success rate from penalties."

So what does that involve and what do the men in blue need to do in order to break the scenario of struggling to score from the spot and failing to fully punish opposing teams for their mistakes?

"The most important thing to do is to develop a penalty-taking routine," says Elliott.

"It is vital for the designated penalty-taker to do this.

"They should replicate the process from the moment when the penalty is awarded, starting with receiving the ball and then approaching the penalty spot.

"That's followed by walking back a pre-determined number of paces to keep the focus and regulating the breathing before facing the goal and focusing completely on the task ahead.

"At this stage visualisation can be brought into play. By visualising putting the ball into a specific area in the goal you are training the brain to put it there and five minutes of that is better than 15 minutes of practice.

"It is also worthwhile to remind the brain of previous penalties which have been scored.

"If a pre-strike routine is developed and gone over repeatedly, that teaches the brain that when the player is handed the ball for a penalty, there are a number of steps to go through before a successful kick.

"Without this the brain never quite knows what is supposed to happen."

It has been said many times that practising penalties isn't a worthwhile exercise as the pressure and atmosphere can't be replicated on the training ground, but Elliott strongly disagrees with the view of pundits and commentators.

"Of course players should be practising penalties, especially if they are preparing for a cup match that could end in a penalty shoot-out," he says.

"They practice free-kicks and corners in order to perfect the routine, so why not penalties?

"I would expect that the Linfield players have practised taking penalties, but it is alright practising penalties, I just wonder how they have gone about this.

"Golfers have a pre-shot routine which they go through even on the practice ground and footballers should do the same.

"The concentration then has to be on striking the ball and not to allow thoughts of previous misses by yourself or other team-mates to enter your mind.

"While approaching the penalty-spot it is important to keep thoughts on the positive side and never to change your mind because that plays tricks with the brain and it hates indecision or vagueness.

"Concentrating on the pre-kick routine means that the outcome takes care of itself.

"Penalty shoot-outs are not a lottery as some say. A lottery is a game of chance that you have no control over whatsoever. A penalty kick is something you can be fully in control of and it is the kicker who is in control, not the goalkeeper."

Oh yes, the goalkeeper. Now no matter how much preparation is done and how well a penalty is struck, if a goalkeeper dives the right way he will save it, won't he?

"It may sound crazy, but the goalkeeper has to be taken out of the equation," says Elliott.

"You should only worry about things you have control over and you can't control what the goalkeeper does.

"Placing the ball in certain areas makes it almost impossible for the goalkeeper to save and you can train the mind to put the ball in those areas.

"Of course the goalkeeper may dive to the very area the taker is placing the ball, but if the concentration is on a solid strike of the ball that will make it more difficult for the goalkeeper to save."

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