Dave Brailsford tells his athletes the same thing over and over again as a matter of course. “Analyse the demands of the event. Any discipline, that’s what you need to do. Analyse the demands of the event.”
The head of Team Sky, and former boss of British Cycling, was one of the leading thinkers in sport that I approached in researching my book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty. I was convinced that England’s dismal run of six defeats in seven penalty shoot-outs was not down to luck and as well as speaking to a player from every team to have beaten England on penalties, I sought advice from the likes of Clive Woodward, Dave Alred, NFL kicking coach Doug Blevins and former Ryder Cup golfer Andrew Coltart.
But it was Brailsford who seemed to hit on a smart idea for solving England’s spot-kick hang-up. He told me he would gather as much information as he could — from psychologists, sports scientists, performance analysts, ex-players, current players and any other experts — and work out any trends from the findings. I explained that in England’s case, they would be that the high expectations play havoc with the players’ nerves, the weight of history has its own burden and that often the non-regular penalty-takers miss in the shoot-out. There are also correlations between rushing after the referee has blown his whistle, players turning their backs on the goalkeeper, and the goalkeepers’ slightly below average saving record from penalties.
“So you need to analyse the demands of the event,” Brailsford responded. “We’ll say, let’s practise taking penalties after running for 120 minutes. We need to understand the physiological demands of that: what are they? Would it be better to maintain a warmed-up status, keep the body in optimal condition, or to stand there shitting yourself with your arms around your team-mates? Is a fresh player more accurate than a fatigued player? You could work it all out.”
I suggested that England have been a little unlucky in that three times, key penalty-takers have not been around to take part in the shoot-out. In 1990 against West Germany, Paul Gascoigne was in no shape to take a penalty. In 1998 against Argentina, David Beckham had been sent off, as was Wayne Rooney in 2006, when Beckham had also gone off injured.
Not relevant, said Brailsford. It’s part of the manager’s job to build in the what-if factors.
Brailsford is a football fan and as frustrated as anyone by the repeated failures of the England team. So what would he say to the players at the point before the shoot-out? “Right,” he said. “We’ve thought this through, guys. Forget what happened in the match, whether we feel cheated or lucky to be here. The moment that whistle blows, it’s all over. You might as well think this is a different game. This is nothing to do with football any more. Whatever happened in that match is irrelevant now. I want you to completely stop and start afresh with a new approach. It’s like this: we were playing dominoes, now we’re playing table-tennis. We know we have left no stone unturned to be prepared. We are ready to go. So let’s go and do it!”
I’m convinced by his up-and-at-’em rhetoric but unfortunately there is not a ball or a goal, nor a table-tennis table, in sight. Brailsford is a polymath, he is inspiring, and I can imagine him making the switch to working in football in the future. It was no surprise that he was approached by Roy Hodgson to address the England players before they flew to Miami last week.
He wondered if there was an analytics model to measure the performance of England players to compare their output for club and country; that way coaches might be able to replicate players’ best club form for the national team.
“Analyse the demands of the event.” When Brailsford started with Team Sky, their competitors laughed at his fixation on the phrase. Analysing road racing, where everyone is subject to variables in weather and other conditions, was one thing, but in the velodrome, where the variables are fewer, there was less competitive advantage to be found. Brailsford found it. “When it came down to it, and we ran all the numbers, of course you can control it and improve it.” And what did the others think of you after that? “Probably that we were a bunch of idiots.”
Brailsford was being diplomatic when he said that some sports rely too much on conventional wisdom. It seemed pretty obvious that he was talking about football. “Penalties are still seen as a bit of an after-thought. But with any game you play, you can optimise your chances of winning.”
He then came up with a theory so simple, I wonder why no one had mentioned it before. “You need strong people and strong management and you know what, actually I will take the responsibility myself and make the decision for you.”
Brailsford knew that at moments of extreme pressure, the first thing to go was an athlete’s decision-making ability. “The decision they will make will be an emotional one which will be irrational.”
So before the game, Brailsford would say: ‘You must know that if it goes to penalties, I want you to kick the ball there’.
“That way,” he explained, “the player can go out knowing what he has to do. He has one less thing to worry about. He can now focus on the process, not the outcome. He’s worked on the routine, every day, so it’s natural for him. Place the ball well, take 14 steps, three deep breaths, two steps to the side, wait for the whistle, and then breathe again. That’s the thought process you develop for every single player.”
You make it sound so easy, I say.
“It’s a penalty!” he laughed. “It is easy!”