Jonny Wilkinson’s “guide” to taking penalties under pressure

Dr. Jon Finn explains how to perform better under pressure – in work and in life.

And with football’s European Championship reaching its climax, he shares his unique insight into the mental skills used by England Rugby’s record-breaking kicker, Jonny Wilkinson.

Dr. Jon explains how Gareth Southgate’s England football team could benefit and apply the insights to win a pressurised penalty shoot-out.

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Podcast Transcription
Hi, everyone, Dr. Jon Finn here. Welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. We are currently in the midst of the 2020 European Championship and it’s getting to the business end of the competition. We know that these final games are going to be really tight, and that penalties will probably play a role in deciding some of the outcomes of some of the games. So I thought I would dedicate a podcast to thinking about performing under pressure. This is something that I’ve been interested in for a very long time, having spent a long time playing golf, being a kicker in rugby league and rugby union, then going on to help athletes to perform under pressure. And there are many, many stories I could tell here from working with the PGA….to working with athletes that are having to ultimately face the highest levels of pressure and hit golf balls and kick rugby balls and, and score penalties.

But one story I want to focus on is that of Jonny Wilkinson. I’ve never worked with Jonny Wilkinson directly but one of my students, he was also an international goal kicker for Wales Rugby Union, in fact, and didn’t play in many international games for Wales we played a few. At the end of his career, he was playing professional rugby….for a team that was strongly connected to a university that was working for and he was doing a dissertation all about routines, performance routines, for the elite rugby players, Rugby Union and Rugby League, and he was interviewing them about their pre-shot routines if you like. And this was an area I was really interested in. I developed this thing called the pre-shot training programme as part of my work for the Professional Golfers Association. And this is something that I would use with that guy for himself and also some of the rugby goal kickers he was coaching.

But he essentially interviewed Jonny Wilkinson for a few hours all about his routine and what he did. And I found this really fascinating because unbeknown to many people Jonny Wilkinson hasn’t always been fantastic under pressure. We think of him now as the guy that we would go to if you were still playing professional rugby, under pressure. He was the guy that never missed, when in fact he did miss and he couldn’t always do it. And if anyone’s ever seen any footage of the England Rugby Union tourl, from 1998 to Australia, that was labelled the tall from hell, because the performances were so bad. He was one of Clive Woodward’s first tours, if not his first tour as the England Rugby Union manager. And it featured a young Jonny Wilkinson. And the first time he started a full international for England, he was the fly half and goalkicking was his responsibility. And I don’t think he made a successful kick all the way throughout the game. It was a bit of a nightmare for him, it was clearly choking under pressure. And obviously then he went and he worked on this game or on this part of his game. And I think what’s really interesting is when we’re thinking about performing under pressure, and let’s just consider goal kicking in rugby or a penalty kick in football which are very similar. For this example, we often focus on the physical action. So we might put down the ball, and then we take three or four yards back. And then we run up and we kick the ball. When players don’t perform well under pressure, one of the things is – and Jonny Wilkinson could all day long – kick the goals he was missing in the heat of his debut game. I’m sure he could make those kicks all day long on the training field when there was no pressure. Physically he was doing exactly the same action. But mentally something was changing. So we often focus a lot on the physical side of things while practising, but we don’t focus so much on the mental things.

So, what was fascinating with my dissertation students’ interview with Wilkinson, and actually you can read some of this stuff in his biographies as well, is that he gave this detailed breakdown of what he was thinking about during every phase of his pre-shot routine. And I developed the pre shot training programme, to empower golfers and other athletes to be more conscious of what they were thinking about. So we’ve been working on this, but it was just fascinating to see what Wilkinson said he was thinking about. So I’m going to talk through Wilkinson’s routine. And we can break it down into five steps. This is what he said, he didn’t change things from time to time, for sure. But at this time, this was the version that emerged.

So the first physical action was to place the ball down on the kicking tee. And the way that I’m thinking about this, I’m separating his thoughts into what I call focus pictures, which is just imagine you’ve got a mini TV screen, in your, in your, in your brain, or in your mind’s eye, and you’re seeing things on that TV screen. So we can all do this, you can all try this little exercise. Now, just close your eyes, and count how many windows you have in your house or your flat wherever you live. And without any visual stimulus, you can get some rough idea of how many windows you’ve got, can count those up, you can picture what your parents’ faces look like, what your children’s faces look like, what some of the England football teams, players’ faces look like. So we can do this thing called mental imagery. Some of us can do it better than others. But we can all get this kind of vague, at least a vague mental image in our mind. And we can use that to help us to control our thinking. So that’s focus pictures. The other thing is focus words. So we’re always talking to ourselves. If you don’t think you’re talking to yourself, right? Now notice I say unto yourself, I’m not talking to myself, I don’t speak to myself that is going on all the time. In sports psychology, they call it self talk. I call it focus words. So we can use focus words and focus pictures, to help us to control our thinking. So that we can start to make our thinking as consistent as our physical actions. So let’s go back to the Wilkinson routine. So the physical action, for the first one, he reports is placing the ball down on the kicking tee….teeing the ball up if you like. And he talks about as he was doing that he was seeing the best kick that he’d ever made from that position. That’s what he was playing. In his mind’s eye on that mini TV screen, we were calling the focus picture. And he was saying to himself, “come on, you can do this”. Sounds pretty logical, right? We don’t want to be thinking about missing a similar kick from her position. And we don’t want to be saying to ourselves…..this is gonna go badly Oh, no, I can’t do this. So the first step is you put the ball down. And we visualise the best kick made from a similar position or same position. And we say to yourself, come on, you can do this. Step number two, pacing back, if you ever saw Johnny Wilkinson, he’d actually tap his foot on the floor. And as he was doing that, he was imagining his foot – so this is a focused picture.. And his foot was like a block of concrete. So that when he kicked the ball, it would be solid and powerful. And he was saying to yourself, concentrate hard. So again, you don’t want to be pacing backwards and getting yourself into position and seeing the ball missing the target, and you don’t want to be saying to yourself, oh no…this is a long way out. This is a difficult one. So taking control of the thinking with focus words and focus pictures.

Step three, you would see Wilkinson cupping his hands. And actually, Wilkinson kind of pioneered these quirky little movements. So people call them triggers. And lots of other people started to copy and model this but they weren’t always – I would say – modelling and copying what I was thinking about. Obviously that was far less tangible. But as he cups his hands, he’s actually imagining a shield popping up around him to block out all the noise and all the distractions and saying to himself “concentrate”. So again, he was not letting the limbic regions of his brain and all that threat detection stuff that that we’re wired to do, he was not letting that dictate what he was thinking about, but really taking control of it.

Step number four, he would then again – you’d seen doing this very deliberately – you’d see him looking up and down at the target, assessing the kick, so looking almost from the ball up to the target. And as he was doing this reported that he was imagining an elderly lady, called Doris, sitting behind the posts where he was targeting. And Doris was reading a copy of The Sunday Times. Yep, that’s what he reported he was doing. And then in his head, what was saying to himself was the focus, just talking himself through focus, kicking the ball on target, and trying to hit a very specific area of the Sunday Times front page. And then finally, obviously runs up and kicks the ball. And as he’s doing this, he’s imagining a surge of energy running down his leg so when he makes contact with the ball, it goes a long way. And he’s rarely set, he’s talking himself through concentrating on the rhythm of the rumour of the run up and the timing of the kick. One of the things I used to do was just count as I was running up 1-2-3, and I’d hit on three. So what we see there is a really detailed breakdown of a world class performer on the pressure of what they would do in that goal kick situation.

And we can easily extend this into a penalty situation. So, there are lots of factors that are going to lead to successful or unsuccessful penalties. But one of the factors we can think about and think about practising is, what we think during each physical stage of the penalty taking process. You could start once you get the ball in your hands, and you’re walking up and placing the ball in the penalty spot. And you can go all the way through until you kick the ball. And you can even do something afterwards, if your penalty is not successful.

But……everyone who takes a penalty in the coming week, if penalties happen, we’ll be thinking something during the penalty taking process. We can use insights from performance psychology to help us to think more effectively. So when we’re practising taking penalties, we need to be practising this clear thinking structure. And that’s going to give us a better chance of hitting the penalty as we want to hit it and give us a better chance of getting the result we want to get never guaranteed because the goalkeeper can make a save …..you know there’s a variable in the goal, the keeper can make a fantastic serve. But we can increase our chances of performing well under pressure if we have a robust pre-shot routine that doesn’t just focus on the physical elements, but also focuses on the mental aspect.

So I hope it is interesting and insightful. We can extend the exact same thinking to things like public speaking, or any precious situation that you want to do well in. Of course, a core insight that we would teach Tougher Minds is Activation. And Activation is a really important part of becoming a Habit Mechanic. So on that note, if you want to learn more about being your best, and you want to become a Habit Mechanic, anyone can go to our website and sign up to the Level One training programme for free. That’ll give you some really good insights about how your brain works and how you can just start to do some simple things to do better. Every single day. If you want to do that. Go to the website and check it out. Thanks for listening to this podcast. As always, there’ll be more coming. If you’ve got any questions just contact us via our website.

If you’ve got any podcasts that you’d like us to, or topics of podcasts you’d like us to cover in the future, please let us know and we’ll do our best to accommodate you. But I know lots of people listen to these podcasts at the moment. So I really appreciate people doing that and I hope they’re helpful and beneficial for you in your work and life. So until next time, stay safe and remember, you’re only ever one tiny habit away from being your best.

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