SSA Blog: It doesn’t matter what you wear…

This week the Carabao Cup returned to action and instantly added to the pressure on José Mourinho as Manchester United were knocked out of the competition on penalties by Derby County. 

Penalties are an increasingly important factor in domestic knockout competitions. The format of the FA Cup and Carabao Cup has been changed to reduce crowded fixture lists of clubs playing in European competition . In the Carabao Cup replays and extra time have been abolished in the early rounds, whilst In the FA Cup penalties are used to decide the outcome of matches from the quarter finals onwards (if the match and extra time ends in a draw).

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Prior to this summer’s World Cup Gareth Southgate said when asked about the ‘lottery’ of penalties, “it’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are individual things you can work on within that.”

Some research suggests that an area to be considered is the colour of the kit kit. Back in 2005 research was produced highlighting the seemingly positive effects of wearing red in sporting situations. In the study, Hill & Barten showed that fighters were more likely to win when wearing a red vest verses a blue one. This was followed by a study featuring some of the same authors showing that red kits were associated with better home performance in English football (Attrill et al, 2008).

The theory of colour equating to performance benefit has even been examined relating to penalty success. Greenlees et al, (2008) reported that goalkeepers thought their chances of saving a penalty were lower when the taker was wearing red. Perhaps Southgate was aware of this in the summer, as England whilst wearing all red won their fist ever penalty shoot out at a World Cup.

As Manchester United’s players strode forward against Derby to take their penalties, seemingly the research was on their side. Not only is red associated with success but the comparison group in the Greenlees study was wearing white, similar enough to the light grey worn by Derby’s players.

After 15 penalties Phil Jones walked up to the spot. Flashing through his mind must have been the more recent research featuring German goalkeepers’ perception of success (Furley et al, 2012). This study showed no perceptual advantage for the taker when wearing red. The German keepers were much more influenced by the body language of the taker when considering how successful they felt they would be in saving the penalty.

Jones missed the decisive spot kick with the poorest effort of the night. Ultimately, at the upper echelons of sport the details matter. But the fundamentals matter more and in the likes of Frank Lampard and Gareth Southgate we are seeing managers who understand the value of sport science in enhancing these performance fundamentals.

Lampard spoke after the game regarding his team’s penalty practice the day before the match, knowing it was a likely factor in the outcome of the fixture. Southgate spoke extensively about the preparation needed to win a penalty shootout on the world stage.

Where previous generations have stuck to the ‘you can’t practise penalties’ line. This new breed of elite coaches understand the value of deliberate, structured and focused practice in order to achieve the best outcome possible.  

Sport science plays a significant role in modern sporting performance. Fans, in particular, are fascinated to hear about the margins often attributed to the latest technological developments and equipment innovations. Sometimes however, sport science’s greatest value is to enhance the fundamentals of training and preparation rather than tell you what colour shirt to wear.

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