Why Behavioural Science means England must train for penalties

By Alex Johnston, June 2018

I wrote this blog in 2012 for the Brazil World Cup. I think it’s worth repeating as the key message is the same. I hope England’s performance isn’t… So it’s that time again.  The best football teams in the world are meeting to decide who the best football team in the world is. Given England’s past form it’s likely that at least one pundit or journalist will write something along the lines of “you can’t train for penalties” and cite things like the big match atmosphere, nerves, fatigue and so on as proof. Behavioural Science proves them wrong.  This is why; one of the key tenets of recent behavioural science thinking is that the subconscious is extremely powerful – and generally has a much greater impact on how we behave than we like to believe.  Many of the examples around this area focus on negative outcomes – where the power of the subconscious causes us to make a wrong or illogical decision. But used correctly the subconscious can be a force for good.  It is possible to programme our subconscious to such a degree that it overrides our rational side and any high level emotions that may be impacting on it.  This isn’t a new concept.  In ‘old language’ it was called ‘training’. Here are a couple of examples about how training can override rational thinking – the examples I’ve used don’t end well, but they give you can idea of the level of impact training can have.  For a change, I’ve taken the examples from law enforcement rather than experiments on students.  Please note, these examples haven’t been publicised very much as they don’t portray the organisations involved in a particularly positive light. First example:  In LA, an off duty cop was found wounded after a shooting in a liquor store.  He’d been in a short exchange of gunfire with an assailant.  Bizarrely, investigating officers found spent cartridges in his pocket.  Apparently when police officers train on the shooting range, they are told to pick up their spent cartridges after they empty each magazine (so that the range doesn’t get littered with bullet cases).  It transpired that the officer, having emptied his magazine, started picking up his cartridges, at which point he got shot.  Officers spend a lot of time on the shooting range and their behaviour on the range becomes hardwired. Second example:  In Dallas when back-up arrived to assist an officer’s distress call, they found that he had arrested a suspect, but had been stabbed in the process.  This is what happened; when the officer first arrived at the scene, the suspect drew a knife and tried to stab him.  The officer has been intensively trained in methods to disarm people with knives so was able to take the weapon off the suspect.  The officer then gave the knife back to the suspect, and was subsequently stabbed.  The officer disarmed the suspect again – this time he didn’t give the knife back.  Why did he give the knife to the suspect?  During training, officers take turns in disarming opponents (who are fellow police officers).  Once they’ve taken the dummy knife off their training partner, they give it back to them so they can have another go.  So in this example, the habitual behaviour formed by countless hours of training was so strong that the officer was able to easily disarm the suspect – but that same habitual behaviour also caused him to give the knife back to the suspect.  By the way, training has now changed; when an opponent is disarmed, the knife is dropped to the floor. These examples illustrate two things; the power that the subconscious has on how we behave, and how habitual behaviour can override rational thought in highly emotional and high stress contexts. It also shows that the subconscious can be used to our advantage by training it to react in a certain way in a given situation – the more something is practiced, the deeper it is hardwired and the more likely it is to come to the fore in times of stress, overcoming nerves, fatigue or unfamiliarity.  Neuroscience tells us why this is the case: new skills are processed consciously by the frontal lobe, and old mastered skills by the amygdala subconsciously.  Under pressure, the frontal lobe kicks in and re-processes old data, so if you’ve not trained sufficiently you’re trying to do an old skill with novice brain patterns (hence the “choke”).  Familiarity (training) is the way round this, and controlling stress too. So England should train for penalties.  A lot.