For 18 of the previous 20 seasons, University of Virginia’s women’s soccer team was ranked in the top 20. Of those 18 seasons, the past 10 were awarded with an NCAA tournament bid for a chance at the national championship. But it wasn’t until the 2004 season that the highly successful and nationally recognized program snatched its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.
The title didn’t come easy. In fact, it was as dramatic as soccer gets. After 110 minutes of play time and a 1-1 score against North Carolina, the game was decided with penalty kicks. In the end, the Cavaliers brushed off the Tar Heels in a 5-4 victory.
Fortunately, head coach Steve Swanson prepares his team for moments like that beginning on the first day of practice. "We started very early in the season, and two to three times a week we worked on our free kicks and penalty kicks," Swanson says.
But working the fundamentals of a penalty kick isn’t Swanson’s only preparation. When working on the kicks, he recreates stressful, realistic game situations. "I’ve always tried to put ourselves in a position where if something comes up [in a game], it’s nothing unusual. Nothing is a surprise," says Swanson.
The combination of solid fundamentals and realistic situations sums up Swanson’s coaching philosophy. The ideal player not only can perfectly land a great kick, but she can produce those results when a game is on the line.
To help you achieve the same successful and repeatable results under game-time pressure, Swanson explains the fundamentals of a good kick, the importance of a kicking routine and how to get the same results under game-time pressure as you get in practice.
Choose your surface
Because each foot surface produces a different kick, it is important to determine what surface best suits your abilities and style. "Striking a ball is fundamental to taking a good penalty kick. Some people use their instep, some people use the inside of their foot, some use a combination of both, some at the higher levels even chip the ball," explains Swanson.
"You’re going to get more power kicking the ball with your instep, but you may sacrifice some of your placement," says Swanson. For the best results and to properly kick from your instep, keep your toe down, your ankle locked and kick through the middle of the ball.
"Use more of the inside of your foot for placement," explains Swanson. Less power is a byproduct of this surface, but doesn’t matter much because a penalty kick is only a 12-yard distance. To help ensure proper placement on the ball, keep your ankle locked and toe pointed up and out.
Pick a location
Swanson explains there are two types of players when it comes to determining where they want the ball to land. "There are some players who like to pick their spot before the kick is taken. There are others who like to decide after they start their movement up," says Swanson. The key is determining what is more comfortable for you.
Pick before you kick
Deciding the ball’s destination before you kick provides the advantage of focusing on striking a good ball and not having to think about the goalie’s play. Swanson warns though not to give away the chosen location by angling your body position too much to one side for example. A good goalie can pick up subtle cues such as this.
Pick as you move
With the goalie now allowed to move left or right before the kick is taken, many players wait until the goalie makes her move before they decide which way to place it. "These players hold as long as they can and let the goalie decide where they’re going to put it," says Swanson. Although this tactic is less common, Swanson has witnessed great results from it. But, he warns, this choice could affect a clean strike on the ball and a player has to be careful that goalies do not lead them into thinking they are going one way when in fact they are going another.
Take your approach
"Some players, on their approach, try to go slow and then speed up. Some people like to go fast, then slow and then speed up again to try and throw the goalie’s timing off in terms of when they’re going to be striking the ball. I’ve also seen people approach in a kind of serpentine manner," says Swanson. A player can take many approaches and one is not necessarily better than the rest. The key to the approach is keeping it simple. Don’t let your approach take you out of a good kicking position and in turn sacrifice a clean strike on the ball. Find a comfortable and consistent approach and stick with it.
Create a routine
Swanson stresses the importance of routine when shooting a penalty kick. "We always talk about trying to get a routine, kind of like shooting free-throws you have a routine you always stick with." From placing the ball to counting the steps back from your approach, create a habit.
Your routine shouldn’t stop with physical elements, as your mental state is equally, if not more, important. Swanson’s players focus on the ball and reinforce themselves with a positive thought before they strike the ball. "You want the last thing in their mind to be something positive and having to do with the task at hand," says Swanson.
Producing under pressure
Like most athletes, Swanson’s players have to perform under pressure. So, to simulate a game’s pressure and make his girls confident under pressure, he uses the five-in-a-row game.
Each player has to take and make a penalty kick. Each player takes one shot, and then the following player attempts a penalty kick. After five consecutive play-ers make their individual penalty kick, the game is over. To develop a pressure situation, Swanson mostly implements them game toward the end of practice. No one can leave the field until five consecutive penalty kicks are made. To add more pressure, Swanson sometimes adds a sprint for a missed PK.
Use Penalty Kicks in place of Corner Kicks
Another way to practice taking penalty kicks during practice is with small side games or training on a small pitch. Have players take penalty kicks in place of corner kicks. Or once a team has accumulated three corner kicks allow it to take a penalty kick for a goal. This is another good way to simulate taking penalty kicks in a game setting under pressure.
Check your mental state
To be a clutch player, more is required than a sound kick and accurate ball placement. "They need to be players who want to take penalty kicks and are confident in taking them," explains Swanson.
To become a confident penalty kicker, take mental notes during practice. Do you get nervous if the four people in front of you made their penalty kick? Or, do you wish you were that fifth player so you will make the final penalty kick? If taking part in a penalty kick situation is not best for you, be honest with yourself and your coach. If being the fifth kicker in the ACC Tournament Championship is what you’ve been waiting for, keep practicing and make use of Swanson’s advice.