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Whether you like it or not, you have to admit that Ryan Giggs is a cool customer when it comes to playing football.

Of course he hasn’t always been like that, but clearly the Manchester United psychologists (come on, what Premier League teams don’t have psychologists these days?) have been working hard, and have transformed a shy boy into a global superstar that exonerates confidence when he steps up to take that make-or-break, decisive last penalty.

Now that the Super Injunction is public knowledge the ability to perform at the highest level could add even more pressure ahead of the Champions League Final this Saturday night at Wembley.

I will attempt to show you how Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Francesco Totti, Zinedine Zidane, et al, have remained so calm when stepping to take that vital spot-kick in the UEFA Champions League Final, in the FIFA World Cup Final, in the Carling Cup Final, etc.

Of course it is very stressful when you step up, waiting to take the last penalty in the shootout that you need to score to keep your team in it, with the hundreds of millions around the world watching, waiting, anticipating, expecting. It can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Some players aren’t taught well enough, and crumble under the pressure—a la John Terry, where Chelsea skipper “gifted” Manchester United a vital lifeline in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final in Moscow.

Others, like Giggs, can handle the stress, and although he doesn’t score every time, it is clear that the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year exonerates sheer confidence when he steps up to take that spot-kick before the eyes of the world.

The Manchester United winger, unlike Terry, has been taught well the Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT), which involves three stages:

  1.  Conceptualisation: This is where the person identifies stressors (sources of stress), what their typical response to the stressor would be, and the success of this response. Where football players fail so many times with stressors such as penalties, is due to that old cliché, self-defeating dialogue.
  2. Skills Acquisition and Rehearsal: This is where the mind coach (psychologist) helps the person develop and practice positive coping statements, with techniques such as relaxation and making a realistic appraisal also being practised.
  3. Application and Follow Through: This is the final stage, where the person applies the newly acquired skills from before to progressively more difficult situations in the real world.

So the psychologists at Manchester United would work hard with players like Ryan Giggs, making sure they can use this stress therapy perfectly, which eventually will eradicate those jitters and make sure the player can deliver that perfect, vital spot-kick when it matters most.

Here is an example of how the SIT is put into use by sports psychologists

Scenario:
Manchester United are in London days before the biggest match in world club football, the UEFA Champions League Final.
Important penalty-takers chosen by the gaffer, i.e Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Anderson, Scholes etc, are found out to hate the idea of taking a penalty. They keep telling the coaches, “I can’t take a penalty, I feel too nervous. My legs just turn to jelly.”
This is where Sir Alex Ferguson brings in his psychologists, telling them to get these players taking penalties. The psychologists introduce the players to the SIT.

Step 1: Conceptualisation

The players are asked about their thoughts on penalties, which the psychologists find are very negative. “I am bound to miss my penalty” is shown to be a common, self-defeating thought among players.
Additionally, the players could well be thinking about the noise from crowd, for example racial, homophobic, or just general abuse. And almost certainly, the spectre lurking in the back of their minds will be the common thought that if they miss, they will never be allowed to live it down

Step 2: Skills Acquisition and Rehearsal

The psychologist will then tell these players to imagine the point where they are walking up to the spot to take the penalty.
The players would be told to think something along the lines of the following thought: “I succeeded taking this kick in training, my practice is going to pay off, this one is going into the back of the net.”
It is indeed the old cliché that you have to think positive, but people say it for a reason you know. I am sure any professional football player would say that thinking positive, whilst not always guaranteeing instant success, does vastly improve performance.
In this stage, the psychologists will drum it into the players’ minds that they will have missed their penalty even before stepping up to take it, if they think negatively.

Step 3: Application and Follow Through

The psychologists will report back to Sir Alex Ferguson what they have been through and done with the players, and then he will put the penalties in the training schedule.
Firstly, the players will mentally rehearse taking the spot-kick, going through the sequence in their minds of scoring the penalty.
Then, they will carry out this mentally rehearsed successful penalty without a ball, to ensure that their technique is right.
Then, they will do the above but with a ball and towards a goal, and after a while a goalkeeper will be introduced.
And lastly, they will do the aforementioned but this time with simulated crowd noise, with the levels of noise increasing gradually as the player becomes more comfortable with the situation.

The SIT works wonders for all players who take spot-kicks in the few important matches here and there. But the regular spot-kick takers, who will take the penalties in all matches for their club and country, will have to have a bit more than just the above.
They need “tunnel vision”, where the performer blocks out all noise from the crowd, opposition players and coaches, and even from his own teammates and coaches.

For penalties, he will only focus on the cue, which is the referee’s whistle, and then putting the ball in that pre-determined place in the goal which he has been mentally rehearsing for the past week.
That’s exactly the reason why Cristiano Ronaldo, Francesco Totti, and Zinedine Zidane are world-class penalty takers.

It is also why they have succeeded above all else in the game, as they apply this “tunnel vision” to more than just penalties; running up the line, controlling the ball, picking out that perfect pass, shooting on goal, free-kick taking, etc.
But even for centre-back John Terry, who isn’t a regular spot-kick taker, clearly he just wasn’t taught, or didn’t use the SIT well enough.

Either that or he didn’t take the “psycho-amateur babble” seriously enough. Either way, the consequences of such actions were there for all to see, much to the despair of millions of Blues fans across the world.

And as for Ryan Giggs, the SIT was executed perfectly, much to the delight of millions of Red Devil fans across the world.