What penalty shootouts can teach us about ourselves

I watched the UEFA European Championship Football (Soccer) final yesterday. The match was decided by a penalty shootout, as was one of the semi-finals. So exciting! If you don’t know, a penalty shootout happens when two teams are tied after a standard amount of time, followed by an extended time period. Teams will take 5 penalty shots each, and the team with the most goals at that point is the winner.

Ignoring the challenge of goalie versus shooter, shot placement, and shooter tendencies, I think nerve is the most interesting aspect of the shootout. At the UEFA Championship level, every player is physically capable of burying an unstoppable shot. Goalies are fantastic athletes, but a full-speed shot to either upper corner of the net is simply unstoppable. Yet, being able to perform in the moment, with ample time to be in ones own head, separates the best shooters from the worst. The best shooters bury an unstoppable ball or are able to fake out the goalie and kick it to an open area. However, shooters often miss or kick it within reach of the goalie. The commentators said a few really interesting things leading to the shootout, but the most interesting was,

“You pick the players who can live with missing.”

Thinking about the hierarchy of needs, the players who can live with missing are the players who feel safe in who they are if they miss. Life will not end. Their kids will not stop loving them. Their partner will not leave them. (If they do, are they really the right partner?) It’s so amazing how being a shot taker at the highest level requires letting go and being able to life with the outcome either way. It’s also an awesome life lesson.

Being aware that mental health is an essential aspect of performance and that actively improving our mental health is a normal and good thing, is part of the normalization and elevation of the discussion. Mental health and the psychological safety to make mistakes and recover are themes of the best business books. They are values that will continue to prove themselves in the coming years.

Congratulations to England on a fantastic tournament! Congratulations to Italy on coming back to force the shootout and then coming back to win!

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