Paying the penalty of not planning for stress – with Maria Konnikova

Sporting reputations can be made in stressful moments such as taking a penalty but, as writer and psychologist Maria Konnikova points out, we should all learn to make better decisions under stress

23/02/2021

Juan Torres Rodriguez

Juan Torres Rodriguez

Fund Manager, Equity Value

Manchester City may be carrying all before them this season in the English Premier League but, when it comes to scoring penalties, there is clear room for improvement. Before last weekend’s round of fixtures, three different players had contrived to miss half of the six penalties awarded to City in the league this term – continuing the poor form of the 2019/20 season when six different takers missed five out of 11 spot-kicks.

When Ilkay Gundogan was fouled midway through the first half of Saturday’s game against Tottenham, then, Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris will have his fancied his chances as Rodri, Manchester City’s latest candidate, stepped up. The Spaniard did score – just – with his first-ever penalty in club football but City manager Pep Guardiola was unimpressed, noting: “I love and admire the courage to take it but he was not a good taker.”

Taking a penalty has to be one of the more stressful moments any professional sportsperson will face – as the likes of David Beckham, Steph Houghton and current England manager Gareth Southgate would presumably attest – so should footballers be working as much on the mental aspects of the task as on which side of the goalkeeper they should be kicking the ball and how hard?

Decision-making under stress was a key theme for Maria Konnikova in her latest book, The Biggest Bluff, in which she charts her journey from poker ingenue to international champion with more than $300,000 in tournament earnings. When she appeared as our guest on the latest episode of The Value Perspective podcast, therefore, we took the opportunity to ask how anyone – not just footballers – might improve in this respect.

In her book, Konnikova explores the interrelated ideas of streamlined decisions and optimised thought processes and, addressing them together in our conversation, she notes: “The more you have a rubric for how to go about decisions in general – the more you think ahead, analyse your emotions and reactions and have a plan of action before you are in a stressful situation – the better your decision quality is going to be.

“It is so common to see someone who, let’s say, is a great athlete and who performed incredibly well in high school or college or whatever, then get on the big stage and totally ‘choke’ – that is, not be able to perform to their full potential. That comes from stress, from pressure and from not having practised for that type of situation – and I think that holds true in almost any sort of decision-making process.

“If you are suddenly put into a context where the stakes really do matter – where you are not sitting in the comfort of your home and just thinking things through but, instead, are actually under the spotlight, stressed, nervous and emotional – then, if you have not planned beforehand, it is hard in that moment to make good decisions.”

What Konnikova learned through her poker experiment was to analyse these moments after they happened. “The aim was to try to figure out what made me emotional, how I reacted irrationally, what I did wrong – and then have a plan of action,” she says. “If I get stressed because someone is bullying me – which happens a lot at the poker table – then I will take two deep breaths and think about all the elements of the decision process.

Write it down

“The key here is first of all to do the work required – because everyone is different and emotions make people act in different, irrational ways. Maybe some people will become more risk-averse, others will become more risk-seeking – it just really depends on who you are as a person. So you have to take the time to analyse yourself and then actually write things down.

“Don’t go, oh, I’ve thought about this so I’m good – put in the hard work. To me, one of the most powerful parts of the process was learning to record everything I’m thinking – and to write down my plan of action. And then, when I’m making decisions before the outcome has happened, to write down what I am thinking – what factors am I considering? Why am I considering them in that order? How certain of them am I?

“Actually write down your decision process so you have an objective record of what you were thinking in the moment. That way, after the outcome, you can then go back in time and have a place where you can analyse what you did right, what you did wrong and what you can improve so you can make a better decision next time around.”

Back at Manchester City, Guardiola is reported to be considering his goalkeeper Ederson as the team’s first-choice penalty-taker – and in fact, ahead of Saturday’s game, Ederson had been compiling notes on penalties faced by his opposite number Lloris. Clearly he has a plan of action – now he just needs to be able to run the length of the pitch before one of his potentially less well-prepared colleagues steps in to take their best shot.

Author

Juan Torres Rodriguez

Juan Torres Rodriguez

Fund Manager, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in January 2017 as a member of the Global Value Investment team. Prior to joining Schroders I worked for the Global Emerging Markets value and income funds at Pictet Asset Management with responsibility over different sectors, among those Consumer, Telecoms and Utilities. Before joining Pictet I was a member of the Customs Solution Group at HOLT Credit Suisse.  

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