06 Aug 2019
The penalty shoot-out that changed history for GB women's hockey
Replicating the pressure and expectation of a penalty shoot-out in an Olympic hockey final is impossible. GB veterans Maddie Hinch and Hollie Pearne-Webb talk about the preparations that led their squad to Olympic gold.
To England men's football fans, the words 'penalty shoot-out' have historically been associated with feelings of dread, nausea and a deep sense of foreboding that the national side will again soon be crashing out of a major international tournament.
However, penalty shoot-outs have an entirely different meaning to GB Hockey fans; they represent one of the country's proudest moments in the sport. At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games women's hockey final, the GB squad beat reigning champions, the Netherlands, 2-0 in a thrilling shoot-out after a tense 3-3 tie in regulation play.
Strength, stamina and endurance play a crucial role in getting players to the final whistle, but these attributes typically take a back seat when teams face off for a shoot-out. This is when hockey becomes akin to a chess match between the opposing sides - more cerebral than physical.
Handling high-pressure penalty shoot-outs
Few players know more about the intensity of a penalty shoot-out than Maddie Hinch and Hollie Pearne-Webb, albeit from entirely different perspectives.
As GB's goalkeeper, Maddie's task is to prevent opposing players from scoring, and she was instrumental in Rio, stopping all four penalties she faced on her team's road to victory. Meanwhile, Hollie was one of five GB players chosen to take a penalty, and it was her strike that clinched Olympic gold for the squad.
So, how do athletes feel during these moments of incredible tension, with the expectation of a nation resting on their shoulders?
"I love penalty shoot-outs," Maddie admits. "Goalkeeping is a unique position, and what happens between the sticks is truly out of your control a lot of the time. But you have much more of a grip on your destination in a shoot-out.
‘You can control the opposition's feelings in those moments, so I really thrive on that, I thrive on the pressure, and I really thrive on the chance to show what I believe goalkeepers are all about these days.’
Is the situation different for those taking penalties? It could be argued there is more pressure on players to score than there is on goalkeepers to save.
Hollie was part of a group that trained for shoot-out scenarios prior to Rio, and she only found out she would be taking the fifth penalty for GB after regulation time was over. How do players cope with such a burden of responsibility?
"You cut away the noise, cut away the meaning, cut away where you are and the significance of the occasion," she explains. "It's just you and the goalie, you're on a hockey pitch, and it could be anywhere in the world. You really have to break it down into that moment."
The biggest part to taking a penalty is the mental approach and dealing with the pressure, breaking it down step by step.
Preparing as a goalkeeper
The rules for penalty shoot-outs in major competitions changed in 2011. Previously, the format was similar to football whereby the players from each team alternated taking a penalty stroke from the penalty spot.
Penalty shuffles are now used, with the opposing player starting with the ball at the 23-metre line and the goalkeeper on their goal line. Once the whistle blows, the player has eight seconds in which to approach the goalie and try to score in the usual manner. The goalkeeper is free to move off their line and chase down the penalty taker to cut off shooting angles.
With so many strategies available to both the attacker and the goalkeeper, penalty shoot-outs are a daunting task, particularly when a gold medal is on the line. For Maddie, preparation is the key to success.
"I do a lot of homework. I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to these things. I spend a huge amount of time in the video room. I'm always trying to look for the extra one per cents," she says.
"With shoot-outs, I think a huge amount of it is the mental game. What can you do to find that extra bit against your opponents? I've always tried to stay up to date with what's happening around the world and the shoot-outs happening between other nations."
This extra research clearly paid off. By the time GB reached the final, Maddie had a notebook filled with tactics for each Netherlands player she expected to face in a shoot-out. All except one stepped up to take a penalty, and they all did exactly what Maddie expected, enabling her to achieve her first 'shut-out' in a shoot-out, meaning no one scored against her.
The notebook also helps Maddie play mind games on the penalty taker, and she regularly refers to it on the pitch to let the attacker know she's prepared a specific defensive plan for everyone she competes against.
The atmosphere; every time we made a save or scored a goal was something I'd never ever experienced before, and it got me so pumped up.
Keeping a cool head as a penalty taker
With goalies like Maddie doing everything they can to throw penalty takers off their game, it's vital to remain composed for any player stepping up to the 23-metre line.
Hollie knew she had done all the training both mentally and physically to handle the pressure, but preparing for a once-in-a lifetime experience is still a monumental challenge. The defender was able to keep a cool head by repeatedly going through her plan of attack in her mind.
"The worst thing you can do is rush the penalty and miss because you're nervous," she says.
"It was about reminding myself that I could do this. I'd done it so many times before. It was just walking up slowly, looking as confident as you can, making sure you stand really tall and looking the goalie in the eye."
Hollie credits the comprehensive training at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre for giving her and the rest of the team the confidence to perform their individual roles under pressure.
Penalty takers are also encouraged to experiment with various different techniques and have alternative plans ready to react to a particular goalkeeper's behaviour on the day. All the players also do extensive research on each goalie's strengths and weaknesses.
"The biggest part to taking a penalty is the mental approach and dealing with the pressure, breaking it down step by step," Hollie says.
"Any player in an international team has the ability to take a penalty in a shoot-out, but some players are just better at playing with instinct and reacting off a goalie."
What happens between the sticks is truly out of your control a lot of the time. But you have much more of a grip on your destination in a shoot-out.
Achieving your dreams
The GB team's mental strength and preparation clearly gave them the edge against the Netherlands at Rio. So, how did it feel to not only emerge victorious from the shoot-out, but also win a gold medal on one of the biggest stages for an international athlete?
Hollie rarely scores goals, and it took a few seconds to sink in that the ball was in the back of the net. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics has been her childhood dream. Turning around to her teammates, she couldn't decide who to run to first.
"I ended up just standing there and jumping around in utter disbelief like an excited five-year-old," she jokes. "It was definitely the best feeling; I can't really describe it."
Maddie admits Rio was an amazing experience, yet she cites the 2015 Women's EuroHockey Nations Championship as her most memorable penalty shoot-out. England won the tournament, which was held in London, after beating the Netherlands 3-1 in the final.
"That one really really hit home because of the home crowd. The atmosphere; every time we made a save or scored a goal was something I'd never ever experienced before, and it got me so pumped up.
"I had to make a save because I wanted them to roar again!"
When it comes to penalty shoot-outs, Maddie and Hollie may play contrasting positions and have different most memorable moments. However, they are unanimous in their agreement that the right training, preparation and mindset are key to giving their team the confidence to handle hockey's high-pressure shoot-outs.