5 min read

Shootout: what penalties say about life

Football is a global language and the shootout is the end to Shakespearian tragedy.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

A footballer takes a penalty kick.
England v Columbia: 2018 World Cup shootout.

It is hard to pity entitled, overpaid footballers.  Until, that is, it comes down to penalties after extra time.  Even when you do not care who wins, the drama of the penalty shootout is so intense and all-consuming that every heart rate quickens. 

Is there a more exquisite form of sporting torture? 

Sport is laden with cliché, and the refrain, ‘it’s come down to the lottery of penalties’ is an established part of the lexicon.  But is it just the spin of the roulette?  That you can’t prepare effectively for the cauldron of the stadium?  

Not according to Geir Jordet, it isn’t.  The Norwegian Professor of Psychology and Football is on a mission to convince the world there is lots you can do to get ready and those that don’t are more likely to fail. 

There is skill involved in taking a penalty, an ability that can be honed with practice.  Individual players can be trained to take their time (but not too long), to establish a routine that helps them take control of the situation, to take careful breaths, and to focus.  They can be helped with blocking out the trash talk of opponents, especially goalkeepers, who subtly try to get under their skin in the seconds leading up to a penalty.  Extensive research can be carried out by data-rich backroom staff to help with preparation.  And behind all this is the recognition that taking a penalty is a team effort, not an individual one.   

This latter observation feels especially counter intuitive.  There is nothing more lonely than the appearance of one man or woman taking the long walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot.  But teams can support one another with words of encouragement and touch.  Not just in the grasping of each other’s shoulders in the centre circle, but in reaching out to those who both score and miss.  One reason Geir Jordet advises that the manager should choose penalty takers rather than look for volunteers is that they then can take full responsibility for the outcome.  It is hard to believe there are still times when a manager looks around at players after extra time, hoping to see in the eyes who is up to the task.  These duties should be sorted out in advance, with back-up plans for when players are injured or substituted.

Deciding war between opposing tribes based on an individual contest was quite common in the ancient world – effectively moving to the penalty shootout before the game, to save the effort.

Jordet, in his stimulating book Pressure: Lessons From The Psychology Of The Penalty Shoot Out says that anxiety is normal and should be embraced.  Greater openness round mental wellbeing is allowing the modern professional to admit this.  Erling Haarland, one of the world’s most accomplished goal scorers, has shared the fear he regularly feels round taking a penalty; it is hard to imagine a player from the 1970s saying the same. 

Missing a penalty in the shootout is inevitable; the only way it can conclude.  And statistics show that the world’s greatest players, like Lionel Messi, are not notably better at converting penalties than others.  On average, the best players have around an eighty percent success rate (which, significantly, is one missed penalty out of five in a shootout).  As in other professions, the best results are achieved by creating systems and cultures that can adapt quickly and honestly to errors and learn from them without humiliating those who fail. 

Reading the book cast my mind back to the archetypal shootout between David and Goliath.  Deciding war between opposing tribes based on an individual contest was quite common in the ancient world – effectively moving to the penalty shootout before the game, to save the effort.  Perhaps David should have lost it, and not just because of his size.  Beforehand, he had a serious bust up with his side and those who did not see him as a team player.  Then Goliath trash talked him like Emi Martinez is famed for with Aston Villa and Argentina.  And finally, he ran up to take his shot very quickly, without much reflection.  But then again, Geir Jordet would be the first to point out that preparing badly for a contest does not mean you can’t win it – just that you are less likely to. 

Football is a global language and the penalty shootout is like the cataclysmic end to a Shakespearian tragedy.  English fans are long suffering audiences of this trauma – from Italia 90 to Wembley 2021, via the 1996 Euros when football was coming home until a last minute wrong turning.  But many other nations have under-achieved at penalties, like Holland and Spain and, more recently, France.  Roberto Baggio of Italy missed the decisive penalty in the first World Cup Final to go to penalties in 1994.  He says of it:  

‘I failed that time.  Period.  And it affected me for years.  It was the worst moment of my career.  I still dream about it.’.   

The personal stakes are as high, if not higher, than the nation’s.   

We are left with the feeling that hugely divergent outcomes can emerge from the smallest and most random of causes.  The human tendency is then to rationalise the outcome in ways that make it seem inevitable.  Geir Jordet is aware of this in football, but in other walks of life, we continue to build up wobbly cases on shallow evidence as a way of warding off anxiety or the fear that others will think we are clueless if we admit to the existence of chance.  Most people are right less than eighty percent of the time; something we might hold in mind when the next England players make that solitary walk to the penalty spot.  

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.