The USA may be out of the World Cup, but there is still an American influence in Brazil, and it’s part of the legacy that Jurgen Klinsmann put in place while he was coaching the Germany team at the 2006 competition.
Shad Forsythe is an American fitness coach who works for Athletes Performance, the company Klinsmann brought in upon his appointment to the German post in 2004. Forsythe has been with the team ever since and is now Performance Manager of Die Mannschaft. He is so trusted by coach Joachim Low that at the 2010 World Cup, he delivered the final words in the locker room before the players took the field.
His job is to ensure the players are in peak condition for every game and, specifically, at major tournaments. It’s made easier by the fact that the German players have bought into his methods and that his evaluations can take place throughout the season. “We monitor them through regular communication with their clubs, so we know exactly what situation they are in when they join up with us.”
As research for my book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, I wanted to understand why German players had the best record in international penalty shootouts, especially when at the club level German players had a below-average record (and certainly worse than English players).
I spoke to Forsythe after Germany had qualified for the World Cup and discovered his thoughts on the German psyche, and how Germany might prepare for a penalty shootout once it reached the knockout stages. Given that Germany takes on France in Friday’s quarterfinal – a repeat of the 1982 semifinal, the first World Cup game that went to a shootout – it might just come in useful.
The penalty practice in the Germany camp takes place throughout the qualifying phase, but stops once the tournament begins. It only re-starts once the team reaches the knockout stages. In 2006, when Klinsmann was coach, after training, every player took a penalty; before doing so, he would have to nominate into a camera where he would kick the ball – bottom right, top left, that sort of thing. Anyone who missed would be eliminated, and the competition would continue until only one player was left. It normally took four or five penalties to find a winner. The process helped Klinsmann select penalty takers.
When midfielder Tim Borowski, for example, nominated his spot – “Bottom left,” he said – the goalkeeper overheard him and stood next to the post where Borowski had said he would aim. Borowski did not flinch and powered his shot towards the same spot. He scored. Germany’s quarterfinal against Argentina went to penalties, and whom did Klinsmann bring off the bench who scored a penalty? Borowski.
“You can't say he came on just for the penalty, but it’s definitely a positive to know that he is confident from the spot,” said Forsythe.
Forsythe will know everything about the player before he takes that penalty: from their mineral deficiencies, their VO2 max (a measure of the body's ability to transport oxygen during exercise) to their napping patterns and how much sleep he got the previous night.
Given that preparation and recovery is such a key part of Forsythe’s methodology, I wondered if standing upright for 10 minutes after playing for 120 minutes was the ideal preparation for a penalty. Shouldn’t the players be stretching, running on the spot, anything rather than just standing there?
“From a physiological point of view,” he replied, “the most important thing is that they are calm, and part of that is cooling – so you always see them drinking cool fluid. Usually the adrenalin will keep them going but if they have to wait longer than 15 minutes, then they will stiffen up and that could be a problem.”
Forsythe, who has reportedly been courted by Arsenal to join its staff this coming season, agreed with my theory that German goalkeepers have a history of excellence. In fact, he thinks the current of goalkeepers has the potential to be better than Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann – partly because the likes of Manuel Neuer are better athletes too.
To Forsythe, the penalty is 90 percent psychological and 10 percent physical. His job is making that 10 percent work to ensure the 90 percent works too.
“Confidence comes from knowing that physically they are ready for this," he said. "They know they will be ready for any scenario.”
He makes it sound like none of the German players suffer from self-doubt. Surely that wasn’t right?
“If they don't want to take penalties, it will be because of physical reasons: they have a weak shot, they don’t score many goals – those physical issues will limit their confidence," Forsythe said. "But remember that the strongest shooters do not necessarily make the best penalty-takers – you need to factor personality in too – and that penalty failure is just not on the German horizon.”
The cultural difference is all too clear to Forsythe, who last year changed his routine when watching Germany take a penalty. He now stands on the touchline and watches the crowd - a true avoidance strategy.
“I have a 100 percent record with that method so I will stick with it,” he laughed.