Practising penalties with Harry Kane


Wembley Stadium, Saturday 7th September 2019

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to head down to Wembley Stadium for England’s European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria. It was my first time at Wembley watching football (although I did go last year to watch Taylor Swift) and I was very excited! Our seats were right at the top of the stadium, just left of the halfway line – we had a great view of the whole pitch.


Harry Kane scoring a penalty against Bulgaria, 7th September 2019

The atmosphere was electric. There were over 80,000 people at the match and the noise was incredible! I even managed to capture a video of Harry Kane tucking away his second penalty to complete his hat-trick:

After the match, I was interested to read what Gareth Southgate had to say about Harry Kane’s penalties:

“We stood and watched him take penalties for about 20 minutes yesterday. When you watch the process he goes through, he gives himself every chance of succeeding by that deliberate practice…he’s an incredible example.
“When he gets his moment, he has an outstanding mindset and, technically, he’s a top finisher…but I go back to the fact that’s hours and hours of practice and if you talk to some of the other forwards in the squad, they would talk to you about how big an impression that has had on them.”

In my assemblies this week, I picked up on Southgate’s message: Harry Kane is a talented striker, but his accuracy from the spot is no accident. He prepared and practised so that, when his moment came, he was ready to deliver. It is this which sets such a good example to England’s younger players and, I hope to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form students. No matter what your ability is, careful and deliberate practice is the key to unlocking that ability and ensuring that you are ready to deliver when you get your moment – whether that be a Maths test, a dance performance, a race, your next English lesson, or an international football match. Preparation and practice mean everything.



My assembly message was rather undermined when Kane had a penalty saved by Nottingham Forest’s Aro Muric  in the 5-3 thriller against Kosovo on Tuesday night – but still, he’s a pretty good striker! I guess the goalkeeper had been preparing and practising too…

Practice makes perfect

I love a good trick shot, and these trick shots captured by five-year-old Riley Dashwoood are very cool. The over-the-shoulder-DVD-into-the-tray is particularly impressive! What I love about the video description, however, is that it outlines how the shots were achieved. “Trick shot kid = persistence,” it says, followed by the attempts: 

How to get a trick shot (source)

When edited together into a cute 30 second montage, the trick shots look amazing! But below the line, we see that it took a long long time to get that montage together. Throwing a toothbrush over your shoulder 136 times? No wonder she looks happy when it finally goes in! 

Needless to say, Riley has spawned many imitators. This week I enjoyed this viral video as it popped up on my Twitter feed. Niall Brady was attempting to do a trick shot where he throws a spoon over his shoulder into a mug on the kitchen side. He made one attempt every day. It took him nearly a year:

There was certainly a big grin on my face as Niall enjoyed his moment of triumph, but I couldn’t help wondering – how many attempts would it take him to do it again? And how much practice would it take until he could do it consistently, time after time, almost without fail?

The fact is, if we want to get really good at something it’s not useful just to do it over and over again. Simple repetition does not necessarily help us to become experts. Take a tennis serve, a golf swing, or musical scales: if you’re using bad technique, practising them over and over again will only embed the bad habits and make them harder to break. What matters is the focus of that practice – the focus on developing the technique, on improving it, on making it better and better each time; the focus on what is called “high leverage practice” which makes an impact on performance. 

There are some great examples of this in sport. Take David Beckham, practising free kicks again and again on the training ground so he can deliver when it counts on the pitch: 

Although, watching that back, it’s amazing how many free kicks England got in that game – and how many he missed! 

Alternatively, take this incredible catch in the NFL in America from another Beckham – Odell Beckham Jr: 

The commentator says “you have to be kidding me! That is impossible. That is impossible.” And it does seem superhuman – until you realise that Odell Beckham Jr., like his English namesake, spends hours on the training pitch perfecting exactly that kind of catch, so he can do it seemingly with ease when it counts on the pitch. 

What we see here it that it isn’t about a one-off fluke, but careful deliberate practice which enables talent to shine when the moment arises. If you asked Niall Brady to throw a spoon over his shoulder into a cup on demand, he’d probably fail. Throw an American football at Odell Beckham Jr., however, and he’d probably catch it, even with one hand tied behind his back. 

The same principle is applied to the inspiring GiveIt100 site, which invites people to share a short video every day as they practice a new skill for 100 days. There are some great examples on the site, including this one of a guitarist: 

My final “practice makes perfect” video shows Jonny Wilkinson practising “stress kicks” in the south of France. “It’s very important,” Jonny says, “to make it more difficult…in training than it ever could be in a game.” That way, he’s ready in stressful situations, in the heat of the moment, to deliver crucial kicks – because he’s trained for it. 

We can apply the same principle to all of our learning. If we’re going to get really good at things, it’s not enough just to turn up to school every day and sit in the classroom, going through the motions, coasting along. That’s the equivalent of throwing a spoon over your shoulder every day for a year. You might get lucky once or twice, but you haven’t really mastered anything. But if you apply yourself every day, focus your practice, push and challenge yourself to do better…when the whistle blows for the big game, you’ll be ready. 

Happy practising!
In case you were wondering: 

The power of music

Many people have written about the power of music to move us. For example, George Eliot wrote “there is no feeling that does not find relief in music”, whilst Martin Luther is reputed to have said “my heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been so laced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.” My personal Headteacher hero, Albus Dumbledore, reflecting on a performance of the Hogwarts school song, was moved to tears in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes, “A magic beyond all which we do here!

Lucy, Joe and Reuben at the Christmas Concert

At the Churchill Music! Young Musician of the Year competition at St John’s Church on Monday evening, I was moved beyond measure by the performances I heard. At the event, I shared my thoughts about the power of music in other ways. Firstly, playing a musical instrument actually improves your brain. A recent study by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in America, for example, showed that “music training changes the course of adolescent brain development” leading to significant gains in literacy. The theory is that in learning an instrument, you are training your brain to hear subtle differences in sound, which reinforces and strengthens your ability to process language. An earlier study from Harvard University showed the “links between musical training and enhanced cognitive skills” – in particular the executive functions of our brain’s frontal lobe which “allow for planned, controlled behaviour” according to the study’s author, Nadine Gaab. There is a wealth of research that shows that learning and playing a musical instrument has a raft of benefits for brain function, learning and intelligence.

Another benefit to playing a musical instrument is that it teaches us the power of collaboration. Of course, we can sing and play alone, and solos can be hugely powerful, but music is meant to be shared. Even a soloist is usually accompanied, and anyone who has sung in a choir or played in a band or orchestra will tell you that the shared experience of making music together is unrivalled. The discipline of listening to one another, adjusting what you are doing to match those around you, shifting your own performance to contribute to the whole, teaches us so much about selflessness and teamwork, and how we are so much more together than the sum or our parts.


Playing together unleashes the power of music

The other great bonus to playing an instrument is the practice. I’m not sure if the performers will agree as they attempt three octaves of a C# minor arpeggio for the tenth time, but to get good – really good – at a musical instrument takes hours and hours of practice, day after day, week after week. The famous concert pianist Artur Rubenstein said “don’t tell me how talented you are; tell me how hard you work.” This was his way of articulating Stephen King’s notion that “the difference between a talented individual and a successful one is a lot of hard work.” The work ethic of learning a music instrument teaches discipline, dedication and determination which transfer to all other aspects of your life. It takes a lot of all three to get through those early, squeaky, scratchy stages to the bit where it starts to sound like music!


Practice makes perfect

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, making music teaches you to feel. The wonder of a performance is that it brings the wood and metal of the instruments, and the space of the venue to life in an experience that only that audience and that performer will ever share. Musicians interpret dots and lines on a page, often written down hundreds of years ago in countries far from our own, and channel the emotions that those composers felt though themselves in a way which is unique, and all the more powerful for it.

In St John’s Church on Monday I was struck by the skill with which these talented young people were able to make an emotional connection through their instruments to the audience, transporting them through centuries and over miles to different places, different times. It was a privilege to be there and a lesson to us all to pick up an instrument and stick with it. It’s worth it.