The killer combination of preparation and spontaneity

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At the 2006 World Cup, the semi-final between Argentina and Germany ended 1-1 and went to penalties. The Germans, with their steely resolve and ice cool composure, obviously have a reputation for winning penalty shoot-outs. But going into the penalties the Argentinians, with their South American flair and ultra-confidence, would have backed themselves. It was a fascinating, finely balanced situation. However, one player tipped the odds in his side’s favour with his remarkable approach to the shoot-out and performance in it.

Prior to the game, the German goalkeeping coach Andreas Koepke and goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, had analysed the Argentinian penalty takers’ previous ten penalties. They used these stats to create notes on the style of each Argentinian penalty taker, his timing, run-up and where he was likely to direct his kick.

Lehmann kept the scribbled ‘cheat sheet’ stuffed in his sock behind his shin pad and, just before the shoot out began, he pulled it out and conspicuously studied it. Then he pulled it out again between each penalty. This clearly unnerved the Argentinians to the point that their trademark cockiness evaporated. Lehmann dived the right way for every spot kick and when he saved Roberto Ayala’s penalty the Argentinians looked panicked. With the shoot-out score at 4-2, Esteban Cambiasso had to score to keep them in with a shout. If Lehmann saved it, Germany were through. As Cambiasso walked from the centre circle to the penalty area, Lehmann took out his note, studied it carefully, then tucked it back under his sock looking very confident. The Argentinian ran up, hit it low to the right and Lehmann saved it. It was game over. Jen Lehmann’s cheat sheet had given him the answers and he’d saved the crucial penalty, knocking out Argentina and sending Germany through to the semi-finals.

Except that wasn’t the full story. Yes, Lehmann had used the notes to guide him through the shoot-out. But the final penalty taker, Cambiasso, had been a late substitute and Lehmann later revealed that he and Koepke hadn’t known he’d be taking a penalty so didn’t have any notes on him. Before that last Argentinian penalty, Lehmann had been bluffing Cambiasso, studying the note purely to unnerve him. This kidology had worked; the pressure had got to the Argentinian sub, enabling Lehmann to save the decisive spot kick.

Aside from being a fascinating sporting tactic, Lehmann’s approach feels to me like a perfect analogy for generating great creative work (or, indeed, achieving anything worthwhile in life). Painstaking preparation topped off with an inspired element of spontaneity in the execution. A strategy that simultaneously instils confidence while unsettling the competition. What a brilliantly powerful combination.


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

2 Responses to The killer combination of preparation and spontaneity

  1. dave trott says:

    Excellent, Ant. The Germans always did understand out-thinking the competition: Clausewitz, Von Moltke, Guderian, Rommel, Otto Skorzeny, Michael Wittman, Michael Schumacher. Lots to learn from those guys.

  2. antmelder says:

    Very true, Dave. I reckon Steffi Graf and Jurgen Klinsmann merit a mention, too. And many people say that Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. At 20 years old he went directly from the German second division to the NBA!

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