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Are Soccer Players Defying Human Capabilities?

By: Jillian Wu

In soccer, penalty kicks sometimes make or break a team’s victory. With two women’s World Cups and three men’s World Cups ending in a penalty kick, a mere goal can decide the ultimate fate of the teams.

Penalty kicks are called into play when a player commits a foul in the penalty box or the game ends in a tie and goes into overtime. These moments are steeped in intense pressure, especially for the chosen kicker and the goalkeeper, who bear the weight of expectations from onlookers, all holding their breath for the pivotal shot.

According to Robbie Wilson, a professor of motor performance at the University of Queensland, the penalty kick is “disproportionately more important than any other kick in the

Game,” undermined by the fact that “so many games have been won by a single goal that has been a penalty.”

The goalkeepers, however, seem to be in a more disadvantageous position. They have to defend a 24 feet wide and 8 feet tall net against a ball hurtling at speeds of around 70 mph, a challenge they must confront within a mere 400 milliseconds. The goalkeeper must register the visual information of the soccer ball coming, which takes 200 milliseconds, along with the dive which takes 500 milliseconds. The lack of time for a goalkeeper to react and dive defies human capabilities. For the goalkeeper, they must have a faster than normal reaction time and near-impossible reflexes to block a goal or guess the direction the player will kick.

Since goalkeepers aren't expected to deflect a kick, the stakes are relatively low for them. Simply put, it is impossible for the human eye and reflexes to make precise judgments about where and when to move to block the ball. Paulo Santiago, an associate professor of biomechanics at the University of São Paulo, asserts that "it's very difficult to train and improve the reaction time in high-level goalkeepers."

Although statistics show that penalty kicks have an 80% success rate, the kickers often carry the full burden of strain even though the stakes appear to be in their favor. Even the best kickers sometimes struggle with mental strain and anxiety. Many people use regulated breathing techniques, such as sigh breathing, to combat this anxiety and recover control.

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