02. Experts Corner

Experts Corner: The Science Behind Elite Penalty Kicks

July 4, 2016

By Michael Clegg

Mick coached two of his four sons into Manchester United FC, and the other two to Olympic Lifting greatness. He coached strength and conditioning to the entire MUFC team for 11 years, including closely nurturing Cristiano Ronaldo from his sign-up all the way to FIFA player of the year. Since setting up his own training lab Mick has been coaching top footballers one on one, along with elite athletes in a range of sports, including World Taekwondo no.1 Aaron Cook. Many people are under the impression that the hardest goal to accomplish in the world of professional sports is to hit a Major League Baseball pitch. With the average major league ball barreling toward home plate at an average speed of 90 miles per hour, the hitter has a matter of mere seconds to assess the situation, anticipate the pitch, and rely on reaction. There is little time to think and the actions of the pitcher are often unpredictable, hitting an MLB pitch is certainly a challenge! On the other hand, can hitting an MLB pitch be compared to that of stopping an elite penalty kick, for instance in the soccer World Cup? Let’s take a look.

Penalty Kicks - Virtually Unstoppable

When looked at on a large scale it would appear that penalty kicks might be easier to accurately save than hitting an MLB fast ball, but under closer examination it becomes clear that, in fact, penalty kicks at the World Cup level are virtually unstoppable.

In a PK the kicker has quite a larger target to hit – 192 square feet of net, to be exact (that breaks down to 24 feet in width and 8 feet in height). That is larger than a full size cargo container and more than 50 times larger than that of the MLB strike zone. However, the science of saving a penalty kick boils down to the time, not so much the area.

In a game of professional soccer the average penalty kick goes flying towards the goal at a speed of 70 miles per hour. Given where the shot must be made from, that means that the ball can reach the net in less than .400 seconds. That is 10 percent faster than that of how long it takes a 90 mph fastball to reach home plate .44 seconds.

Since the time it takes to make a full extension block is on average .500 seconds, and the elite reaction time averages about .150 seconds – that makes a fast shot near the posts of the goal basically unstoppable if reacting after the kick. The science behind having the ability to actually stop a PK is more than skill. It is perception, reaction time, cognitive function and the ability to ‘predict’ which side of the goal the kick will be made to. And whether it’s prediction or more pure guess, well that can only be answered by getting in the mind of a goal keeper, either way, committing to the save before the point of the kick is critical in almost every penalty. Attempting to React After a Penalty Shot Is Taken Will Greatly Reduce Chances Of Stopping The Shot When it comes to penalty kicks, the odds are not in the goalies favor. In fact, from 1966 to 2014’s World Cup, keepers have only been able to save approximately 11 percent of penalty kick attempts – certainly strong proof of difficulty.

Coming up soon in Expert’s Corner, renowned sports psychologist Pierre Beauchamp will explain how the latest concepts in cognitive sports science can change those odds towards the goalkeepers favor or even more to the penalty taker.

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