Is There a More Pressure-Packed Job Than This?

My son and I were watching the Colombia vs England World Cup match today, and while I am not really a soccer fan, the game was quite exciting.

Perhaps because I spent most of this past winter in London, I was rooting for England. When Colombia scored with less than three minutes to go to tie the game, I was devastated.

The teams then went into extra-time, playing two scoreless 15-minute periods. At this point, the game comes down to penalty kicks. Each team picks five players to attempt a penalty shot, whichever team scores the most penalty kicks wins. If it is still tied after that, it comes down to having one player at a time for each team kicking penalty kicks until one team scores and the other misses.

After the two extra periods, the cameras started to zoom in on the goalies. It was at that point I started to realize what pressure they must be under. The game has come down to their ability to stop a penalty kick. A quick search of Google reveals that the penalty kicks are successful about 72% of the time in World Cup matches, so the odds are against the goalie to stop a shot.

So there they are, all alone in the goal, with not only all the eyes in the stadium on them, but the hopes of an entire country resting on the goalie’s ability to guess correctly, and even then, make an incredible play.

I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must feel like; I guess it’s similar to what a field goal kicker would feel like at the end of a Super Bowl, with the game resting on their ability to kick a field goal, And the longer the attempt, the greater the pressure must be.

I am guessing that goalies and field goal kickers must have some routine they go through before such moments; perhaps a routine that was developed with the help of a sports psychologist.

I always thought the most pressure-packed sports moment I witnessed was when 21-year old Doug Collins had to make two free throws for the U.S. to beat Russia in the 1972 Olympics. Here’s a brief recap of what took place, courtesy of Wikipedia:

With less than a minute left, Doug Collins stole a Soviet pass at halfcourt and was fouled hard by Zurab Sakandelidze as he drove toward the basket, being knocked down into the basket stanchion. With three seconds remaining on the game clock, Collins was awarded two free throws and sank the first to tie the score at 49. Just as Collins lifted the ball to begin his shooting motion in attempting the second free throw, the horn from the scorer’s table sounded, marking the beginning of a chain of events that left the game’s final three seconds mired in controversy. Although the unexpected sound of the horn caused lead referee Renato Righetto to turn away from the free throw attempt and look over to the scorer’s table, play was not stopped. Collins never broke his shooting motion and continued with his second free throw, scoring to put the U.S. ahead by a score of 50:49.

This was at a time when U.S.-Russia relationships were not at their best, so there was a whole sub-plot mixed in with the game itself. How he made those two shots is beyond me, with figuratively the whole world watching. Of course, if you are familiar with that game, you likely recall the fiasco that took place after Collins made his two free throws. If not, you can read about it at the Wikipedia page. Or you can watch the video here:

It is the nature of sports that there are winners and losers, but in situations such as the World Cup, or the Super Bowl, or the Olympics, it is hard to call the athletes competing “losers”. They are among the best athletes in the world, and have reached the pinnacle of their sport. They know that there is a chance that they might lose, and I would guess goalies and field goal kickers feel a bit more pressure than other players because of the nature of their role in the game.

So I just want to offer my kudos to those athletes who continue to compete, knowing that they won’t always win. Yet they are willing to subject themselves to tremendous pressure, for the glory of their country, their team, and themselves. You have to admire that competitive spirit, even when the odds are stacked against you.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best in “The Man in the Arena”:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

And if you are curious about the outcome of th England-Colombia penalty kick shoot-out, here is a video clip. It doesn’t get more exciting than this.

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