News: Athletics

The Science of Sports: The Soccer Save

Making the perfect save on a penalty kick comes down to a variety of situational factors — expertise, stress and luck all play a role. Amy Kozlowski, a junior marketing and sports management major and Rider’s NCCA Division I women’s soccer goalkeeper, finds the position particularly stressful, with the possibility of one mistake costing the Broncs the game. Although goalkeeping may be intense and saving a penalty is usually unexpected, Kozlowski stays attentive and motivated.

How does it work?

Most competitive goalkeepers can jump to defend any specific area of the goal, which is roughly the size of a shipping container. The challenge is reacting fast enough and choosing the correct side to jump to before the ball is kicked. The ball is placed 36 feet from the goalkeeper, and with kicks sending the ball upwards of 70 mph, goalkeepers have about half of a second to react.

Before the ball is kicked, Kozlowski decides which direction she is going to jump by how the kicker lines up to the ball, her hip placement and where she is looking. If Kozlowski is lucky and jumps to the correct side, there is still a chance the kicker can score, but if she jumps in the wrong direction, the ball faces no opposition in finding the net.

Why does it work?

The scientific explanation behind how goalkeepers react to penalty kicks resides within the different functions of the neurological system, specifically how different areas of the brain actively work together.

Before the kick, the goalkeeper’s eyes scan the situation, sending sensory information through the thalamus to the primary visual cortex, allowing them to sense the position of the kicker. That information spreads to visual association areas so the goalkeeper can perceive it, and the frontal cortex is where the plan to jump is made. Once the ball is kicked, the basal ganglia coordinates the jumping effort to block the ball while the cerebellum helps the goalkeeper stay balanced during the process. All of this neurological activity takes place in under a second, resulting in a brief moment that is the difference between victory or defeat.

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