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[1 ] RUNNING ON EMPTY
Why are we thrilled by the crack of the starter’s pistol or the referee’s opening whistle? The contest of strength, speed, or endurance has begun. The game is under way. That split second is the pinnacle of sports expectations, which go way beyond who will win and who will lose. Indeed, they push up against our limits. And then they keep going.
On a breezy day in May 1954, a twenty-five-year-old medical student named Roger Bannister stepped onto the soggy track at Oxford University. He knew the time to beat, and so did thousands of spectators who had come to watch him run. The long-standing world record for a mile was 4 minutes and 1.4 seconds. But beating the world record wasn’t enough. Ever since Bannister failed to medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he’d dedicated himself to running a mile in under 4 minutes.
Bannister knew that some doctors believed his goal was impossible, and possibly life-threatening. In a book about that race at Oxford, Bannister wrote, “I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride.”
When Bannister finished in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds, a jubilant crowd rushed the track. The record Bannister beat was nine years old. His new record stood for less than two months. Remember who beat it?*
The fact is that while few of us will ever run a 4-minute mile, it’s no longer newsworthy. Today it would likely earn no better than ninth place at international track competitions such as the Wanamaker Mile. Bannister’s achievement remains remarkable, because 4 is a nice round number, and because it symbolizes our ability to push beyond limiting expectations and bust the myths of impossibility—like Sir Edmund Hilary scaling Mount Everest in 1953 and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947. Bannister’s legs powered him through that mile, along with a heart and lungs strengthened by years of preparation. Still, he needed something else to beat 4 minutes. He needed to believe it was possible.
Defining human limits is a mean business, something “the man” has always done to keep us down. Consider how much better the “best” is now than it was a century ago. In 2012, the current high school record for the 200-meter dash beats the 1912 Olympic gold medal time by a full second and a half, and the top high school marathoner would finish more than 13 minutes ahead of the 1912 gold medalist. The assumption that the future promises ever more astounding athletic feats fascinates audiences and motivates competitors. Suggesting that the days of “faster, higher, stronger” are numbered is about as popular as farting in church.
Of course, there are limits, not only for the mile, but for human athleticism more generally. The pace of new world records is slowing in competitions of pure speed, power, and endurance. At some point, these limitations will hold us back despite our steadfast refusal to accept them. What then? Change the rules? Change our bodies? Change the Olympic motto? Or do we need to change our minds?
Reflecting on the final sprint of his legendary mile, Bannister wrote, “My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but it went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower.”
How far can willpower take a runner’s legs? How much of our muscle power is mind power? As athletes push up against our physical limits, the question looms large.ARE WORLD RECORDS BECOMING EXTINCT?
In 2004, Nature published a short piece extrapolating the trends in world record times for men and women running the 100-meter dash from 1910 to 2252. Because women’s times were improving faster than men’s, the authors concluded that women would one day be running faster than men, possibly before the end of the century.
Among the article’s many critics was Geoffroy Berthelot, a statistics-minded researcher at Paris’s Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology.
“If you just extrapolate the data, then you eventually say that the 100-meter record will be under one second,” Berthelot says. “But you can’t go beyond the physiological limit. And while we don’t know exactly where that is, we know you can’t go beyond zero. You can’t arrive before the start.”
Actually, Berthelot seems to know fairly precisely where the limits are, at least in some cases. In several swimming events and the sprint competitions in track, he thinks we’ve already reached them. A 2008 paper he coauthored looked at the progression of world records in Olympic events since the first Games in 1896. It concluded that performance in 13 percent of the events had already plateaued, and half of them would most likely max out within two decades. The paper’s title, “The Citius End,” suggests that the Olympic spirit might soon need to be redefined.
In a 2010 follow-up analysis, Berthelot and his coauthors went beyond world records and collected the top ten performances each year for seventy events, including thirty-six track and field events between 1891 and 2008 and thirty-four swimming events between 1963 and 2008. Plotted on a graph, the top performances improve in fits and starts. The steeper slopes hint at something unusual—a war’s end, a game-changing new technique, better equipment. Or doping.
For Berthelot, the fact that some world beaters likely cheated only strengthens his argument that the end is near for pure athleticism. In January 2013, after years of denials, Lance Armstrong admitted to doping throughout his storied cycling career, which included seven victories in the grueling twenty-one-day, 2,000 mile Tour de France.
Even before Armstrong confessed, so many top cyclists had been found guilty of doping, including nearly all of the cyclists who finished second and third behind Armstrong in his Tour victories, that the sport already seemed to have moved to a drug-enhanced level of performance expectations. There’s a tipping point after which the athletes who take drugs are no longer the exception. They become the new normal.
“Things were just getting faster and faster,” said cyclist Frankie Andreu in a May 2011 segment on 60 Minutesabout doping on the U.S. Postal Service’s cycling team, which Armstrong captained. “There’s 200 guys flying over these mountains, and you can’t even stay in the group. And it’s just impossible to keep up.” It was either dope or go home, Andreu said. So he doped.
There are plenty of people who have no real problem with that. They dismiss anti-doping efforts in professional sports as much ado about nothing, a crusade beset by double standards. At its core, the argument over sports doping is about our expectations for athletics. What do sports at the highest levels mean to us?
If the answer is striving for victory, overcoming failure, and, ultimately, pushing the boundaries of human athleticism, then we should try to keep the contests as clean as possible. Roger Bannister was lionized because he embodied a new sense of possibility for what human beings could do—what we could do. That was what captivated the world, not the absolute number of seconds that he ran.
Still, it would be naive to suggest that’s all, or even most, of what we want from top-level sports. We don’t pay good money to sit in the stands and be inspired. We want our team to win. We expect to be entertained. If this is what we want, then why not legalize performance boosters, so long as they’re reasonably safe. After all, dunking a basketball from the foul line is pretty cool, but dunking from the three-point line would be totally unreal.
The Achilles’ heel of the entertainment rationale, though, is that everything gets boring when it becomes routine. Soon enough, it will be obvious that the Wow! threshold is being advanced by drugs rather than effort or dedication or sheer daring. How entertaining would it be to watch contests that boil down to who has the best drugs?
Having said that, what about the Wow? Some sports, particularly the raw tests of speed and endurance, seem at risk of losing their allure, for both competitors and audience. What would it be like to watch, or train for, the Olympics if we knew we’d already seen the best there ever will be?
One can expect cutting-edge equipment to continue nudging some records along, although sports-governing bodies are increasingly wary of allowing technology to set the pace.
In 2008, many top swimmers, such as Michael Phelps, began wearing a new type of full-body swimsuit made of a high-tech, water-repellent fabric. In the eighteen months before the international swimming federation’s May 2009 decision to ban the full-body suits, more than a hundred swimming world records fell, including the seven Phelps set at the Beijing Olympics while winning an astonishing eight gold medals. In the 2012 Olympics, swimmers set eight new world records. That’s a far cry from the twenty-five records that fell in the 2008 Olympics, and at least one record-setter admitted to using illegal “dolphin kicks” during his race. Plus, Berthelot notes that while the federation banned the new swimsuits, it authorized the introduction of angled starting blocks that give swimmers an extra burst of speed as they enter the pool.
New and better equipment has always been a part of superior athletic performance. At a certain point, however, drawing some admittedly arbitrary line makes sense. It would feel just as lame to root for the athletes with the best technology as it would to cheer those with the best muscle juice.
Another way to keep some of these competitions exciting might be to slice victory by the thousandth of a second. After all, since American sprinter Jim Hines first beat ten seconds at the 1968 Olympics, there have been fifteen world records in the men’s 100-meter dash thanks to measuring to the hundredth of a second, rather than the four measured in tenths of a second.
“But you’re just resampling the curve. It doesn’t change the dynamic,” counters Berthelot. By dynamic, he means the great slow-down of human athletic progress. “You’re still reaching the plateau, but you’re more precise in describing that plateau.”
True, but Olympic sprinters don’t run (and we don’t watch them run) in order to ratchet up the slope of human athletic progress. The quest is to do it faster. Period. If more precision allows afiner determination of this, then scale may not matter. They didn’t time races to the hundredth of a second in 1921 when the American sprinter Charley Paddock ran 100 meters in 10.4 seconds, two tenths of a second faster than the old record. Was Usain Bolt’s world record in 2008 less celebrated because it edged the old time (also Bolt’s) by only three hundredths of a second?
Swimming and track events are still marquees on the Olympic schedule. Still, appealing to an audience is one thing, and motivating the athletes is another. Most of the events on Berthelot’s watch list are contested in relative obscurity. Olympic audiences might find the prospect of a new record, even one notched by a thousandth of a second, worth a sliver of their television viewing time every four years. Will it be enough to motivate runners, though, who must train for years to compete for an ever-diminishing chance at greatness?
Berthelot isn’t too worried. “If there are no more world records,” he says, “then maybe we’ll have to focus on the competition itself.”OUTSMARTING FATIGUE
If athletes truly are approaching our natural limits and if surpassing these limits thanks to drugs and technology feels hollow, then higher, faster, stronger may increasingly depend on the mind’s ability to wring the last drops of speed, strength, and endurance from the muscles, heart, and lungs.
This won’t be easy, according to traditional exercise physiology, where the standard account of fatigue is purely physical. At a certain point, our lungs and hearts just can’t keep up with the muscles’ demand for oxygen and nutrients. Lactic acid builds up as a last-ditch energy source. Then our muscles start to quit. Our bodies do all they can, and then can do no more.
Archibald Vivian (A. V.) Hill, a Nobel-winning British physiologist, came up with the basics of this explanation in the 1920s, and it remains the core of textbook accounts. In the late 1990s, however, a South African sports physician and exercise physiologist named Timothy Noakes started to question whether the heart, lungs, and muscles truly governed fatigue.
If a body just kept exercising, on and on, until it was utterly spent, he wondered, why weren’t more athletes succumbing to heat stroke, heart attacks, and fatal dehydration? Why weren’t more competitors collapsing and even dying from exertion? Noakes found his first clue in a paragraph of Hill’s original writings that had been largely overlooked for decades.
“When the oxygen supply becomes inadequate, it is probable that the heart rapidly begins to diminish its output, so avoiding exhaustion,” Hill wrote. To prevent serious damage to the heart, he suggested that “some mechanism (a governor) slows things down, as soon as a serious degree of [oxygen] unsaturation occurs.”
Hill speculated that this mechanism might be part of the heart muscle itself or in the brain. Noakes suspected the latter, and he went further. While Hill thought the protective slow-down kicked in when things reached a crisis point, flipping the emergency off switch when catastrophe was at hand, Noakes proposed that the brain sees fatigue coming and that an anticipatory “central governor” (named for Hill’s “governor” concept) rules endurance via these expectations.
Noakes and his colleague at the University of Capetown, Ross Tucker, built on the theory of “teleoanticipation” proposed in 1996 by German exercise physiologist Hans-Volkhart Ulmer. According to Ulmer, it’s all about the finish line. The exercising brain starts there and works backward to regulate exertion.
Let’s say you’re an experienced, albeit recreational runner of 10K races. Before every race, your brain’s central governor uses previous running experience to predict when your lungs will start to burn, how your legs will feel, and how long you’ll need to exert yourself. If it’s really hot out, or if you’re already a little dehydrated, then the central governor takes that into account and sets a safe pace.
As you run, your brain adjusts its initial expectations using feedback from your senses and bodily systems to ensure that you have what it takes to finish with a little bit, but not too much, to spare. Then, to keep your pace in line with these expectations, the brain quietly adjusts the number of “go” signals it sends to your muscles. Accordingly, when you’re surprised by how far you are from the finish, that sluggishness that washes over you is protective. It’s the brain cutting the throttle in anticipation of trouble.
For example, Noakes and Tucker had expert cyclists ride a stationary bike at whatever speed translated into a constant rate of perceived exertion (RPE). For reference, the RPE for exercise tests can go from 6 “very light” to 20 “maximum,” and the cyclists pushed themselves to an RPE of 16, between “hard” and “very hard.” They were told to stay at that level until the researchers stopped them. Meanwhile, the researchers varied the temperature of the lab—setting it at either a comfortable 15° Celsius (about 60° Fahrenheit) or a sweltering 35° Celsius (about 95° Fahrenheit).
They monitored the cyclists’ core temperature and heart rate during the exercise, which continued until the cyclists’ power output fell to 70 percent of starting levels. In the hot room, performance dropped off much faster. That’s not surprising, except that the cyclists’ power decreased well before they actually got hot. There were no significant differences in heart rate either. In other words, the heat didn’t catch up to the hot room cyclists. Their anticipatory brains made sure that didn’t happen by putting on the brakes ahead of time.
Or consider the ability of highly trained endurance athletes to speed up for the last bit of the race, the so-called end spurt. This suggests that up until that point they’d been running (or swimming, biking, whatever) at a slightly less than optimal pace, holding something in reserve, just in case. As the finish line nears, uncertainty decreases, and the central governor can go all in.
Is it possible to trick this central governor into keeping fatigue at bay? Yes. For example, research shows that energy drinks aren’t what you think they are. Or, rather, they are exactly what you think they are. Let me explain. The body takes a long time to transform ingested carbohydrates into useful fuel. Metabolic studies show that taking a swig of Gatorade or a slurp of energy goo won’t add much to your energy stores for at least an hour. Meanwhile, exercising bodies make use of fuel already on board, known as glycogen, which is stored in the liver, muscles, and other tissues.
Fatigue follows glycogen depletion. In a purely physical analogy, the car runs out of gas. Then it stops. The central governor theory, however, suggests that your legs go wobbly because the brain is making a calculated prediction and slowing things down to keep everything safe. Imagine if your car wouldn’t let you drive past a highway exit after the fuel light illuminated. There’s still some gas in the tank, but the brain holds it in reserve, because the body can’t function without it, let alone finish the race.
In 2009, British physiologists asked cyclists to ride a long distance on a stationary bike as fast as possible. At regular intervals during these time trials, which lasted about an hour, the cyclists rinsed their mouths with a sweet liquid and then spat it out. The rinse was either rich in carbohydrates or just distilled water. Heavy doses of artificial sweetener ensured that both energy-rich and energy-absent liquids tasted the same. Even though the cyclists didn’t swallow anything, they rode significantly faster and generated more power when they swished with carbohydrates, compared to the placebo solution. Moreover, this extra pace didn’t speed up heart rates or increase the cyclists’ perceived exertion.
What could explain this? Somehow, independent of sweetness, the mouth was sensing the carbs and telling the brain that more energy was on its way. Thanks to the expectation of replenishment, the brain freed up more of the body’s stored energy.
Notably, a few years earlier, one of the researchers led a study in which cyclists doing similar speed trials were intravenously given either a carbohydrate solution or a placebo—saline that subjects were told was carbohydrate solution. Not only were these carbs not spit out, they were actually given a metabolic headstart, shooting directly into the bloodstream. Yet, unlike the swish-and-spit scenario, the injection of a new energy source did not boost the cyclists’ speed compared with the placebo. Without the expectations communicated by the mouth’s carbohydrate sensors, the brain wasn’t getting the message.PUSHING LIMITS: DUPING AND DOPING
Shortly before retiring, the legendary Australian swim coach Harry Gallagher admitted to doctoring stopwatches in training so that his swimmers believed they’d gone slower than they actually had.
“I tricked them into putting out greater and greater than they had before,” Gallagher told an interviewer. In the end, he tricked his swimmers into winning nine Olympic gold medals and setting more than fifty world records. “I wasn’t fibbing to them,” said the wily coach. “I’d manipulated time on my side.”
This ruse may backfire for pessimistic swimmers. In 1990, psychologist Martin Seligman gave varsity swimmers a personality test that pegged them as optimists or pessimists. At practice, coaches gave these swimmers falsely negative times. When given another chance, only the optimists improved. The disappointed pessimists swam even slower, which the researchers saw as a symptom of learned helplessness. “The expectation of future failure,” they wrote, “works by undermining the incentive to try.”
The fact that even highly trained athletes can be tricked into better (or worse) performance bolsters the theory that expectations ultimately set our physical limits. Research into the placebo effect in sports has been spotty, not least because the ethics review boards at universities, research institutes, and government agencies that must okay all studies find it easier to justify deception on behalf of medical breakthroughs rather than faster splits. Nevertheless, there’s good evidence for an athletic placebo effect.
In the first of these studies, done in the 1970s, placebo steroids increased the strength of trained weight lifters. Over the next two decades, the only other sports placebo investigations were follow-ups on the weight-lifting research, including a 2000 study of nationally competitive power lifters who believed they were testing a new fast-acting muscle builder. The researchers collected data on the subjects’ maximum baseline lifts and gave them placebo tablets to take while training. A week later, the subjects increased their maximum lifts between 3 and 5 percent, which was a significant improvement given that these were well-trained athletes at the top of their sport.
After another week, before a second round of testing, half of the athletes were told the truth. What happened next made perfect sense on one level, but no sense at all on another. Lifters were weakened by the truth. Their maximum lifts returned to baseline levels.
The researchers suggested that their study might help anti-doping initiatives by calling the bluff of supposed performance enhancers. See, it’s all in your head. Lay off the juice. Still, the knowledge that one’s mind had summoned extra physical strength (and that, by contrast, the chemical performance enhancer was bogus) was not enough to bolster performance. The lifters who knew the truth couldn’t lift as much as they had while under the placebo’s spell. If they wanted to get stronger, they needed belief. Strength gained from a chemical was apparently easier to believe than strength from the mind alone, no matter the facts.
Even without the aid of placebos, however, there is evidence that you can think yourself stronger. In a 2004 study out of the Cleveland Clinic, people who repeatedly imagined exercising a particular muscle increased that muscle’s strength. Before you join a mental gym, though, consider that most of the effects have so far been limited to a single finger or elbow muscle. Plus, to get measurable strength improvements, the subjects in these studies had to imagine doing a single piece of monotonous resistance training, from a first-person perspective, over and over and over. “It’s the most difficult kind of visualization,” says Vlodek Siemionow, a biomedical engineer at the Cleveland Clinic. “You must be strong willed to do it.”
In the meantime, about a dozen other investigations have shown a sports placebo effect in the past decade, occasionally in the myth-busting role inherited from the investigation of Mesmer. In 2010, University of Wisconsin researchers tested the Power Balance bracelet, a silicone wristband embedded with two dime-sized holograms that, according to the bracelet’s makers, “resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body” to improve flexibility, balance, and strength. Power Balance had sold millions of bracelets (at about thirty dollars apiece) since it set up shop in 2006. Its Web site boasted a “power balance team” of high-profile athletes and endorsements, including Drew Brees, Shaquille O’Neal, and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who called the bracelets “the next level in athletic performance.”
But the Wisconsin researchers found that athletes performed just as well with a placebo bracelet as they did wearing a Power Balance bracelet on the flexibility, balance, and strength tests that the company used to demonstrate the bracelet’s effectiveness. Other researchers soon replicated these results.
In November 2011, a federal court hit the bracelet’s makers with a $57-million judgment in a class-action lawsuit that charged the company with “inappropriate marketing claims.” The makers of Power Balance then admitted that there was “no credible scientific basis for the claims” they used to hawk their bracelets, declared bankruptcy, and offered refunds.
In other research, dummy performance boosters (and false feedback) have helped runners and cyclists push their limits, often significantly, though not in every case. For instance, British sports psychologists gave cyclists two different placebo doses of caffeine for separate 10-kilometer time trials. The placebo caffeine improved speed somewhat with the “low dose” and more so with the “high dose.” When told they were getting a placebo, however, the cyclist’s performance dropped below baseline.
Sometimes sports placebos aren’t about what’s added but what’s taken away. Researchers gave weight lifters a placebo dose of caffeine along with the suggestion that it would boost their strength. After a baseline lift, some of these folks also benefited from surreptitiously reduced weight, enhancing their belief in the power of the drug. For the final lift, the normal load was restored. The athletes whose expectations had been bolstered by the false feedback lifted more weight with less muscle fatigue than both the control group and those who were simply told they were being given caffeine.
The authors of this study alluded to a central governor acting to prevent a “catastrophic” physical breakdown. “In this context,” they wrote, a placebo may signal the central governor to “inhibit its brake.” In other words, athletic placebos don’t create strength, speed, or endurance out of thin air. They help athletes access what is already theirs.
Likewise, placebos may help athletes simply by easing the precompetition anxiety that can speed up metabolism, waste energy, and take a toll on attention. “If you tell people that they have an advantage, then you remove anxiety and people just perform better,” says British sports psychologist and triathlon coach Chris Beedie. “For most of us, there’s always going to be this little area of psychological headroom we can tap into.”
Using varied expectations, Beedie and colleagues were able to raise and lower the performance of cyclists by giving them an inert gelatin capsule before they rode a series of sprints. They told one group that it was a drug that had been shown to boost performance in short-distance cycling such as these sprints. They told another group that the drug helped in longer-distance races, but tended to hurt sprint performance. The cyclists with high positive expectations for the phony drug improved, compared to baseline, while the group with negative expectations for the drug did worse.
In 2010, German researchers studied the effects of omens and good luck charms on several types of performance, including golf putting. Subjects were more accurate when an experimenter told them that their golf ball had been a lucky one for previous subjects.
Thus, wearing a “balance bracelet,” ingesting a dummy performance booster, or utilizing other trickery to shore up self-efficacy could be just like rubbing a rabbit’s foot or wearing lucky underwear—a little something to soothe the jitters that threaten optimal performance. Many athletes, and not just the openly devout, put their performance in God’s hands. The research suggests that faith could help these athletes simply by reducing their anxiety, whether or not their prayers are answered.*
In sum, there are two main ways that placebo expectations can smooth over an athlete’s self-imposed speed bumps—the anxiety relief that comes with belief in a performance booster, or specific, automatic triggers such as those in the carbohydrate swish-and-spit study.
The latter mechanism raises the possibility of phantom doping. For instance, morphine is banned in athletic competitions because enhanced pain tolerance could be a competitive edge. What if an athlete could get similar effects from placebo morphine?
In 2007, Italian researchers held a friendly pain-tolerance competition between randomly assembled “teams” of athletic subjects. The athletes would endure arm tourniquet pain during two weekly “training” sessions, followed by a “competition” on week three. The team that collectively endured the most pain would be deemed the winner.
Some of the teams were openly given shots of morphine during their training sessions, while others were given no treatment. On competition day, the researchers told everybody (except the folks in a no-treatment group) that they were getting a shot of morphine. In reality, it was just saline. The team conditioned with morphine endured the most pain, even though a full week had passed since their last real dose. Subjects who were not conditioned with earlier shots of morphine, but were simply told they were getting the painkiller, had smaller, but still significant, pain relief from the placebo injection.
For now, athletes are only banned from taking morphine just before a competition. The drug is not prohibited outright. Presumably an athlete could legally train with morphine or a similar painkiller and then take a placebo dose on the day of competition. Even if it was deemed illegal to do this, morphine clears urine within a few days, and placebo effects in the study occurred a full week after the last real dose.
“Do opioid-mediated placebo effects during competitions have to be considered a doping procedure?” the researchers asked in the study’s write-up. If the major sports governing bodies ever do consider phantom doping to be cheating, it would be the first-ever ban on athletic expectations.
In the meantime, athletes are free to trick their brains into easing up on the emergency brake however they would like, whether that’s popping a placebo, wearing a good luck charm, or spending a few moments reflecting on athletes like Roger Bannister, who did the impossible.
The current fastest mile was run in 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in 1999. Thatrecord has stood for more years than the one Bannister beat. Indeed, the last record for the mile to survive so long was set in 1895. Still, thanks to Bannister’s legacy, no one will declare a 3:40 mile impossible, or even three and a half minutes. Who dares say it will never happen?
[2 ] IN THE ZONE
It was another chance for English soccer glory. The squad facing Portugal in the quarterfinals of the 2006 soccer World Cup overflowed with talent, just like every English team in the tournament’s history. Yet ever since England won the World Cup in 1966, the nation’s high hopes for its team were repeatedly dashed. After so many heartbreaking exits from the international stage, the sky-high expectations for the team were always darkened by the question: how will they blow it this time?
A zero-zero tie at the final whistle, the match against Portugal came down to a best-of-five penalty kick shootout to decide the winner. England had never survived a World Cup shootout. It was indeed another chance for England, but nobody on the team looked all that happy to have it.
In soccer shootouts, teams take turns sending a player up for a set shot on goal from just twelve yards out. The goalies must wait for the kick before they can move off the goal line. Goals are expected. At the international level of play, 85 percent of on-target penalty shots score. The real question is who will mess up? Soccer skill matters, but it’s secondary in these contests. Luck matters, too. Mostly, though, it’s about the pressure of expectations—who will handle it, and who will crack.
With the shootout against Portugal tied at one, Steven Gerrard, a star English midfielder, stepped up to the penalty spot. The Portuguese goalkeeper had already saved a shot from another English hero, Frank Lampard. But Portugal squandered that opportunity when its second shooter misfired and hit the left goalpost.
This was Gerrard’s chance to make things right. He was England’s player of the year and a scoring machine. He’d netted twenty-three goals the previous season in the English Premier League and two goals so far in the World Cup. He was just the man England needed, but that knowledge did not sit well with him. As the play-by-play announcer put it to the millions glued to their TVs:
Steven Gerrard is ashen-faced!
Gerrard shot low and to the right. The keeper guessed correctly and knocked the ball wide. England was devastated, but all was not lost. Even after Portugal’s next shooter scored, putting them up two goals to one, England could draw level if their fourth shooter managed to convert. This time, the opportunity to save England fell to defender Jamie Carragher. When Carragher stepped to the penalty spot, the English fans in the stadium clutched their faces and closed their eyes.
Nerves are drawn so tight, to breaking point. [The ref blew his whistle.] Carragher!
Carragher’s shot was low and straight down the middle. It was the easiest of the Portuguese keeper’s three saves, a World Cup record. Moments later, the Portuguese striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, calmly walked up and blasted home the winning penalty kick. The official score of Portugal’s victory over England was three to one on penalties.
There was lots of conjecture about why England lost, yet again. Their captain, David Beckham, had left the game just after halftime on a bum ankle. Not long after that, the ref ejected English playmaker Wayne Rooney for stomping on a Portuguese defender who fell after a rough attempt to steal the ball. The ejection forced England to play down a man for much of the second half. Still, the team held on. Supported by a stadium filled with roaring English fans, they played with passion and gave themselves a chance at victory. Clearly, they had the skill to win. Their valiant second half showed they had the fight, too. Why did they lose? Maybe because, at some level, that’s what they expected to do.