What’s the most difficult thing to do in sports?

Years ago, ESPN assembled a panel of experts to determine which sport demanded the most from the athletes who compete in it. The experts ranked 60 sports on 10 different skills, including endurance, speed, agility, and hand-eye coordination. Their verdict: boxing is the most difficult sport while hockey is a close second.

These are the most difficult sports but what’s the most difficult thing to do in any sport?

Before you reply, I’m referring to something that’s a normal part of the sport. Maybe it only happens infrequently but it can and does happen. An 80-yard field goal in football doesn’t count because it won’t ever get attempted (I know, I know – never say never).  Similarly, a full court basket has happened but you wouldn’t consider it a normal part of basketball.

Popular wisdom seems to claim that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. There’s plenty of science that backs up how difficult it is to see a fastball, react to its trajectory, and make contact – all in less than ½ of a second. Even from a surface area perspective, the baseball only takes up less than 2% of the strike zone. Hitting a baseball is clearly very difficult.

It’s difficult but not impossible. Over the years, the league-wide batting average has generally ranged between .250 and .275. Since batting average doesn’t include walks and hit-by-pitch, it essentially means batters are successful 25% of the time.

I non-scientifically checked the success percentage for several other feats in sports and noticed that stopping a penalty kick might be even harder than hitting a baseball – at least from a percentage standpoint. A study of 138 penalty shots in World Cup Finals games between 1982 and 1994 showed that goalies stopped only 14.5% of the shots. In fact, goalies correctly guessed the direction of the kick only 41% of the time; that’s worse than random. Other studies show the success rate as a little higher (perhaps 18%) but still lower than hitting a baseball.

Does this mean stopping a penalty kick is harder than hitting a baseball? Not conclusively. It’s hard to compare the two events since a hitter comes up to the plate multiple times a game whereas a soccer player might go many months without attempting a penalty shot. Practice might not make perfect but it does improve the odds of success.

If forced to give an answer, I would say blocking a penalty kick in soccer is the most difficult thing to do in sports. What would YOU pick?

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