Why do professional sportsmen try trick shots?

Erik Lamela Image copyright Getty Images

Tottenham attacker Erik Lamela scored a spectacular goal from outside the area by using a "trick shot" on Thursday night. What drives professional sports people to attempt high-risk moves, asks Tom Heyden.

Lamela wrapped his left foot around his standing leg - known as a "rabona" - and managed to generate enough power to score from 20 yards. It's already being hailed as goal of the season. Other players are in awe. That's because it's no easy trick. Former player David Dunn might relate. His attempt still makes highly recommended viewing many years after it happened. And that risk of falling flat on your face - literally in Dunn's case - attempting a trick shot in any sport means that only a select few will even try it.

Of those that do it in the spotlight, it's unlikely to be their first attempt. "Anyone who has ability will try things in training or practice," says ex-snooker player John Virgo, famous for his trick shots. Professionals always look to extend the boundaries of their abilities, he says. "Then imagination takes over." Truly outrageous tricks are not even ones you necessarily plan to use in a professional game, he says. "But then the situation arises and something else takes over." It's a blend of instinct and imagination, says ex-footballer Steve Claridge. It's not like Lamela drew up a list of pros and cons as the ball rolled towards him. But if he'd never contemplated it beforehand then he wouldn't have even thought of reproducing it in the match, says Claridge.

There's a fine line between arrogance and confidence, but it's ultimately backed up by ability, Claridge says. Cricketer Kevin Pietersen pioneered the high-risk "switch hit", which involved him quickly switching his hands to adopt a left-hander's grip on the bat as the bowler ran in. Similarly snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan has regularly played with his left hand despite being right handed.

Different sports carry different risks. The high-scoring nature of basketball or tennis often means there's less penalty for failed attempts. But sometimes a trick shot is the only option available. The through-your-legs shot in tennis is attempted relatively frequently. But it usually comes when the player is scurrying back and has almost lost the point. In that situation it's pretty low risk - catch it right and it looks great (a la Roger Federer on many occasions), but fail and it rarely matters. Flashy showboating-style shots are rare in tennis. Iranian Mansour Bahrami has made an entertaining career out of it - but then his autobiography is called The Court Jester and he never made it far in a major single event.

Timing is key, Claridge says. It matters when you try it - to fans, to teammates, to opponents, and for yourself, he says. "You've got to be comfortable in the game and playing reasonably well to even think 'I can do this'," he says. But at the wrong time, like when your team is coasting to victory, you could be accused of being disrespectful, says Claridge. And you risk riling your fans and fellow players and if you fail, he says. If Federer flops a trick shot, at least he doesn't have to plead forgiveness from exasperated teammates.

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