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From Good to Great: The Mental Side of Place Kicking

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© June, 2014

by Bob Grace
Offensive Backs and Kicking Coach - Wall Township High School (NJ)

Visualizing success is an important part  of every kicker�s preparation.

The art and skill of kicking the football off a tee takes hundreds, if not thousands of hours, to develop. The world famous neurologist Daniel Levitin was the first to tell us that to achieve the level of competence associated with becoming a world-class performer would require ten thousand hours of practice. To become a �good� place kicker the athlete must devote repeated effort in many, many practice sessions. The place kicker must develop a kinesthetic sense of striking the ball over and over until the skill becomes an automatic response. The consistent meeting of the �sweet spot� on the instep of the kicking foot and the �sweet spot� on the football is the beginning of becoming a �good� place kicker. There have been many books and articles detailing the mechanics of place kicking and the drills necessary to reach an adequate level of performing as a successful place kicker.

The difference between �Good� and �Great� place kickers is the mental approach they take to their skill. Many place kickers in the National Football League have stated that the art and skill of kicking the football is 90% mental and 10% physical. The most important development for these NFL kickers is the development of the six inches located between their ears.  

A Kicker�s Life is Based on Pressure

It�s fourth down, your team trails by two points and you send your kicker out to attempt a 37-yard field goal. The outcome of the game hangs in the balance. Every coach that has ever been in that position knows that the �Mental Approach� of your kicker is more important at that point than his experience level and his practice preparation.

When an athlete takes on the role of �kicker� he must assume that he will be placed in pressure filled, �do or die� situations. Prepare your kicker for these game-ending scenarios by putting him in competitive situations during special teams practice where the kicker must make a difficult field goal kick surrounded by the entire team. Have the team holler and yell, trying to alter the kicker�s focus. Add to the pressure by running the field goal team from the sideline to the point of the kick with a 20-second time limit.  Reward the kicker (and the team) by cancelling post practice conditioning if the kicker makes a successful kick. The �Great� kicker must be comfortable in the chaos of high pressure kicking situations.

Great kickers prepare to succeed by first �seeing� the results of their efforts before they ever kick the ball. Whether they realize it or not, visualization is the first step in preparation for a successful kicking career. Every time the kicker aligns in position to kick and focus on his reference targets, he should visualize the path of the football going between the uprights. Great kickers incorporate visualization and imagery techniques into their practice and game day routines in many ways. These visualization techniques effectively increase the kicker�s ability to perform under pressure and definitely increase his level of confidence. Let the mind�s eye �see� the perfect kick and then make that perfect kick a reality.
The Kicker�s Pre-Game Preparation
Consistent pre-game preparation is the beginning of the successful game day kicking performance. The kicker and his coach should go on the field approximately 1 � hours before game time to examine field conditions. If playing on a grass field, check the condition of the footing for kickoffs and PAT�s. If the field is wet from recent, or game time rain, the spot of those kicks may have to be adjusted. Check the wind. Typically any wind over 14 MPH will alter the flight of the ball on field goals over 30 yards. Adjust the pre-kick sighting on the goal post to adjust for windy days.

Run and stretch prior to kicking to make sure the musculature is prepared for the initial kicks. Start slow and easy. The initial kicks should be less than full power. Be sure to get sufficient repetitions of both PAT/field goal and kickoffs. Finish off the pre-game warm-up with the snapper and holder. Get enough snap-hold-kick opportunities to develop the three man rhythm and feel confident about the game opportunities. 

The Approach to the Field: The Coach and Kicker Conference

Kickers are creatures of habit. Their routine must be consistent and uninterrupted. The period of time right after scoring a touchdown or right before kicking a field goal is extremely important to creating the proper mindset that is vital to kicking the successful PAT or field goal. Never let your kicker run on the field without coming to the coach for a pre-kick conference. Your kicker should keep his distance from other well meaning teammates who may think they are helping him with pats on the back and screams of encouragement. This is the point where the coach must calm the kicker down and review the situation. A quick review of the situation of the ensuing kick and a few brief positive reinforcements should become a part of the pre-kick routine. The kicker should not sprint onto the field; a controlled jog will get him there with time to spare. 
Developing and Using a Pre-Kick Mantra

Mental focus just may be the most important quality that the great kicker must develop. The kicker that approaches the tee with �scattered� thinking, allowing his mind to race with negative thoughts, is prone to choking at the worst times. Developing a �Kicking Mantra� and using it prior to the snap and kick is the best advice any coach can give to their kicker.

A mantra is a sentence or phrase that is repeated verbally or mentally to help focus the mind on an idea. The pre-snap mantra helps the kicker maintain a positive mindset and avoid the trap of allowing negative thoughts entering his mind at the worst possible time. Using a mantra is different than repeating kicking coaching points to yourself. The mantra is designed to establish positive mental habits and overcome negative thoughts. The mantra should not be a mindless repetition, but it should be a well thought out phrase that relates to a mental phase of the kicker�s approach.

It is important that the kicker creates his own personal mantra. It should not be created by the coach for the kicker. It is best if the mantra relates to a phase of kicking that may be presenting a problem to the kicker. Some examples of positive mantras would be � �If it�s to Be, it�s Up to Me� or �Straight Down the Field and Through the Goal Posts�. Try out the kicker�s mantra and let it sink in. You will see a change in your kicker.
Don�t Kick it Harder�..Kick it Better

The greatest challenge to any kicker is the attempt of a long field goal. Most coaches consider any kick over 35 yards to be a �long� attempt. Successful kickers do not approach the long kick by trying to kick the ball �harder�. When they try to kick the ball harder, they create unnatural muscle tension that can totally alter the kicking mechanics. By trying to kick harder, they subvert the muscle memory and this leads to a failed attempt.

The perfect pre-kick mantra for the long field goal may be �Don�t kick it harder, kick it better�. The kicker must relax and approach the kick no differently than if it were an extra point attempt. We kick it �better� when we allow our focus to be the same on all kicks, regardless of the length. Baseball players don�t hit home runs by trying harder; the same principle is true for kickers.
Icing Attempts by Opposing Coaches

Eventually, all kickers find themselves in the position of kicking a field goal late in a game that will provide the margin of victory. The situation is �high pressure� of course, but it is a situation that great kickers are truly thankful for and look forward to. Typically in these situations opponent coaches will call a strategic time out at a point just prior to the snap of the ball. It is obvious that the opposing coach is trying to destroy the rhythm of the kicker by altering his routine by using this �icing� technique. Great kickers prepare themselves for and expect to be �iced�. The kicker must realize that the opposing coach feels that he is about to lose the game because of a successful field goal attempt. Take it as a compliment that the opposing coach expects that you will make a successful kick and that he is actually showing confidence in your ability to make this kick. By calling the time out, the opposing coach is resorting to the only thing he can do to prevent losing the game. Great kickers thrive in these moments and embrace the challenge. 

It is important that after the �time out� call, the kicker runs back to the sideline to meet with his coach. This gets him away from the line of scrimmage and possible taunts from opponents lined up to block the kick. By going back to the sideline, the kicker also reestablishes his routine of running onto the field prior to aligning the kick.

Which Kick is Your Most Important Kick? The NEXT Kick

Great kickers have short memories and limited expectations of the future; they live in the here and now. They thrive on the fact that the next kick they will make will be the most important kick they will ever take. Make sure that your kicker understands this important concept. As your kicker comes off the field after making a kick, ask him �what�s your most important kick�? They should answer �the next one�.   

Don�t Over Kick in Practice

Let�s assume that all kickers love to kick, especially those that don�t play a position on offense or defense. Typically these kickers spend all day at practice with nothing to do but kick footballs. If left on their own every day, kickers at all levels will over kick and take far too many repetitions. When coaching kickers believe in the adage, �More is not necessarily better�. The quads, hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes are very strong muscle groups; however, they can be overtaxed by unlimited kicking repetitions in practice.

We have learned that baseball pitchers have to be held to a strict �Pitch Count� to keep their arms fresh during the entire season. The same holds true for athletes who happen to kick footballs. The most serious problem arises when the kicker attempts too many kickoffs every day. The kicker should never attempt more than 6 to 7 live kickoffs each day. The kickoff is the most taxing to the muscular structure and live kickoffs must be limited. It is advisable that the kicker gets several �Run-throughs� without actually kicking the ball in order to get their approach and steps down.

By developing a �Kick Count� for each day of the week you will keep your kicker fresh and he will exhibit a �live� leg late in the season. The following examples of a �Weekly Schedule� for your kicker should accomplish this goal.

Friday Game Week
Monday    Light Kicking    10-15 Total Kicks
Tuesday    Heavy Kicking    40-50 Total Kicks
Wednesday    Lighter Kicking    20-25 Total Kicks
Thursday    Light Kicking    10-15 Total Kicks
Friday    Game Day

Saturday Game Week
Monday    Light Kicking    10-15 Total Kicks
Tuesday    Heavy Kicking    40-50 Total Kicks
Wednesday    Lighter Kicking    20-25 Total Kicks
Thursday    Lighter Kicking    20-25 Total Kicks
Friday    Light Kicking    10-15 Total Kicks
Saturday    Game Day
Kick Corrections

There has never been a kicker that has been successful on 100% of their PAT and field goal attempts. A kicker�s mechanics may at times break down leading to a missed attempt. The problem occurs when the consistency decreases and a consistent flaw develops. Consistent flaws can be corrected. Consistent flaws could be described by kicks that result in the following actions � kicks pulled to the left, kicks pushed to the right, line drive kicks and high kicks with too much arc.

The correction for all of these kicking flaws is governed by the position of the place foot in relationship to the kicking tee. Typically the place foot (the left foot for a right-footed kicker) aligns with the instep even with the midpoint of the tee, approximately one show length from the tee. The exact foot placement will be individually adjusted to the kicker.  

If we look at each of the kicking flaws, we can find that a foot placement adjustment will produce the necessary correction. For example:

Line Drive Kicks � Typically the kicker is striking the ball to high. Move the plant foot forward, toward the LOS, just a bit. This adjustment will allow the kicker to strike the ball just a little bit lower and get more lift on the kick.

High, Short, Pop-Up Kicks � The kicker is striking the ball too low. Move the plant foot back, away from the LOS, just a bit. This adjustment will allow the kicker to strike the ball just a little bit higher giving more distance to the kick.

Pulling the Ball Left (for the right footed kicker) � The plant foot is too close to the tee causing the hips to over-rotate striking the ball early and causing it to pull to the left. Move the plant foot just a little bit farther away from the tee to correct pulling the ball to the left.

Pushing the Ball to the Right (for the right footed kicker) � The plant foot is too far from the tee and the hips never get square at the point of the kick causing the ball to be pushed to the right. Move the plant foot a little bit closer to the tee to correct pushing the ball to the right.
About the Author: Bob Grace currently serves as offensive backs and kicking coach at Wall Township High School (NJ). He began his coaching career in 1969 and was a head coach for 17 years at two different New Jersey high schools � nine at Freehold Township and eight at Point Pleasant Beach.

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