Football kickers today are under more scrutiny than ever before. When I watch a college game, I rarely expect a kicker to make a field goal from more than 35 yards out. Conversely, I expect NFL kickers to hit kicks from 45 yards away with relative ease. At the same time, we see pregame videos of kickers on both levels making kicks greater than 60 yards away. What changes between pregame and game time that makes a kicker far more inaccurate? One can reference the addition of variables: wind, crowd noise, defensive rush, and the snap and hold are all key variables that can throw kickers off their game. The moment is one variable that reigns supreme. How can professional kickers, who work tirelessly on their craft, miss kicks that are easy distances for them? It’s all psychological and not unique to just kicking footballs.
Field goal kicking late in a major playoff game equates to hitting free throws in the waning seconds of a big basketball game. Free throws, as perceived by most common sports watchers, are simple. There’s no defense, and the distance to the basket is fixed. One can practice free throws all day. Practicing free throws in a quiet gym is far different than hitting free throws in the final seconds of a March Madness game with millions of people watching across the world.
The 2008 men’s NCAA basketball national championship game remains one of the most exciting sports games in history. The Memphis Tigers, led by Derrick Rose and John Calipari, were 10.8 seconds away from winning a national championship. Derrick Rose walked to the free throw line with a two-point lead and the opportunity to crush all hopes of a Kansas Jayhawk comeback if he made both free throws. The moment was further in the Tigers’ favor because Kansas had exceeded the one-and-one bonus. Memphis knew they were getting two free throws from their star player. Rose, a 71 percent free throw shooter, a relatively high percentage in the college game, narrowly missed the first one. It seemed like he rushed it; he went through his routine of bouncing the ball, cocking it over his head, bringing it down, and releasing. After the release, though, his body-weight brought him backwards. It seemed like he just wanted to shoot the ball as quickly as possible. Even though Rose made the next free throw, Kansas’ Mario Chalmers hit a game tying three as time expired to send the national championship game into overtime. Kansas ended up winning the title, and many pointed to Rose’s inability to make two consecutive free throws as the reason for the result.
Athletes put themselves through relentless training to make performance feel more natural and comfortable. Basketball players shoot free throws after practice, and kickers try to expand their range from different angles on the field; hitters in baseball ask for a mix of offspeed and fastballs in batting practice. Even though all these training techniques help athletes perform, there’s only one way to become better at performing in the clutch: experience.
Adam Vinatieri, the ageless kicker for the Colts, is considered one of the most clutch performers in the history of sports. His kicks with the Patriots against the Raiders, Rams, and Panthers will go down as some of the greatest kicks of all-time because of the pressure of the moment. People forget that Vinatieri missed some easy kicks early in the Super Bowl against the Panthers. Vinatieri’s greatness stems from the fact that he truly embodies the ‘short term memory’ athlete. All athletes want to have a short term memory because they can’t let past actions, no matter positive or negative, affect the moment.
The moment for any athlete has to be where the mind shuts off; overthinking hampers performance. Whether it be a golfer worrying about mechanics or a pitcher trying to place a fastball, the greatest athletes just don’t think in the moment. They have to be extremely confident about who they are, and won’t let the moment, the pressure overpower them. Professional sports teams have hired sports psychologists to try to get into the minds of athletes. Every athlete is different, but every good athlete has confidence and a swagger about themselves. They’ve been through many moments in their athletic careers, no matter the length. If you’re an athlete and don’t have full confidence in yourself, ask the question: if I don’t believe in myself, who will? Embracing the moment and its effects is the best way for an athlete to succeed. Just believe.
Andrew Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.