More on the Psyche of Kickers


Gene Puskar/AP Photo

I have written a number of articles through the years on the psychological aspects of performance in high-pressure situations, especially as it relates to kickers. As pointed out by Tim Booth, this week’s Sunday night game provides a tailor-made case study of an aspect of it I haven’t covered quite as much—how the reaction of a kicker’s coach after the fact affects them in the coming attempts.

In case you’ve been in an NFL-free cave since the end of the Steelers-Patriots game, last Sunday night’s game ended in a tie after the kickers for both Seattle and Arizona missed chip-shot field goals for the win. (Both attempts were under 30 yards.)

Since the public reaction of each kicker’s coach was so different, it is, as Booth noted, the perfect set-up for a psychology experiment. Here, in tweet form, is the essence of what each coach said:


It will be quite fascinating to follow the two kickers the remainder of the season and see whether their percentages of made goals stay about the same or move one way or other. As usual when looking at events occurring in an NFL game, the small sample size makes it difficult to come to really meaningful conclusions. But surely it will still be indicative, or at least interesting.

I was quite curious as to whether a similar situation—a tie after misses by both kickers—had ever occurred before. Although I can’t definitively state that it hasn’t, it would appear this was a unique event.  Ties are already fairly uncommon, and this takes it to another level.

However, it is possibly of more interest to Steeler fans to consider the heretofore unique event of Chris Boswell missing two kicks in the same game, as he did last Sunday. Makes one wonder whether something or other was in retrograde or some other planetary interference.

The part of most interest to me is whether it was a good idea or not for Mike Tomlin to ask Boswell to attempt a 54-yard kick, three yards longer than his longest made field goal, after already missing one earlier in the game.

You can view this one of two ways—that Tomlin was expressing confidence in Boswell, which would consequently boost his psyche (especially had he nailed it,) or that he was setting Boswell up for further loss of confidence if he missed. Like most such speculations, it’s easy to make assumptions based upon the outcome, but only Tomlin really knew what he was thinking. And of course the fact that it was only 4th and 2 adds another dimension to the discussion.

Tomlin expressed in a similar circumstance—asking Shaun Suisham to attempt a 54-yard field goal a couple of years ago, also three yards longer than his longest made attempt—that he had seen Suisham making kicks from 54 yards prior to the game. I believe (although I can’t find the quote) that Tomlin made more or less the same statement last week.

The fact is, though, that the distance the kicker can make prior to the game should be ratcheted down a good bit when deciding what he can make during the game. Adding the elements of nerves (and even the coolest-seeming customer has them) added to the uncertainties about the snap and the opposing defense and so on changes the whole equation in a larger way than apparently Tomlin is aware.

After many years of conducting—far more than the number of years even the longest-tenured kickers will ever play—I got to the point where I didn’t have many obvious nerves before a performance. But I have started to wonder in recent years how it would feel if, say, an opposing choir were in the performance space trying to make me screw up. I also wondered whether the occasional sacking of a conductor would create a rather larger audience for choral music. And trust me—it would probably do nothing but good to a great many conductors to be sacked now and again, as well as adding to the excitement of the performance.

Which sounds silly. But really, the thing which creates most nervousness is the feeling of uncertainty surrounding one’s ability to control the situation. It should be obvious that what happens during uncontested warm-ups in which the result has no consequences is going to be far more under the control of the kicker than heavily-contested kicks during the game, particularly ones which will likely (or in the case of last Sunday night’s game, certainly) decide the outcome.

So I suppose there are several things of interest to watch here. The first will be whether either the Seattle or Artizon kickers perform more poorly than their wont during the rest of the year. Blair Walsh, who famously missed a kick in the playoffs to essentially give Seattle the victory last January, hasn’t played very well this year.

And of course it is of even more interest to see how well Chris Boswell recovers from last Sunday. Hopefully he will regain his usual savior faire, or whatever you wish to call his impassive demeanor, and his accuracy along with it. But the other interesting thing is, it seems accuracy is down league-wide, after being on a steady upward trajectory for many years. At some point I’ll do a more rigorous study. But I hope, whatever the case league-wide, that Chris Boswell is going to be okay. Because a kicker is a terrible thing to waste…

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