One of the greatest difficulties in evaluating kickers is being cognizant of weather and how it affects a kicker’s performance. Whether wind, rain, snow, heat, cold, humidity, or other forces of nature more powerful than a specialist’s weirdness, every kick is made in different conditions. Yet kickers are often discussed in the context of near-perfect conditions, rather considering how Mother Nature might affect the task. Chuck Zodda looks at kicking in different weather conditions adjustments kickers must make to account for weather.
The process of kicking a football is a simple one. Run up to the ball. Strike it with a foot. Repeat. Unlike quarterbacks, linebackers, and wide receivers, there are no plays to remember, no opposing tendencies to study. Kickers perform the same action time and time again, trying to recreate the perfect swing on every kick. Kickers, more than any other position of the game, need to have the narrowest of focus at all times. Unlike those other positions, improvisation cannot overcome poor technique. A wide receiver running an imprecise route can make up for it with sheer athleticism and a one-handed catch that never should have occurred. But a kicker whose stride is just six inches too long finds himself the goat of the game.
Despite the need for a narrow focus, there is one ever-present factor that must always be present in a kicker’s mind as he is preparing for the next kick: The weather.
Weather affects the two most important facets of the kicking game: a kicker’s approach and stability while striking the ball; and the ball’s flight through the air. A kicker must always be cognizant of changes in conditions and how those conditions affect the technique required for success. Because while the kicking game is all about repetition and creating the same swing every time, different weather conditions create situations in which subtle variations on technique are required to produce that same swing. Let’s start from the ground up.
The Playing Surface
While not technically weather, the condition of the field is important to any kicker. Is the surface grass or artificial turf? If it is grass, is it patchy or a uniform surface? If it is artificial turf, is it old-school, tear-up-your-knees AstroTurf or a more modern design such as FieldTurf? These are all questions a kicker must answer, as they first and foremost affect the choice of footwear for a game. Trying to play with cleats on a rock-hard AstroTurf field effectively puts a kicker on a hockey rink. Likewise, wearing flats on a grass field may not provide enough grip to generate maximum torque at impact. Beyond these simple concepts, each field type is affected differently by different types of weather. Extended periods of sun may dry out a grass field to the point where it becomes hard and difficult for cleats to grip. FieldTurf typically holds up much better in the rain, requiring fewer technical changes. Knowing the playing surface and how different types of weather influence conditions is a critical first step to kicking success in varied conditions.
Wind is one of the easiest weather phenomenon to adjust for, but can also be the most difficult to measure due to how conditions that may change as the ball gains height. Wind conditions at ground level may be different from those 30 feet in the air, and swirling winds can wreak havoc with kickers if they are unable to properly gauge wind direction and speed.
Wind either directly in the face of or directly behind a kicker requires no adjustment in approach. It will affect the distance the ball travels, and may affect strategy in terms of maximum kicking range, but it does not require a different approach from a kicker to correct for it. In fact, one of the best things a kicker can do when kicking into the wind is to choose not to compensate for it, as many kickers may try to generate extra power and throw their mechanics off in doing so.
Crosswinds require the selection of a different target from the center upright. The magnitude of correction depends on two factors – the distance of the kick and the wind speed. A longer attempt must travel through the air for a longer period of time, giving the wind more time to affect it, meaning a larger correction is required. For example, a college extra point may require no change in target, while a 50-yard field goal may require a kicker to aim at or just outside of an upright if the wind is strong enough.
Arguably the most difficult wind to deal with is one that blows back towards the kicker and across the field. This creates a situation in which the ball loses velocity more rapidly, making it hang in the air for a greater amount of time and, as such, subjects it to the whims of the wind for an extended period of time. Long kicks in this type of wind can be particularly difficult for kickers to properly gauge. On the contrary, a wind at a kicker’s back combined with a crosswind may mute the effects of the crosswind due to less air resistance, and thus less time in flight before passing the crossbar.
Rain’s biggest effect is on the playing surface and the ability to provide a stable platform for kicking, though it also affects the weight of the ball and can reduce distance slightly. The interaction of rain and the playing surface is key here, as natural grass fields will be the most heavily impacted by moisture. Grass fields are often uneven, allowing for pooling and uneven conditions across different parts of the field. In light rain, a kicker often does not need to make any adjustments, but in situations where grass becomes slick, or more extreme cases where standing water is present, a kicker may require a slightly shortened approach to maintain proper footing.
The key here is for a kicker’s feet to remain directly under his center of gravity in slick conditions. This provides a firm base, and also allows for the transfer of energy through this center through a nearly-perpendicular line. If a foot veers too far from the center of gravity, that force is transferred into the ground at an angle and, if the ground is too wet, this allows a foot to slip, which results in the most embarrassing situation possible for a kicker, which should be avoided at all costs. Kickers in wet conditions should typically shorten their approach by six to eight inches, and practice with this shorter approach during pre-game to gain comfort and have proper stride length so as to not jam themselves.
Rain can also soak a ball and add a significant amount of weight to it, reducing the maximum distance for a kick. This should not affect a kicker’s technique, as the way to overcome this is with solid fundamentals and to strike the sweet spot of the football, but it must be accounted for by coaches and kickers. This can also change over the course of the game, as balls may become more waterlogged as play goes on, meaning that a kicker may lose distance as a game progresses.
Rain drops are generally a non-factor as far as distance or height, though they may have a negligible impact on ball flight. If you are concerned about rain drops affecting the maximum distance of a kick, you are likely kicking from too far away to begin with.
Snow and Ice
Like rain, snow affects a kicker’s ability to build a stable platform, and the proper corrections for this may reduce distance. However, at freezing temperatures, snow does not seep into a ball, meaning the issue of waterlogged footballs is typically not a problem experienced in these conditions.
Snow effectively exacerbates the slick conditions produced by rain in that further shortening of one’s approach to maintain a center of gravity above the feet is required. While kicking in wet conditions may require an approach six to eight inches shorter, slick snow may require double that amount to prevent falling. Keep in mind, the average kicker is typically using an approach that is nearly three yards back and two yards over, so adjusting by six inches to a foot is effectively a 5-9% adjustment that helps a kicker remain light on one’s feet and properly centered.
Ice may require a larger adjustment if it is coating the playing field, though it is a rarity to see games played in conditions that are this severe. Heavily compacted snow can have the same effect as ice, though, and must be accounted for during pre-game or sideline practice.
Cold conditions have two effects on the kicking game. The first is the ability for a kicker to stay warm and maintain a fluid motion despite greater muscle tension from the cold, while the second issue is that of decreased air pressure within a football resulting in reduced kicking distance.
While a quarterback can keep his hands warm utilizing gloves or an insulated pocket for his hands, a kicker’s feet are unfortunately much more exposed to the elements. The lower body generally has weaker blood flow to begin with, which can make staying warm a major issue for kickers. In temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a kicker’s foot can often feel like a brick without any sense of subtlety, which can be disconcerting for a kicker who has not experienced those conditions before. Furthermore, the cold often causes muscles to tense up, making it difficult to maintain a loose and fluid technique through a kick. Practicing in these conditions is critical, as there is often no adjustment to be made as far as shifting one’s approach, but rather, a kicker must learn to perform the same motion despite the fact that the body is reacting differently.
This brings us to air pressure. The Ideal Gas Law states that as the temperature of a gas decreases and while volume remains the same, the pressure of that gas becomes lower. As many footballs are inflated indoors and then brought into cold conditions for the course of a game, the pressure in those footballs may drop over the course of the game. This drop in pressure means that more of a kicker’s force is absorbed by the give of the ball, rather than being transferred to the motion of the ball through a harder surface. This can reduce maximum kick distance by a significant amount, and must be accounted for by a team in warm-ups to prevent kicking from beyond a kicker’s maximum range given the conditions. As with kicking into the wind, a kicker must ignore the tendency to try to compensate for this, as it can lead to a breakdown of technique and inaccuracy.
After everything covered earlier, heat is easy to deal with. Stay hydrated, and watch the ball fly. Enjoy every rep, because you never know when Mother Nature is going to throw a tantrum next.