Chuck Zodda is Inside The Pylon’s special teams expert, breaking down kickoffs, returns, punts, return blocking, coverage and blocked kicks. This time, Chuck takes you outside the film room and onto the practice field for a lesson in basic placekicking technique. Yes, you too can learn how to kick field goals ‒ or, at least, better understand how the pros do it.
Field goal kicking is glamorous. That’s what I told myself when I decided to try out for the Dartmouth football team in the spring of 2006. I envisioned sprinting the length of the field after game-winning kicks, and practiced my autograph to make sure it would look good on any object handed to me no matter how irregular the surface.
The reality, of course, is that place kicking is a solitary adventure, with most time spent on empty fields honing your craft. It is all about technique, with repetition and muscle memory critical to performing the same motion for any kick, regardless of the direction or conditions.
Orienting Your Kick
The first place to start is with the alignment for the kick. Prior to making any movements, place your kicking foot with its toe on the exact spot you plan to kick from. Your body should be aligned with the target, which typically is the center support for the goal posts. However, in the event that you are kicking at old-school uprights with two support posts structured as an “H”, simply choose a target aligned with the center of the crossbar:
Doing this ensures that no matter where on the field you kick from, you will use the same method and not alter your technique. Whether kicking from the left or right hashes, orienting your body towards the center of your target will allow you to focus on executing an identical kick every time, as opposed to correcting your leg swing for each kick.
Three Steps Back, Two to the Side
The next step in the process is to take the steps required for the eventual approach to the ball. Prior to the Gogolak brothers – Charlie and Pete – in the 1960s, NFL kickers used a straight-on style of kicking that was inaccurate and unpredictable. However, with the Gogolaks showing that soccer-style kicking offered benefits in terms of control and power, every pro kicker today has adopted the soccer-style approach.
Your first move should be backward, creating distance from your strike point. The method that produces the fewest question marks in terms of repetition is to simply take three effortless steps back without stretching. Because leg length tends to be proportional to overall height, the length of these steps automatically adapts the approach to the individual, meaning that whether the placekicker is 4’8” and in eighth grade or a 6’5” college player, the depth of the approach will be correct for their size:
One maneuver that I adopted after reading Ray Guy’s excellent book Football Kicking and Punting was implementing a rocker step after completing my three-step drop. This involved rocking back on the heel of my third step, allowing me to maintain a constant length of stride, while ensuring that I kept properly aligned with my target at this point. After the rocker step and any correction, both feet should be next to each other at or near the location where the third step was taken.
From this point, the next direction is sideways. Without turning your body, take two steps to the side of your plant leg (meaning if you are right-footed, move to your left). It is important to note that this must be done at a perpendicular angle to your initial steps backward. Thus, if you are aligning from either of the hashes, the proper setup will help you to automatically account for the angle, allowing you to utilize the same motion on every kick. These horizontal steps should be comfortable, but slightly more than shoulder width:
This gives you the angled approach that is favored by soccer-style kickers. This approach helps create rotational force in your motion, which can be transferred through the ball as you strike it, allowing you to create power in your kick. It also enables you to strike the ball with the top of your instep, on the hard bone running down the top of your foot, as opposed to the toe-poke employed by straight-on kickers, allowing for added control. When you come to a stop after your setup, you should be positioned in this fashion (reversed for right-footed kickers):
This creates the ready position, with your plant leg positioned in front of your kicking leg and your body facing the strike point. Feet should be six to nine inches apart front to back and shoulder-width. You want a balanced platform that gives you the ability to make an athletic move.
The next step is to get comfortable. Whether you are kicking in front of six people or 60,000, all eyes are on you when you kick. No one is watching the offensive line. No one is watching the holder. Everyone is watching the kicker. There are hundreds of ideas floating around about the “proper” way to focus at this point. None of them are right, as each kicker is different in their mindset and approach to a kick. Find something that focuses your energy toward the kick you are about to make.
For me, I would first pick out a target just beyond the uprights as a landmark to focus on. In the frame below, the center of the scoreboard would make a good reference point:
Next, I would take a deep breath and shift my focus to my strike point. Whether kicking a ball being snapped to a holder or off a stationary holder (as pictured here), I would place all of my energy into visualizing the ball and where it was going to be. However, this process can be different for different people, and I can’t stress this enough. I tried several different methods before I finally settled on one that was right for me. If working with a full battery of long snapper and holder, the next move is to signal the holder that he may call for the snap, and then the kick truly begins.
Approaching the Ball
The first step taken is a jab step with your plant leg. This is a shift of 6 to 12 inches to start momentum in the direction of the strike point and begin your path to the ball:
In the image above, my right leg is mid-way through my jab step as I start to approach the kick. My head is down and focused on the strike point.
The second step is longer and builds on the momentum created by the jab step. It is not a jumping or lunging motion, but simply continues the acceleration towards the ball. You do not want to have lateral movement at any point throughout your run-up, nor do you want to be bouncing. It is a smooth movement that moves you at an angle to the strike point so you can eventually turn that momentum into rotational force:
The above still is just after my second step has planted. I am now preparing for my final approach to the ball, and the crux of the process.
The Plant Step
The plant step is the most critical part of the approach. It determines whether the kick goes left or right, high or low, short or far. The ideal plant step for a ball kicked from the ground will be six to nine inches from the ball, depending on personal preference, with the ball in line with the arch of your plant foot. For kicks off a one- or two-inch tee, the plant foot will slide back slightly to account for the extra height.
It is during the plant step that you begin to translate the linear force of your approach into rotational force, as the plant gives you a point to pivot around as you begin to swing your kicking leg forward:
Here, my plant leg is firmly stuck in the ground, as I start to clear my hips and rotate through the ball. My head is down and focused on the contact point, as I look to make strong contact through the ball. Looking closely, you will note that the ball has a slight tilt away from the my body, as this helps to negate the hooking tendency that the soccer-style kick produces because of aerodynamic forces on the ball.
The contact point on your foot should be the hard bone on the top of your instep. The hard surface allows you to transfer the maximum energy possible through the ball, as you look to make contact with a point approximately two inches below the widest point of the ball. Striking below this point will result in a high, rapidly spinning kick with little distance, and striking above this point will result in a low line-drive kick with little height. As shown below, my foot strikes just below the midpoint of the ball:
The follow through of your kick helps to give it direction and improve accuracy. You want to avoid trying to spin through the kick, as this can affect your timing and cause a short slicing kick or low hooking kick depending on where the error occurs. Rather, the goal should be to strike with your momentum carrying you through the target, using a skip step if necessary to maintain your forward momentum through the kick:
Just after contact, my plant leg is still coming off the ground as I begin my follow through. But just after, my momentum continues through the target, as opposed to spinning off to the right:
The result here is a made 50-yard field goal, as the practice and repetition of these techniques helps to develop the consistency to make kicks from nearly anywhere on the field:
This is a basic primer for anyone interested in learning how to kick a football, or gain familiarity with the techniques used by college and professional kickers. There are additional techniques and practice strategies that can help you to improve on what is written here, but the guide that will get you the furthest without requiring any additional resources is Ray Guy’s book mentioned above. It should be required reading for anyone interested in becoming a place kicker at any level, and will give you all of the tools to take these basic techniques to the next level.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.