Scouting Kickers: The Mental Process

Kickers are a little different, so it’s no surprise that scouting them requires a different mindset and approach than other positions. While every-down players are often looked at in terms of how their physical and mental skills fit into various schemes, kickers need to be studied in terms of how these skills allow them to repeat the same kicking process as precisely as possible every time. Part 1 looked at the physical aspect of kicking; in Part 2, Chuck Zodda turns to the mental process involved in succeeding as an NFL kicker.

While a kicker’s mechanics are easy enough to view and break down on tape, getting an insight into a kicker’s ability to handle the position from a mental perspective is much more difficult. Unlike NFL teams, we generally do not get to pick a kicker’s brain to gain direct insight into this facet of the game.

Kicking is unique amongst all other NFL positions. It differs from quarterback in that there is no receiver to potentially bail out a bad throw. It differs from running back in that there is no way for incredible creativity to overcome a lack of ideal form or power. It differs even from other specialists such as punters in that the Exact. Same. Kick is prized on every strike; a punter, by comparison, can try to play to his strengths with either the directional game or the distance game. The ideal kicker is as close to a robot as possible, mechanically executing the same controlled motion over and over in a game that is defined by aggression and creativity in every other position.

Unfortunately, there is no way to transform the kicker into some PAT 9000 to automate the process and ass-kicking-machinemake every attempt. Kickers are human and, as such, they’re subject to the entire spectrum of human thoughts, emotions, and other cognitive chaos.

Generally, it’s not particularly important to care what a football player is feeling during the game. But where it does become important is when the inner workings of a kicker’s brain start to seep out and affect the physical part of his game.

Does he get nervous and speed up his steps due to adrenalin? Does he struggle to focus in seemingly low-pressure situations and get sloppy with his technique? Does he actually get frozen by a late timeout and completely lock up?

These are very real questions that NFL teams have to answer – and predict – in today’s game. We saw no fewer than three playoff games either decided or significantly influenced by missed field goals or extra points. With critical games on the line, NFL teams must be astute in evaluating not only how a kicker performs when the pressure is off, but projecting how he will perform in the most important situations.

Where do we look for answers to these questions?

The first thing to remember is that we are likely dealing with small sample sizes for many college kickers. Noting that a kicker is 0-for-1 or 0-for-2 in certain scenarios does very little good towards projecting him going forward. It is possible for any player, whether a kicker, linebacker, receiver, or anyone else, to look either bad or good for one play. So while results in late-game, long-distance, or post-season situations should be considered, they are certainly not the only factor that goes into this process.

Once getting past sample size issues, the context of kicks must be considered as well. A key situation to seek out is one in which a kicker missed an easy kick early in a game, and then examine later kicks to see how he responded. Misses can and will happen to even the best kickers.

What distinguishes the elite is the ability to self-diagnose their errors on the fly and return to the proper mechanics on kicks later in the same game. Early-game misses are one of the best ways to get a sense of what is going on in a kicker’s head on game day. Does he bounce back and show good pace, mechanics, and flow on his following kicks? Does he fall apart completely and continue to miss? Or does he get part-way there, still not showing the cleanest mechanics, but finding a way to get the ball through the uprights? This helps to give us an insight as to how a kicker responds to adversity in real-time.

Even without misses, examining a kicker’s mechanics in various situations can lend some information as to what is going on inside his helmet. The pace and timing of a kicker’s approach can be a key indicator as to how he is handling a given situation: Does the kicker begin his approach at the same time on every kick? Does he start early because of nerves in late-game situations? Is he slow on chip shots because he is too relaxed? How about his pace?. Are his steps rushed due to anxiety? Does his path vary early in the game due to a lack of focus?

These are all clues that help to fill us in on what the kicker’s state of mind and how it might affect his kicking. But arguably the most important thing to watch is how a kicker reacts after a blocked kick.

A blocked kick to a kicker is a feeling of embarrassment that is as powerful as you will see in sports. Even if the block is due to problems with protection rather than a low trajectory or slow approach, all eyes fall upon the kicker. And, equally important, a blocked kick can cause a kicker to question himself more than a simple miss. While many kickers can diagnose mechanical flaws that lead to a short kick or a miss to either side, a block has the ability to get inside a kicker’s head because it gets at something that is so fundamental to human existence that it transcends football: safety.

While kickers are obviously highly protected physically, this gets more at the very well-being of the players needed to to do their job. While a miss can be chalked up to a poorly-angled plant foot or bad approach, a blocked kick can send a kicker wondering, “Do I have the time and space to execute the way I should?” And that is a dangerous path for any player to go down. We see it with quarterbacks who get happy feet in the pocket. We see it with running backs who don’t wait for holes to develop. Kickers are no different. And so a kicker’s attempts following a block, arguably the toughest situation a kicker will find himself in, are some of the most critical ones to examine to see if he can bounce back.

We cannot take kickers and throw them into the Super Bowl to see how they will react under pressure as an experiment. Rather, we must rely on clues made available by the situations above to get a sense for the mental toughness they possess. Trying to figure out what makes any athlete tick is one of the enduring problems facing the scouting process. And here kickers are at last more similar to other positions than different, in that those same questions must be answered in order to find the great players who will perform even under adversity.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

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