Posts Tagged ‘pressure’

The Psychology of Missed Field Goals: Was Nate Kaeding’s Performance Part of a Choking Outbreak?

Newsweek – Ian Yarett – January 22, 2010 – San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding’s shocking performance in Sunday’s 17-14 loss to the New York Jets caught football fans everywhere—even Jets fans—by surprise. After making 32 out of 35 field-goal attempts throughout the entire season, Kaeding proceeded to miss all three chances in Sunday’s game. That makes Kaeding, who has the highest regular-season percentage in league history (87.2), the first kicker to miss three out of three field-goal attempts in a playoff game since 1995.

Kaeding’s failure topped off an already growing number of unforgettable missed kicks during the playoffs in the preceding week, including two by Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham against the Jets and another by Arizona’s Neil Rackers against the Packers.

All of this raises the question: could the preceding outbreak of failed field-goal attempts have precipitated Kaeding’s spectacular meltdown? Did Kaeding fall prey to a shanking epidemic?

According to Dr. John F. Murray, a Palm Beach-based sports psychologist, it’s a plausible theory, although impossible to prove. “It’s certainly safe to say that [Kaeding] made a mental mistake,â€? Murray says. “Exposure to other people’s failures could have gotten inside his head.â€?

For experienced and consistent players like Kaeding, a good kick is an automatic move that requires little thought. So little, in fact, that extra thinking can be the very thing that does in a player under high pressure. If a memory of another player missing a kick popped into Kaeding’s mind as he prepared to take his shot, that neural signal could have interfered with Kaeding’s mental preparation.

“When you’re kicking a field goal, you’re mostly using your motor cortex—that’s what controls kicking. So when you send a neural impulse from your brain down the spinal cord to the legs to make the kick, you don’t want to have a lot of interference from the frontal lobe or temporal lobe having a memory of some guy who missed a kick last week or any other distraction,â€? Murray says.

Still, if exposure to the failures of other kickers is what did in Kaeding, one would expect field-goal misses to come and go in groups. But, historically, this is not the case, says Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. Even though these playoffs have been a particularly bad time for field-goal kickers, Hirdt says that missed field goals do not always cluster in this way—at least not enough to identify a trend given the limited data available.

Indeed, there are many other possible psychological explanations for Kaeding’s aberrant misses. He could have gotten caught up in the pressure of the moment, which could feel like “having a gun to your head and being told to ‘make that field goal or I’m going to pull the trigger’,â€? Murray says. Alternatively, Kaeding could have missed one shot due to a technical flaw or a fluke, and then missed the next two because he was dwelling on the past. Or he could have just had a fight with his wife earlier in the day or gotten a speeding ticket on the way to the field, disrupting his concentration.

Patrick Cohn, another sports-psychology expert and owner of Peak Performance Sports, favors these kinds of explanations over the possibility that other failed kickers psyched out Kaeding. “When kickers miss uncharacteristically, it comes down to the pressure they’re feeling,â€? he says. “They don’t pay attention to what other kickers are doing, but a bad miss early in the game could lead to more misses later on.â€?

We’ll probably never know for certain the exact cause of Kaeding’s choke—even Kaeding himself may not know what happened, Murray says. But it surely comes down to mental preparation, which Kaeding will have to work on before he kicks again.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the world of sports psychology

SEATTLE TIMES BATS FOR SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY

Seattle Times – Jun 1, 2005 – Steve Kelley – Fear doesn’t strike out as A-Rod steps up to the plate – Every player talks about the transforming magic of the Yankees’ pinstripes. Each gushes about the sanctity of Yankee Stadium.

But the players also understand the enormous expectations and the pressures that come with those pinstripes.

Eventually every Yankee, even Derek Jeter, will experience the wrath of a stadium crowd. It’s as inevitable as a delay on the D Train.

In a little more than a year as a Yankee, third baseman Alex Rodriguez already has run the emotional gantlet. He has experienced the exhilaration of a pennant race, followed by the devastation of a history-making playoff loss to the Boston Red Sox.

Who knows what it is like to be A-Rod in New York?

To carry all those heavy expectations every day. To listen to the boos that tumble on him from almost every park in the American League. To feel like he has to play like a Hall of Famer every game to justify the largest contract in big-league history.

This season, he has been exceptional. Rodriguez is leading the American League in home runs, runs scored, RBI and slugging percentage. He is third in on-base percentage and fourth in batting average.

So who knows what combination of stresses and successes led him into therapy? But last week Rodriguez, perhaps the world’s most image-conscious athlete, announced he is seeing a shrink.

“A-Rod making a statement like that, an athlete of his stature saying that, could advance sports psychology by 10 years,” Dr. John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., said by telephone this week. “A-Rod’s efforts will hopefully go a long way toward removing the stigma of getting the help of a sports psychologist, be it for simple mental skills training, or serious counseling.”

Murray, 43, worked with Jim Bauman (now a U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist) at Washington State in 1998, and has worked with the University of Florida and the Miami Dolphins. In his private practice, he has counseled numerous golfers, cyclists and football and tennis players. This week he started a Web site “CongratsARod.com”  he hopes will take the psychological pulse of the athletic community.

“I see it a lot of times, especially in the traditional sports like baseball and football,” Murray said, “where the players might be somewhat reluctant to seek the counsel of a sports psychologist when they’re feeling panicky, or they’re choking, or they’re losing the motivation and wanting to quit. It’s a case where we need to break down barriers.”

Baseball, probably more than any other team sport, is susceptible to psychological problems. The daily seven-month grind, the contemplative pace of the game, the fact that, at its heart, baseball is a one-on-one sport, can make players emotionally vulnerable.

In 1971 Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass pitched two complete-game World Series victories. The next year, he won 19 games. The next year, he walked 84 batters and struck out only 27. And in 1974, his last season, he pitched one game, walked seven and never pitched again.

St. Louis’ Rick Ankiel, who is attempting a comeback as an outfielder at Class AA Springfield, never rediscovered the strike zone after his infamous playoff implosion in 2000.

Reliable-fielding second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, all of a sudden, had difficulty making the simple throw to first. Catcher Mackey Sasser often had to double-clutch just to throw the ball back to the pitcher.

“What starts as a slump, like going three games without a base hit because of a slight technical or mental flaw, suddenly takes on a life all its own,” Murray said. “Players can lose confidence. They can lose focus. They have trouble managing their energy problems, which leads to anger, fear, even apathy and boredom.

“What players need to know is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in seeking counseling. Why should there be a stigma? Hopefully, some day we can get to a place where seeking help is commonplace.”

Murray said athletes have to remember a simple message: “As tough as things can get, the mind is even tougher.” And he offers the case of tennis professional Vince Spadea as proof.

In the midst of a record-breaking slump, Spadea came to Murray . Once ranked as high as 19th in the world in 1999, he lost an ATP-record 21 matches in a row and, by 2001, his ranking had fallen to 229th.

“He was ready to quit tennis. The fire had died,” said Murray. “He spent a year and a half living in a cellar. He needed something to re-ignite the fire that was the reason he became a tennis player in the first place. He needed to believe in himself again.

“When he was winning, I don’t think he really appreciated how great he was. I think success happened so quickly, he didn’t realize how good his life was. He was very reluctant to come to me, but he listened. All he really needed was a pep talk.”

Spadea, 30, won his first ATP tournament last season in Scottsdale, Ariz., beating Andy Roddick in the semifinals. He finished 2004 ranked all the way back to 19th.

Spadea needed to hit rock bottom before he sought help. Who knows what moved A-Rod to seek therapy?

Maybe he too needs a pep talk. Or maybe he needs to talk about a childhood where his father left the family when Rodriguez was 9 years old.

Whatever the reason, it took courage for him to make public this very private part of his life. And for this, all of us who have jeered A-Rod now should cheer him.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.