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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

NFL – KAEDING GOOD AFTER MISS

The Press-Enterprise – Aug 6, 2005 – Jim Alexander – The last look Chargers fans got of Nate Kaeding was one of dejection. Of anguish. Of utter, “how-did-that-happen” shock.

Kaeding had an excellent rookie season as San Diego’s kicker. But it ended with a memorable miss — a 40-yard field goal try in overtime that would have beaten the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL playoffs, until it sailed wide right.

Will it be a blip, a minor blemish in a successful career? Or will it be a kick that haunts his psyche every time he lines up for a crucial field goal?

“It hurt for a week or two, just like it probably did for everybody else,” Kaeding said last week. “I felt like I probably let the team down, and that’s kind of hard to get over in two weeks.

“But there comes a point in time where you’ve got to realize: ‘Hey, one kick didn’t get me here, didn’t get me to the NFL. And certainly one kick isn’t going to ruin my career.’ That’s the mentality I have.”

The Chargers rallied around their young kicker after the miss, and former Chargers kickers Rolf Benirschke and John Carney called Kaeding to offer advice and support.

Still, some concern would be natural. Kaeding, 23, an All-America selection and Lou Groza Award winner at the University of Iowa, made 20 of 25 regular-season field goals as an NFL rookie. But an entire nation of football fans watched his biggest moment turn sour.

“It’s the nature of the business,” long snapper David Binn said. “Every great kicker has had a moment like that, and it’s just unfortunate that it happened to him in his rookie year … You can go down the list. Every Hall of Fame-level kicker has missed ones like that. It just happens. I think he’ll be fine.”

Added San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer: “Of all who might find themselves in that circumstance, Nate Kaeding would be the least likely to have it become a negative. He is solid. You don’t get elected by your teammates as captain of your college football team for two consecutive years unless you have some special qualities.”

Punter Mike Scifres, who doubles as the holder for field goal and extra point attempts, said he was confident Kaeding would bounce back.

“He showed during the season that misses didn’t affect him too much,” Scifres said. “He’s a mentally strong kid.”

The Kick

The Chargers had just rallied to send the Jan. 8 playoff game into overtime, and after an exchange of punts they moved methodically down the field. They had a first-and-10 at the Jets’ 22, and used three LaDainian Tomlinson running plays — which netted no yardage — to set up Kaeding’s try from the right hash mark, on a field that had been rained on earlier in the evening.

“It was a little wet,” Binn said. “It wasn’t perfect conditions, but it usually never is. It’s not an excuse.”

After his miss, the Chargers never got another opportunity. New York drove seven plays to the San Diego 10 to set up Doug Brien’s successful 28-yarder for the victory.

The second-guessers emerged in force, maintaining that the Chargers should have tried for at least one more first down — reasoning that quarterback Drew Brees disputed.

“Usually what Marty does in those situations is ask the kicker, ‘What yard-line, and what hash (mark) do you want the ball on?’ ” Brees said.

“I’m not sure what the percentage of made field goals is in the NFL at 40 yards, but it’s pretty high. The fact that it was the playoffs and a rookie kicker seems to be what everyone was talking about. But if you ask Nate Kaeding how many field goals he’ll make from 40 yards, he’ll probably say 95 percent.”

In fact, he was 5 for 6 between 40 and 49 yards during the regular season.

After the game, Kaeding was despondent, saying, “The hardest thing for me is not being able to walk through here and look people in the eye.”

Two days later, at the Chargers practice facility, he was seen sobbing.

“Initially you worry,” Brees said of Kaeding’s ability to rebound. “But I’ve seen Nate numerous times in the off-season and talked to him. He’s kicking with a ton of confidence, and I think he has the mentality to bounce back from something like that. I’m not worried about the guy one bit.”

The Aftermath

Benirschke, now an author and motivational speaker in the San Diego area, said he’d gotten to know Kaeding during the season, since he was one of several Chargers alumni who regularly attended practices.

He talked with Kaeding about dealing with the aftermath.

“The challenge Nate obviously faces is, that was the last game of the year and he had all off-season to think about it,” Benirschke said in a phone interview. “People bring it up. They say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or, ‘Forget about it,’ but every time they bring it up, you think about it … It’s one of those ghosts you don’t dispel until you get through it.”

John Murray, a sports psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla., suggested that Kaeding should look at it this way: Whatever happens from here, it can’t be any worse.

“I really truly believe the key to success is dealing with failure, and then you don’t have any fear,” Murray said by phone. “Forget about the outcome. The outcome will take care of itself. That has nothing to do with the actual nanosecond you’re performing in.

“True elite athletes are the ones who love that pressure, thriving on the adversity of the challenge. They say, ‘Let me try it again.’ If he’s of that makeup, he’ll have that approach the next time it comes up.”

Kaeding said that after the hurt subsided, he couldn’t wait to kick again. That would seem to be a good sign.

“I’m real impatient,” he said. “My biggest thing was just getting back out there and working on it.

“Down the road this fall, when I have a kick to win a game, hopefully I’ll look back on how hard I worked, and I’ll be able to come through for them.”