When Travis Dorsch kicked a state record 63 yard field goal for Bozeman High School in Montana, he did so through goal posts that were 23 feet 4 inches wide. His school record 69 career field goals for Purdue University were through uprights 18 feet 6 inches apart - the same dimension also used in the NFL and the CFL. In the various indoor football leagues the goal posts are typically 9 or 10 feet wide. But those are all merely precise numbers using the U.S.customary system of measurements. It does not account for how wide the goal posts seem to an individual standing on the football field having tried to kick a football through them. That question was considered when Dorsch returned to Purdue, where he earned a Masters and is presently working on his Doctorate in Kinesiology, specializing in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Last year he co-authored a study looking at whether someone's success, or lack thereof, at kicking a football through the uprights impacted their perception of how wide the goal posts were.
Witt, J. K., & Dorsch, T. (2009). Kicking to bigger uprights: Field goal kicking performance influences perceived size. Perception, 38, 1328-1340.:
Anecdotally, many athletes claim to perceive their sport-specific targets as bigger on days that they perform better. For example, baseball players in the midst of a hitting spree say the ball looks as big as a grapefruit. Golfers dropping birdie after birdie relate the size of the cup to a bucket. In contrast, on bad days, athletes claim that they are swinging at aspirins or putting to the inside of a doughnut. Recent empirical research suggests these experiences are not just hyperbole, but reflect a psychological reality....
Field goal kicking performance influenced perceived size of the field goal posts. The uprights looked farther apart and the crossbar looked lower to people who made more successful kicks, demonstrating a relationship between performance and perception. Although perceived size is mainly a factor of optical information, which was available at the time that participants made their estimates, perceived size is also influenced by the perceiver's performance on a given task....
Another interesting finding in the current experiment reveals that the manner in which participants missed kicks related to how they perceived the field goal posts. Participants who missed their kicks wide perceived the uprights as narrower. Similarly, participants who missed their kicks short, perceived the crossbar as higher off the ground. This result demonstrates a level of specificity, namely that perceptual effects occur according to where performance excels and where inadequacies exist.
We spoke to Travis Dorsch, discussing the study along with a few other matters of the mind.
After having done the research, did that reinforce or help to explain any memories from your own kicking career?
"It was probably a bit isolated from my career. For our study we were looking at novice kickers and they were kicking extra points. I guess in a way maybe it brought back, at least anecdotally, some memories, but the research didn’t really pertain to the feeling of big time college kicking or professional kicking. I guess it’s a two part answer – yes and no. It was cool to research something that was familiar to me. That part was definitely enjoyable. I think to some extent it was a bit eye opening, some of the results that we saw."
The article poses the question of a possible predictive effect for expert kickers, as opposed to novices… are you doing any further research along those lines?
"Not actively. Dr. Witt has a pretty intense research agenda, and she’s looking at these effects across a wide variety of sports and athletic endeavors. I would like to procure a sample of expert kickers, but unfortunately it’s so hard to do. To be an expert you would have to consider someone who is a collegiate or professional kicker, and really there’s not a lot of them out there. You’d have to put together a large enough sample size where you could actually draw some inferences from the data. It’s on the back burner now, but that’s something I’d love to do if we could get access to that population."
Have you since heard any feedback or comments from any collegiate or professional kickers on the study?
"I don’t know that any of those people have read it. In the scientific community it’s got pretty good play, and in the media it’s got pretty good play. I’ve talked to a number of media outlets that have picked the story up. They want to talk about the results and the potential implications for real life kickers, but I don’t know that it’s been read by any of the guys out there."
I recently read an article noting that some NFL kickers like to practice with narrower arena-size goal posts so that on game day the real regulation posts look that much larger, while other kickers prefer during practice to try to simulate exactly actual game conditions and not change anything around. What are your thoughts on that?
"There’s two distinct schools of thought. The first, I would say that what those kickers are doing, who are practicing on those smaller posts, is basically creating the effect that we’ve researched. On game day they’re creating the effect of the uprights seeming wider, because they’ve trained their brains to think and see and feel small uprights. And then they get out there on the game day field, and now they’re wider. Falsely they’ve sort of created this perception that the uprights are wider, when in fact they’re actually the same as they’d see in any other game, or practice if they used the normal posts. I think there’s some merit to that. I also think there’s some merit, not perceptively, but just mentally in general to having the ability to practice on exactly what you’re going to play on. I don’t think either is correct or incorrect - it just depends on the kicker. I think that both are strategies you can use to prepare yourself for game day."
When I ask most kickers ‘what’s going through their mind right before and during a kick’ they usually say ‘hopefully nothing’. How does a kicker clear their mind… are there any tricks they or you use to do that?
"I think those that clear the mind comes from the ultimate confidence of being able to perform your task. A lot of novices, such as when you get up there on the golf tee right on the first tee, you’re thinking about all the things that can go wrong – don’t hook it, don’t slice it, don’t dribble it off the bottom of your club to the women’s tee. Basically in your mind you’re putting all these negative visualizations. On the other side of that spectrum, a lot of people believe that when you get out there to perform your task - whether it’s a field goal, a punt, or whatever - you shut your eyes, take a deep breath, visualize the good that can happen; visual everything happening perfectly and then perform the task. Then there’s that third school of thought like you just mentioned – get out there and let everything flush out. I think that ability comes from the ability to know that you’ve done this hundreds of thousands of times in practice and you don’t need to think. As an athlete, sometimes you can over think things. You just need to go out there and perform the rote muscle memories that you’ve worked so hard on in practice. I think you probably get that answer a lot from kickers in the NFL because like I said, with ten of thousands or hundreds of thousands of repetitions, they know all they have to do is react. As a punter you catch the ball, you kick it. You don’t think. As a kicker you see the snap, you see the hold, you kick it. So it doesn’t surprise me that you get that answer about just not thinking - sort of being a blank slate."
Stay tuned later this week for the second part of our interview in which we discussed additional topics... including why I may need to start giving punters equal time to kickers.