the study of the kicking components within sports

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 2010 Kickology Interviews

Although 2011 is less than a day old, we're already working on the first of this year's feature interviews with those who know a thing or two about kickology, not to mention a thing or two about various other exciting matters. For those who can't wait, and for those who didn't get a chance to spend as much quality time reading the kickology blog last year as they would have liked, we present the requisite highlights from some of the 2010 feature interviews. Thanks to all the interviewees for sharing their experiences and knowledge.

With Minnesota Viking kicker Ryan Longwell, we tapped his years of experience and focused on the timeless basics.
"I usually hit about 40-50 kicks a week during the season with my snapper and holder...we hit 20 or so during the days we kick in minicamps. Other than that, I only kick a few times by myself during the offseason... I think you can get really bad habits by just using the tripod to kick."
During his graduate work, Travis Dorsch studied goal post widths and heights... not actual dimensions, but perceived dimensions in the mind of the kicker. Consequently, a large portion of our conversation "focused" on the mental side of kicking.
"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 tens 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."
We spoke to Billy Cundiff early in the year - before he had fended off the competition from Shayne Graham for the Baltimore Ravens job in 2010, before he went on to make a large percentage of his field goal attempts, before he kicked a ton of touchbacks, and before he was named to the Pro Bowl. He discussed lessons learned from his coaching work that he applied to his own kicking.
"The big thing is you’ve got to practice what you preach! There’s a lot of times where I felt like I maybe didn’t demand of my students as much as I should have – whether it’s keeping your head down, or where you focus your eyes, or how to approach certain kicks. I was always ‘you need to do this and you need to that’, and then I would get into a game and think ‘okay, if I was coaching what would I say? Well, this is what I’d do, why don’t I just do that.’ Simple things such as on short field goals don’t try to aim it, you’ve just got to pick your spot and kick through the ball. Same thing with long field goals, you can’t try to guide the ball and try to just put it through, you have to let it go and trust that you’ll have enough distance and that it will stay true to your line if you stay disciplined with your technique. Little things like that, like on kickoffs not trying to be really aggressive, but straddling the line between being aggressive and too aggressive. As the game would go on I would always find things where I’d think, ‘I know what to do here, I’ve taught kids this hundreds of times. I need to just go out and do it’."
If there was one interview last year where a common theme emerged in the answers, it was with former NFL kicker and current kicking instructor Mike Hollis. The theme was "form". It was applicable regardless of the time or place. It was even applicable regardless of the weather.
"The form and the step we coach are not an aggressive approach. It’s smooth, it’s balanced, it’s progressive, it’s just running by the ball. If you’re talking about footing, talking about rain, talking about wind… if you do the form and kick a solid ball, and you’re balanced and on top of your plant foot (instead of to the side or behind), you’re going to have a really good chance of that ball going where it needs to go. Guys start second guessing themselves and aiming outside uprights or putting on longer cleats. I got some of my best kicks out of the dirt infields of baseball/football stadiums when we were playing in preseason games or even early season games. It was because I was doing form. There’s no other reason. In weather conditions, if you wanted to affect your kick, then you’re thinking too hard about it. If you just do your form and trust it, the ball’s gonna go."
When it comes to years of kicking experience at the pro level, John Carney is near the top of the list. It might be reasonable to assume that he's learned it all...
"[Football]’s a sport much like golf where you never stop learning. You never really stop adjusting and evolving your swing and your training to squeeze out more potential and to squeeze out more performance. So everything from training how to train during the season and the offseason, how to work out in the weight room and how not to work out in the weight room, how to recover faster by using the cold tanks in the training room, more rest, always improving the diet… all those things. Then the mental game as well - how to approach your preparation during the week, how to approach the game, and how to handle success and defeat. Again it’s a learning process that never stops."
Steve Hauschka had stints with two different NFL teams this past summer, then played in the UFL, and is now back in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Like most kickers today, his career started with soccer before transitioning to football.
"I remember the difficulty of kicking this oblong object compared to a soccer ball. When you kick a soccer ball you can hit the sweet spot every time. But when you’re kicking a football it’s difficult to find that spot at first. And your foot position needs to be in a different place. I’d say the hardest thing for me to get used to at first was just how to hit the ball with my foot. The foot-to-ball contact was really tough to adjust to at the beginning.... You can swing across the ball in soccer and get away with it - you almost want spin on the ball. But then when it comes to kicking a football, you want to swing up and through the ball. Much like a goal kick, you want to get as much elevation on the ball as you can. It’s a little bit of a different swing plane. But with the right instruction, and just being aware of that was something that helped me get better at kicking a football."
In October, Craig Pinto helped raise funds for and awareness of celiac disease by doing what he knows best... kicking. During a 12 hour kicking marathon, he kicked a world record 717 field goals.
"For any athlete, I think the main challenge when diagnosed with Celiac Disease is changing your diet to find the right nutrients to put into your body. You need to figure out alternatives to replace what you will lose eating a “normal diet” having an allergy to Gluten. For me as an athlete, I had to bring my own meals to pre-game meals, and traveling for road games was just as difficult, because most athletes, or at least the ones I played with, did not have Celiac Disease, so eating pre-game meals was never an issue for them - they never had to think twice. I had to make sure the meals that were prepared for us on the road were not cross contaminated if I had to order from wherever we were dining. No matter what though, I always had my own form of gluten-free pasta ready to go, just in case."
The mental side of kicking surfaced often last year - and not just with placekickers. It surfaced when former NFL punter and current punting instructor Louie Aguiar discussed the transition to the pro level.
"If you don’t have the mental side of it, it doesn’t matter how great of a punter you are. If you don’t have the mental side of it, you’re done! I was in training camp with many young kids in my career – college kids with cannons for legs – but when they got behind the line of scrimmage, they couldn’t handle the pressure. We’d be out there kicking side by side in practice and I’m thinking ‘these guys are hammering the ball’, but as soon as they got behind the line of scrimmage it was a different story. Even for me when I came out of college, I wasn’t ready. I went to the Buffalo Bills training camp in 1991. Coming from college it was a different game. All the guys are faster. They come at you faster. In college they just let you kick the ball away. In most cases in the pros they want you to kick outside the numbers. I wasn’t ready coming out of college either. Kids coming out of college, they’re not prepared for the NFL.”
Kicking in large domed stadium has the presumed advantage of eliminating weather concerns. But indoor venues come in many shapes and sizes. AFL kicker Taylor Rowan discussed the challenges of kicking in an arena.
"In some of the arenas you have to deal with a really low scoreboard in the middle, so sometimes you have to go off to the right or left side to kick around it. In some of them the rafters are extremely low. Some of them have flags hanging in there. In Orlando, when you go play the Predators, their nets are a little bit closer together. The nets normally extend to the very edge of the field. But in Orlando they have rounded endzones, so the nets are actually a little bit less than three-quarters of the field. So you have to kick around the scoreboard, and then in kicking around the scoreboard you also have to hit the net which is a lot skinnier. The key is obviously hitting the iron, so the ball bounces out as a live ball. There are a lot of obstacles you have to deal with.”
Last but not least, we ended with the beginning. Every kicking or punting play starts with the long snapper. As Kyle Stelter noted, it's not as easy as it looks.
"It’s tough. You’ve got to be very skilled to be able to throw a ball as hard as you can between your legs and the try to get your head up so you don’t get killed. There’s a lot of practice that goes into it, a lot of training, and a lot of people don’t think it’s a hard thing to do. They see people do it and say, ‘aww, I could do that’. But until they get under, between their legs, and try to do it themselves… then they could finally appreciate what we do as a long snapper.”

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