the study of the kicking components within sports

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mind Over Foot, part 7: The Mind-Body Connection

When we spoke to Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff last year, the conversation inevitably turned to the mental aspects of kicking:
"Sports psychologists will always tell you that ‘you can’t block out, you can only focus in’. When you focus in on something so much, then you naturally block out all the other distractions. In football, coaches because they feel like they don’t know how to talk to kickers, will always say, ‘oh, don’t worry about all this stuff, just kick the ball’. Instead they should say, ‘just focus on the kicking and the rest will take care of itself’. They try to tell you to block it out. Well, you can’t block it out. It’s impossible – you’re mind just doesn’t work like that. If they tell you what to focus on, try to instill a little bit of confidence, they wouldn’t have to worry about all the extra stuff."
Cundiff practices focusing - successfully, as evidenced by a Pro Bowl season last year. He also teaches focusing - successfully, as evidenced by one of his students, Illinois senior kicker Derek Dimke:
"I really just stay relaxed and kind of focus on what I'm doing and my job and my teammates' jobs. You can't put too much pressure on yourself.... I learned most of it is visual through Billy, making sure you stay relaxed in all situations. Don't worry about the things you can't worry about. You have to trust yourself and your ability. It sounds very simple, but when you're on the field trying to apply it, it's a lot more difficult."
How important is mental focus to physical results? Very important, and that is probably an understatement. Sports psychologist Karlene Sugarman, M.A. elaborates:
"The mind-body connection is a very powerful one. For everything you think in your mind, your body has a reaction, regardless of whether it is real or imagined. For example, have you ever had a bad dream? Usually, you will wake up and your heart is racing, you are sweating and very agitated, even though all you were doing was sleeping. But, in your mind there was something bad going on and your body was reacting to it. Here’s another example: if you are home alone and you hear a noise and interpret it as the wind, you are fine; but if you interpret it as a prowler, your fight or flight response takes over and you become fearful, your heart begins going a mile a minute, your eyes dilate and you are scared. These are just a few examples of how strong the connection is between your mind and your body. With this premise, it becomes unmistakable how necessary it is to train both the mind and body for peak performance.
Athletes spend so much time physically practicing to get an edge on the competition. Yet what teams and athletes can really do to get an edge is right in front of their nose, or more accurately, right above their shoulders! You hear the same thing all the time, 'Sports is 90-95% mental.' Athletes and coaches at all levels say it, but how many of them do something about it? It may be common knowledge, but it is not always common practice. Maybe they don't have the time, maybe they don't have the resources, or maybe down deep they don't really believe it. Whatever the reason, the fact remains the same, they are not utilizing their most powerful resource, the mind. Most athletes fatigue mentally before they fatigue physically, due to the fact that their mind is not in as good of shape as their bodies."
The integral relationship between the mental and the physical applies to kicking in any sport, as evidenced during recent festivities in New Zealand:
At this Rugby World Cup, there's been no shortage of quirky place-kicking routines. Some players, like Irish kicker Ronan O'Gara, incorporate graceful turns into his. Others look as if they're playing a flute, or dancing a jig. With each World Cup that passes, it seems the place kicking routines get a little more, well, idiosyncratic. But these rehearsed routines can also bring success. [Jonny] Wilkinson has been unusually out of form with the boot, successful with less than half his shots at goal at this World Cup, but he remains within striking distance of becoming the most prolific scorer ever in international rugby.So what is the rationale behind these routines?
Ken Hodge, an associate professor of physical education at the University of Otago who also trains top athletes to help enhance their mental skills, said it has little to do with biomechanics. "From the outside, it looks like a physical routine -- which it is -- but it's much more than that," he said. "Kicking is a lot more controllable than general play. It's a repeatable skill. The challenge is to maintain concentration and let the body do what it's good at." He likened goal kicking to golf, a sport in which many players have pre-shot routines. Hodge said the physical routines are developed through trial and error and help players stick to parallel mental routines. He said it's imperative for kickers to eliminate thoughts that might intrude -- like the crowd noise, a recent muffed play, or self-doubt. "It's all about keeping the mind quiet," he said. "It's keeping the chatter out of it and sticking to useful, positive thoughts."

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