The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Choke Artists: The Nate Kaeding Effect!

Why do kickers choke under pressure?

 

(I wrote this last year during the NFL playoffs. I just found it in my folder of saved, but not submitted articles. I don't know how it seemingly magically appeared there after months and months, but I decided to post it anyway, without changes).

"He hasn't missed a field goal inside 40 yards in over 60 attempts. The kick is up, and NOOO good. The Jets win."  One of the best kickers ever has missed another easy field goal. Why is it that experts so often choke under the pressure?

In my day playing soccer, I was an expert....at choking during penalty kicks. Time after time I would nail them exactly where I wanted in practice: top right, bottom left, it didn't matter. The goalie had no chance.

But then the time would inevitably come. With teammates and the crowd looking on, I would be the (seemingly) logical choice to take the penalty kick. My mind would inevitably flash to the worst case scenario. I was going to miss and let everyone down. What if this...what if that. You'd have thought I was planning a war strategy or something important. But no, I was just taking a penalty kick!  So what did this fretting get me? My lifetime taking penalty kicks: 12 for 18. Not exactly so hot given how well I should have done.

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I often think of this life experience when I see NFL kickers shanking field goals in the playoffs at a much higher rate than during the preseason. Even two of the NFL's most accurate kickers (Graham and Kaeding) missed some real easy kicks (and a lot of them) over the past few weeks (of the playoffs). These experts, the best in the business, couldn't hack it when the pressure was on.

Anyone familar with US soccer? Think Freddy Adu and Eddie Johnson. All the talent in the world, but time and time again they totally under-perform. I've heard fans say they aren't thinking on the field. I say, and research supports this; they may be thinking too much.

I know of no research on kicking balls between posts per se, but there is ample evidence that thinking can inhhibit learned motor responses. This should come to no surprise to anyone who has tried to think about typing. It simply doesn't work. And researchers have found out just that: the more people think about their typing, the worse the due (especially better typers).

So it may come as no surprise, but choking seems to be the product of overthinking, or even just thinking. NFL coaches have the right idea when they try and "ice" the kicker.

Would this knowledge have helped me? Maybe not. I'd probably have been busy pondering how I shouldn't think as I went up and took those penalty kicks.

Yes, I'd have been thinking about how I should not be thinking as I shanked the ball right to the 'keeper. Thank God I didn't usually have time to think while playing except in these penalty kick cases, or my butt would've been full of splinters.

And someone please call US soccer coach Bob Bradley and share the news.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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