We’ve all seen it before. The kicker trots on out to the field to save the day and sink the game-winning or game-tying kick. As everyone lines up, he takes his steps back, lines the kick up, and just before the kicking unit snaps the ball, the opposing head coach calls a timeout, giving the kicker time to overthink and let self-doubt creep in before the momentous boot.
This action is referred to as “icing the kicker” as it forces the kicker to take a break before their big kick after warming up on the sidelines. This time may allow for negative thoughts and self-doubt to creep in right before the big kick. As the kicker stays on the field, many times he will remain isolated from the remainder of the team before the kick, a superstitious action to let him be with his own self and in his own thoughts.
In a study done using “elite archers”, participants had their shooting time delayed by five seconds. This five second delay affected their muscle tension, fatigue, heart rate pattern, and provoked trembling, which led to a decline in performance. If only a delay of five seconds created such physiological factors, imagine what a timeout of two minutes with 70,000 screaming fans would do? Another study conducted by Nadav Goldschmied, Max Nankin, and Guy Cafri titled, Pressure Kicks in the NFL: An Archival Exploration Into the Deployment of Timeouts and Other Environmental Correlates found that NFL kickers who were not iced converted 80% of their field goals, while kickers who were iced converted 66.4%.
Although there has been contradictory information on whether icing is or isn’t an effective strategy, Washington kicker, Dustin Hopkins has a positive twist on being iced during late game situations, “If you make it [the kick before the timeout], it gives you the confidence going in that ‘I’ve already made this kick, let’s do it again, I’ve got what it takes’. If you miss, you get a second shot, so it’s like a win-win.”
I spoke with Jake Munkwitz, the special teams coordinator at Concordia University – St. Paul to hear his thoughts on the icing strategy. The veteran coach responded by saying “I don’t know any statistics on it but I think it is really a case-by-case basis and a feel thing more than anything. In the NFL, it doesn’t seem to be very effective. Those kickers are so good at what they do. When they have extra time to focus in on what they do, they are pretty dang good. For an inexperienced kicker who hasn’t proven himself, maybe that timeout does get him in his own head a little bit and he thinks too much instead of trusting his routine.”
With many coaches continuing to use the “icing” technique, what do kickers do to counter? Using mental skills and seeking help from sport psychologist and mental skills coach has been a growing development throughout the last decade or so. Mental skills have become increasingly more popular and have become key in sports that involve acute functions rather than forceful or powerful movements. Visualization is one of the more popular mental skills that has gained tread in football and especially in kicking.
Visualization is playing a situation or action through your head. This action should replicate a successful attempt at what the individual is hoping to accomplish. Many kickers spend their time during “icing” timeouts using visualization and visualize their kick attempt before they actually line-up. Another skill that is commonly used is breathing. Yes, breathing, but this breathing is intentional and deliberate. The goal of this breathing is to calm the individual down and allowing them to focus on the action directly ahead of them. It calms the mind and can slow down heart rate and loosen muscle tension. One method of this breathing is called Square Breathing. It consists of inhaling through the nose for four seconds, holding that breath for four seconds, exhaling through the mouth for four seconds, and holding that empty breath for four seconds. That process can be repeated until the individual feels at ease. This intentional breathing allows the athlete to get into “flow” or what most fans refer to as “the zone”. Flow is a psychological state that provokes elite or top tier performance. It allows the athlete to block out unwanted or extra distractions and to focus on their specific goal at that point in time. These mental skills are becoming more and more prominent in football and sports around the world.
The mental side of sports has become increasingly more popular and studied. As this trend continues I expect to see kickers become mentally strong, which will make icing the kicker a thing of the past. But for now, it looks as though calling that last second timeout may be a formative strategy.