In light of the crazy finish to one of the longest running rivalries in college football, Michigan versus Michigan State, I decided to look further into the amount of pressure placed on players who have highly specialized positions, or are expected to perform at a certain level in specialized statistical categories. In this case, we are talking about a punter being able to do something he does hundreds of times each day. In case you have not seen the final ten seconds, Michigan was winning by two points and all their punter had to do was not turn the ball over to Michigan State, in order to secure the victory. The link to the video will do a much better job explaining the results of this play than I will.
Clearly this mishap appears avoidable and should not have been an issue considering how many repetitions punters take everyday during practice, but there also appears to be a significant influence from the pressure and importance of the situation itself. It is incredibly difficult to replicate an atmosphere comparable to the final ten seconds of the rivalry game when the score has a two point difference. This brings me to my question: Are these players under increasing amounts of pressure to perform due to an increased supply of players who have the skills to replace them?
I am going to focus mainly on kickers, because this is the easiest position in sports to isolate into one specific skill. However, this phenomenon also applies to fundamental skills such as shooting free throws in basketball, making close putts in golf, among many other things. Kickers and punters get a lot of hate in the football world because their position is so much different than the other positions in the game. Many people make claims that kickers and punters “aren’t real football players” because all they do is practice kicking. This criticism is especially high after they miss a field goal or have a bad kick. Since the outcome of their skill is so easy to isolate, it seems to be looked at under a microscope more often than other positions and stats. In the NFL this year, extra point percentages have dropped from 98-99% conversion since 2000, to 94.6% this season due to the change in distance (Shilstone, 2015). Current NFL kickers say that this change in distance caused an increase in defensive effort on extra points, while this makes the game more competitive as a whole, it may also lead to more injuries.
Morten Anderson, current all time leading scorer in the NFL, stated that although the physical parameters of being an elite player continue to increase, the mental aspect is the part that sets elite apart from average (Shilstone, 2015). In order to combat this mental side of kickers performance, coaches have adopted a strategy that was first introduced by Mike Shanahan of
the Denver Broncos in 2007, widely known as “icing the kicker”. Icing the kicker refers to calling a timeout right as the kicker is beginning their approach in order to throw their timing off and make them overthink the kick. This tactic may have worked at first by surprising the opposing kicker, but once this strategy became commonplace, kickers began to expect it from opposing coaches. From the statistics gathered since icing the kicker began, it has been proven that there is little to no effect from it, and it may even help kickers set up their approach better by having more time to pay attention to environmental details such as wind (Moskowitz and Wertheim, 2012).
Since kickers are evolving into better physical specimens, they are left with two choices: improve performance at the same level as the standard, or get left behind. It is apparent as to why the pressure to perform in this position is at an all time high. It does not help that the increased length of extra point field goals has been increased, and is subject to potentially be increased again in the near future. I believe that the fan base over-simplifies the demands of being a highly specialized athlete who has to fine tune a very select skill set. I do not think it is fair to say that some positions are more difficult than others because athletes have different interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It is our job as coaches to realize where these interests, strengths, and weaknesses lie in order to optimize their performance and control what can be controlled. I believe the best way to have an athlete reach their full potential in select skill sets is to use deterministic models to narrow down what areas in terms of athleticism can be controlled and need to be worked on.
Shilstone, M. (2015). Optimum performance: NFL kickers under more pressure to perform. The Times-Picayune, Retrieved from: http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2015/10/optimum_performance_nfl_kicker_2.html
Moskowitz, T.J., Wertheim, L.J. (2012). Scorecasting: the hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won. Three Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-0307591807