SUMMARY: Set shot goal kicking has not improved after a hundred years of AFL, even though the kicking efficiency of today’s modern players has increased significantly. So why do players choke up in front of goal? Turns out it has nothing to do with mental weakness. This article outlines the real culprit behind choking along with proven tips on how to avoid it.
It’s round 16 of AFL season 2012. Rugby League convert Karmichael Hunt marks the ball 25 meters from goal after a rushed kick by team-mate Brandon Matera.
The Suns are 4 points down when the siren sounds. Hunt has the chance to win the game if he kicks the goal.
Two Suns team-mates approach him as he prepares to take the kick.
The first is Suns young gun Harley Bennell. Bennell tells Hunt the siren has gone. The second player is Suns captain and AFL great Gary Ablett Jnr. Ablett tells Hunt “Look, if you miss it don’t worry about it. Take the pressure off yourself.”
Who’s advice was best in Hunt’s situation?
What Is Choking And Why Does It Occur?
We’ve all seen our game’s best forwards go through the goal kicking yips at some stage or another.
Travis Cloke and Matthew Richardson are two that immediately spring to mind.
So why do players choke up in front of goal when they are able to hit regularly team-mates on the chest with a more difficult field kick?
To answer this question, we must firstly understand what choking is.
Choking is simply the loss of performance under pressure. Most people think choking occurs because of psychological reasons. But as you will soon discover, the real reason is more physiological than psychological.
Prefrontal Cortex (Explicit Memory)
Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), has conducted a number of brain related imaging experiments into sports performance.
His results hold the clues as to how we learn skills and why choking occurs.
Poldrack discovered that when players first learn a new skill, they activate a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is like a computer’s RAM. It is the working memory of our brain. It’s what we use to solve problems and make decisions with. It represents our “conscious thoughts” and makes up what is known as our “explicit learning system”.
The problem is the prefrontal cortex is a limited resource. It can only process so many things at a time.
So when a young player tries to learn a new skill such as kicking for the first time, it struggles to process all the complex mechanics required to execute that skill. As a result, the action looks jerky, mechanical and uncoordinated and the result is poor.
Picture a ten year old computer with low RAM working with the latest Windows operating system. The operating system is too big for the computers RAM and this causes it to slow down or crash.
This is similar to what happens with your prefrontal cortex when you use it to perform a skill.
Basal Ganglia (Implicit Memory)
But something magical happens when players continue to practice a skill over time. After a while, control of the skill switched over to another area of the brain known as the basal ganglia, which is also responsible for touch and feel.
The basal ganglia represents our “subconscious”. It automates our day to day functions in the background so we can focus our conscious thoughts on other problems.
You can think of it as our “autopilot” system. It allows us to perform a skill without us having to think about it.
Have you ever found yourself daydreaming and driving to work only to wake up and forget how you got there? Well you can thank your basal ganglia for getting you there.
Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, explains it this way using tennis as an example:
You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.
This is known as our “implicit learning system” or “implicit memory” and gives us two critical advantages as players.
Firstly, your brain is able to execute all the different components of a skill as a single fluid action, something which is almost impossible for your prefrontal cortex to achieve.
You are able to execute your skills much smoother and with more consistent results.
Secondly, because the skill happens subconsciously, you are able to focus your conscious thinking (controlled by your prefrontal cortex) on other aspects of the game such as strategy.
This means you can analyze the positions of your opponents and team-mates, read the play and respond to situations much faster simply because you have more conscious brain power at your disposal.
Choking and The ‘Reversal Effect’
So we know that we learn new skills using our prefrontal cortex or “thinking” part of our brain. During this time, the skill looks clunky and mechanical because we don’t have enough working memory to process the information efficiently.
Over time, that skill gets transferred to our basal ganglia otherwise known as our “subconscious” or “autopilot system”. When this happens, the skill becomes more fluid and our performance improves significantly.
So what happens when we are placed in a pressure situation like goal kicking and we start over-thinking or stressing out about our performance again?
You guessed it. The brain transfers the skill execution back into our prefrontal cortex again.
Our touch disappears and the skill becomes clunky and discombobulated. And because we have less brain power to process game situations now, we are also less able to read the play and respond to situations.
Think about poor old Greg Norma’s meltdown in the 1996 US Open when he took a 5 stroke lead into the final round. He ended up losing by 5 strokes.
Then there’s Jana Novotna’s meltdown at the 1998 Wimbledon when she capitulated after leading 5-1 in the third set.
Of course, there is also the 1970 Grand Final when Collingwood took a 73-29 lead into half time, then looked shell-shocked int he second half and lost.
All of these examples are situations where the athletes have over-thought their situation and allowed the prefrontal cortext to take over their skills and decision making.
So How Do We Avoid Choking?
When we are learning or trying to improve our technique at training, we have no choice but to focus heavily on the aspect of our technique we are trying to improve.
The question is, should we mentally focus on our technique when trying to execute it in a game?
Research by Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, for example found that novice golfers putt better when they consciously focus on their technique. In this case, concentrating on their technique allowed them to avoid mistakes and improve their performance.
However the opposite was true once the golfers gained experience. When experienced golfers were forced to think about their putting technique, they hit significantly worse shots. As she explained:
We bring expert golfers into our lab, we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up.
Another study at Arizona State University involved a group of collegiate baseball players. The researchers asked them to try and hit a baseball with their bats while listening to a randomly presented tone.
During the first part of the experiment, the researchers asked the players to listen whether the tone being played was a low or high pitch. As expected, the tone-listening task had no detrimental effect on their batting efficiency.
During the second part of the experiment, the players were asked to focus on the position of their bat the instant the tone sounded. As expected, their batting efficiency plummeted.
Researchers concluded their problem wasn’t a lack of focus, but rather too much focus. Conscious monitoring triggered the ‘reversal effect’.
Numerous other studies have produced similar results.
So how do we stop ourselves from over-thinking our technique when kicking at goal?
1. Develop A Goal Kicking Routine
Professor Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago has also found mild distractions such as singing or whistling helped golfers putt better.
If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction such as whistling can help them run off more smoothly under pressure.
The is precisely the reason champion full forwards develop and practice a set shot routine. It helps distract their minds from the pressure of the kick and keep their actions smooth and automated.
Essendon goal kicking machine Matthew Lloyd had one of the most memorable routines in recent memory. He would famously throw a piece of grass in the air to test the wind direction before each set shot at goal.
He did it one day at the then newly built Docklands Stadium when the roof was closed and there was no wind.
Opposition fans booed him. Some media commentators even called him arrogant for doing it.
But Lloyd knew something they didn’t. That is, you are more likely to kick a goal under pressure when you shift your focus onto a practiced routine. The routine acts as a perfect distraction.
Rather than over-thinking your kick and leaving yourself vulnerable to choking, your focus is instead on the routine and not the kick.
But the benefits of a routine shouldn’t be limited to just goal kicking. Story has it that a young Richmond player was struggling with pre-game nerves so badly that he often threw up before games.
Fellow team-mate and Brownlow medalist Ben Cousins pulled this young player aside and told him to create a match day routine. Cousins had apparently used a pregame routine throughout his career.
It helped calm his nerves because it shifted his focus away from the pressure of the game and onto his routine.
2. Focus On A Target, Not Your Mechanics
Another tactic you can use to avoid choking is to focus on a target behind the goals when kicking.
For example, Hawthorn legend Jason Dunstall used to identify a target in the crowd. He would then picture a narrow corridor between himself and the target and walk down that corridor when kicking.
This resulted in two benefits. Firstly the straight line action kept his hips square to the target, keeping his kicking action straight.
Secondly, focusing his conscious thoughts on a target distracted him from over-thinking the situation or his technique.
Dunstall of course remains one of the deadliest forwards to have played our game.
3. Practice Under Pressure
While you can’t replicate the stress level of real-world situations in a practice setting, there is evidence that training even under mild stress can improve a person’s ability to thrive in clutch situations.
A great example of the power of practicing under pressure comes from Southern Utah University’s basketball team. Before coach Roger Reid arrived in 2007, the team ranked 217th in free throw percentage. By 2009, the team was ranked number one. What did Reid do to help his players thrive in the often high-pressure stakes of free-throw shooting?
During practice, Reid would randomly stop everything and bring his players to the free throw line. If the player made the shot, he got to take a breather. If he missed, he had to sprint around the court. By putting something on the line for failing to miss a practice free throw,
Reid was able to help his players better handle game-on-the-line free throws.
Simon Goosey, Coach of the mighty Frankston Dolphins in the VFL and local goal kicking legend, takes a similar tact with his forwards at training.
Every Friday at the end of training, he would finish their session with a simple goal kicking game. He and his fellow forwards would line up and take various shots at goal from predetermined locations around the forward 50. The player who kicked the most goals would enjoy a free dinner on the rest of his team-mates after training.
Training himself to kick in pressure situations is one reason why Goosey was able to kick 100 plus goals in 11 consecutive seasons, even into his late 30s.
Matthew Lloyd and Scott Lucas reportedly played similar games during their time at Essendon at the end of their goal kicking sessions. Their ability to deliver under pressure helped deliver Essendon a Premiership in 2000.
Travis Cloke uses another technique at training. While he practices his goal kicking, he listens to the sounds of the crowd to simulate a match day environment. While the results have probably been mixed, it demonstrates how Collingwood tries to replicate match day pressure when practicing.
4. Take The Pressure Off The Result on Gameday
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden would tell his players to never look at the scoreboard. Instead, he wanted them to focus their energies on game-day fundamentals such as rebounding, passing, blocking and defending.
There were two main reasons behind this philosophy.
Firstly, if every player played their role and performed the fundamentals to the best of their ability, it didn’t matter whether they won or lost. They would already be winners because they gave their all on the day.
Secondly, taking their focus off the result removed the pressure. It meant his players could take their shots and play their role without having to worry about the result.
Wooden eventually won ten NCAA Basketball Championships and was named Coach of the 20th Century by ESPN.
When you listen to Ross Lyon’s post match interviews, you will find his philosophies are eerily similar.
Ross rarely talks about the score after games. He never talks about ‘what ifs’. Instead his focus is on fundamentals such as stoppages won, inside 50 differential and contested ball. His mantra revolves around “great effort” and “owning the moment”.
When his Fremantle team recently found themselves under pressure after a few losses, he immediately quipped back with “It’s only a game” and “There are more important things to worry about in life”.
Mark Bawden, a sports psychologist who worked with Olympic skater and serial choker Sarah Lindsay before her breakout performance at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, explained it this way:
In order to make all the sacrifices necessary to reach world-class levels of performance, an athlete has to believe that performing well means everything… But that is precisely the belief that is most likely to trigger a choking response. So, the key psychological skill for someone with a tendency to choke is to ditch that belief in the minutes before competition and to replace it with the belief that the [game] doesn’t matter. It is a form of psychological manipulation and it takes a lot of work to master.”
5. Practice Tactical Breathing
Tactical breathing was developed by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It’s a technique that soldiers and police officers use to quickly calm down and stay focused in high-pressure situations like firefights.
Here’s how to do it:
- Slowly inhale a deep breath for 4 seconds
- Hold the breath in for 4 seconds
- Slowly exhale the breath out for 4 seconds
- Hold the empty breath for 4 seconds
- Repeat until your breathing is under control
More and more AFL players are starting to use this technique before taking their shots. Fremantle’s Chris Mayne is one example that springs to mind.
Mayne always takes several slow breaths to calm his breathing before taking a set shot. Mayne is also one of the most accurate set shot kicks in the AFL today.
6. Icing Opposition Players
While this article deals with strategies to avoid choking in front of goals, it would be remiss not to include a small blurb about a strategy known as ‘Icing’ that’s commonly used in America’s National Football League (gridiron).
Icing occurs when a kicker lines up to kick a field goal after a touchdown.
In this case, the opposition coach allows both teams to take the field for the kick. Then just before the ball is snapped back to the kicker, the opposition coach calls a time out.
The theory is that the timeout creates more time for the kicker to think about his kick before taking it. Not surprisingly, the kickers accuracy suffers as a result.
A study by the University of San Diego found that non-iced kickers converted their field goals 80.4 percent of the time, while iced kickers were successful on just 66.4 percent of kicks.
It would be difficult to replicate this strategy in AFL football where we don’t have the luxury of time outs and any attempts at time-wasting are quickly punished by a 50 meter penalty.
However it does provide food for thought for coaches and players in our game on how to replicate the effect.
So back to our opening vignette.
Karmichael Hunt is lining up for a shot at goal and a chance to win the game after the siren. With the benefit of science, we know that Gary Ablett’s advice was right to give in that situation while conversely, Bennell’s was perhaps the worse.
Hunt later explained to media commentators that he wasn’t nervous until Bennell reminded him the siren had gone.
I said “I know mate, put a bit more pressure on me why don’t you?”
He also explained that Ablett had helped eased the burden by telling him not to worry about the result.
Gary’s got the same mindset as me. He said “look, if you miss it don’t worry about it. Take the pressure off yourself.”
“I didn’t have much time to think to be honest. I’ve dreamed about situations like that and you’ve just got to keep it as simple as possible.”
Hunt of course went back and calmly kicked the goal to win the game. He appeared unaffected by the pressure and executed the kick as if it were a training run.
In the process, he joined an elite club of only 36 players to have kicked a goal after the siren to win the game in VFL/AFL history.
Then again, we suspect a champion player like Hunt would have already known what to do in that situation given his high level experience in rugby and rugby league prior to the AFL. Now, hopefully you do to.
Title photo by Michael Spencer via: freeforcommercialuse.org.