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Kickers and the Role of the Psyche in Performance

Michael, in his excellent post defending the coaching decisions in the Dolphins game, said the following about the decision not to go for a 56-yard field goal attempt at the end of the half:

I honestly think Tomlin was not exposing Reed to another potential miss. Why? Well, the psyche of a kicker is a fragile, precious thing not to be tampered with unnecessarily. Had Reed not missed a number of kicks in previous weeks, I definitely think Tomlin sends Reed out.

This got me to thinking about the role of the psyche in performance.  And, as always, I'll extrapolate from what I know best, music.


A football team is composed of a number of players who are not at all interchangeable.  I remember my astonishment when I discovered that football teams used to field 11 men that played both offense and defense.  The development of the game into a much larger number of highly specialized players means that you can't really view players as a class anymore.  You have players that function almost in anonymity, like the interior offensive linemen.  Generally speaking, they are only noticed when they screw up.  Then you have those who are more visible, but are called upon frequently during the game, like the defensive backs or the running backs.  Then you have sort of the prima donnas - the players that don't necessarily have that much contact with the football, but are highly visible when they do - the wide receivers (especially the #3 on down, who always have to be ready to catch the ball, but might not actually get it thrown to them more than once or twice in the game) and especially the kickers.  These players are frequently under a great deal of pressure, as all eyes are upon you when you are actually called into action, and messing up makes you the goat.  The flamboyant personalities that many of these players project are often, I believe, a response to the pressure that they are under.  (I'm not even going to deal with the quarterbacks here - they are a whole category unto themselves.)

There are musical equivalents to these categories in the orchestra. The string players are mostly the unheralded workhorses.  They are playing most of the time, and mostly aren't noticed that much unless they are bad.  The woodwinds are like the DBs and RBs.  They are under more pressure than the string players as a general rule.  This is because there is only one of them on each part, unlike the strings, who have multiple players playing the same line.  But they are playing frequently, and thus are probably well warmed up when they have a solo situation where all eyes are upon them.  The brass players tend to be the flamboyant ones in an orchestra, and I believe that is partially because it is so much more evident to even a casual listener if they screw up.  I think that this diva persona is a sort of protective device.  Then there are the horns. They are the kicker equivalent in the orchestra, and they are generally neurotic to one degree or another.  Why is that?

Brass instruments in general and horns in particular are fickle mistresses.  That is because, unlike most instruments, you don't just put your finger in the right place and the right note comes out.  For those of you who don't know how a horn works, they play on the harmonic series.  Pushing down a valve (one of the 4 "keys" on the instrument) merely moves you to a different harmonic series.  You then find the correct note by adjusting the shape of your lips on the mouthpiece.  More or less.  It's 90% mental.  If you want to know what I mean, get a piece of garden hose, experiment with buzzing your lips against the metal end of it and blowing air into it until you get a tone, and then experiment with changing the shape of your lips very slightly until you get different tones.  Not that easy to control, is it?  And a horn is just a more sophisticated version of a garden hose, made with nicer materials.

The horns generally have long pauses during the 'game' when they essentially aren't on the field.  They are sitting, counting their 147 measures of rest and hoping they didn't lose count somewhere in the middle of it.  In the meantime, their instrument is getting cold, which screws up the tuning.  A lot of the playing horns do is harmonic underpinning, and that isn't such a big deal.  But then there are the exposed solos.  So after counting your however many bars of rest you blow some air quietly through the horn to warm it up a bit without actually sounding a note, take a deep breath, pray hard, and try to get the ball through the uprights.

Every conductor worth their salt knows that you cue a horn player differently than any other player in the orchestra.  A horn player who loses confidence in his/her ability to nail their part without cracking or messing up the first note or two is on the fast track to being a former horn player.  If you can't trust your ability to come through in a high pressure situation, you can't work at all. 

If Jeff Reed were still playing soccer, he would be out on the field running around, staying warmed up, and kicking the ball a good bit.  (Or so I assume - I'm almost completely ignorant about soccer.)  But as a football kicker, he spends most of the game sitting around, waiting for that moment when he is sent on the field to do something that is likely to have a big impact on the game.  That gives you an awful lot of time to think about the last kick you didn't make, whether it was earlier in the game or weeks ago.  And, like the horn player, a kicker who loses confidence in their ability is a kicker that is going to be unreliable at best.

A good kicker is a terrible thing to waste, to misquote a former VP, and I commend Mike Tomlin for taking the long view, if that was indeed his reasoning for the decision he made last Sunday.  And do go grab a garden hose and try playing a tune.  It will maybe give you a little better understanding of what Jeff goes through every Sunday.