Understand Footy

Tips for the Yips

• Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics. Focus on where the ball will sail through the goal.
• Do not dwell on the task; just do it. (Just because the rules permit 15-30 seconds for a set shot doesn’t mean you need to take that time. Go back, line up, kick.)
• Focus on a word-thought that encapsulates the skill, such as
• Alternatively, empty your mind of thoughts by singing a song to yourself. (Golfer Jack Nicklaus famously used to distract himself by thinking of his little toe.)
• Practise under stressful conditions. Training under even mild levels of stress is helpful.
• Remain positive after a miss – put it out of your mind.
• Clench your left fist momentarily, an action that increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain. (Try it – it does work!)

* Adapted from
Choke, by Sian Beilock. New York: Free Press, 2010.

How to fix the kicking yips

Why can’t skilful players kick straight for goal?
Why when given a split second of time and few metres of space do AFL players virtually never miss a target, yet those same players fluff simple set kicks for goal?
Is it, as commentators often suggest, because they don’t practise goalkicking enough? Ha! It takes less time than a coast-to-coast play from the Cats to realise that is bunkum.
What’s to practise? All AFL footballers can kick a football straight at training. You don’t get to the elite level if you can’t.
If goalkicking was down to mere skill, players would never miss.
The reason that goalkicking remains an elusive pursuit is simple. As one wise old AFL coach once observed: “You don’t kick goals with your boot, you kick them with your head.”
The pressure gets to many players and makes them “tighten up” in the execution of the skill. But why? What is going on in their heads?

Travis Cloke, the AFL’s present poster boy for the goalkicking yips, managed two goals from 11 shots last Friday night, a not unusual return for him.
He is a booming, accurate kick in general play, and even in some circumstances when shooting for goal, such as when having to kick from a distance or from an acute angle – or both.
But from any distance comfortably within his distance range, he is famously unreliable. Often in that situation the ball comes off his boot as a “shank”.
Like all AFL players, Cloke has done his 10,000 hours of practice and has elite skills.
What is he doing wrong? In essence, he is
thinking too much.
Notice the routine Cloke has tried to develop – checking his laces, throwing grass in the air, holding the ball up to the goals then down to his boot as he traces an imaginary line from boot to goal, soaking up his 15 seconds preparation time, all the while concentrating hard …
That’s what he’s doing wrong.

“Over-thinking appears to heighten the yips,” says Jurgen Beckmann, chair of the Institute of Sports Psychology at the Technical University of Munich.
“Concentrating too intently appears to overshadow other important factors such as balance and timing.”
Essentially the problem is in the dual hemispheres of our brain. The left hemisphere is responsible for analytical thinking, the right for co-ordination and visual ability.
Beckmann cites research that shows golfers who putt poorly under pressure exhibit heightened activity in the left hemispheres of their brains and diminished activity in the right hemispheres.
The more your left hemisphere lights up, the more your right switches off.
In a nutshell, the more thoughts are in your mind, the less fluently and competently you are able to perform an automated skill.

Psychologist Dr Sian Beilock, in her book
Choke, describes the attempt of athletes to try to clear their minds of the game situation and focus instead on the process of kicking a goal as simply inviting them to overthink the task.
“Focusing on what to do – a strategy focus – rather than how to do it – a technique focus – can help prevent cracking under stress,” she writes.
She says this approach avoids “the paradox of control”.
“Athletes tend to focus on elements of their technique they believe will enhance performance. Paradoxically, this technique focus results in worse performance than it they paid no attention to detail in the first place,” says Beilock.
“Getting athletes to focus instead on performance strategies helps to take their minds off
what they are doing and ensures they play well.”
She advocates, among other suggestions, that athletes focus on one thought: the ball going through the goals.
Players should not think about the process of getting it there …
align ball, hips and goals … pick a target … check the wind … pull up socks … take a breath … run in straight … head over the ball … make clean contact… keep weight through the ball … follow through straight ...
Although all these things are important to the goalkicking skill, they should remain automatic and therefore subconscious.
Attention to such detail clutters up the left brain and derails performance, says Beilock.
She cites research on golfers asked to putt while thinking of a word that encapsulated the whole putting motion (such as
smooth) as performing better than those who focused on words to do with technique (such as head, knees and arms) – and that this benefit held up under pressure.
Beilock also points out that the longer a player has to dwell on his kick, the more likely it is that thoughts will intrude.

In 2009, concerned about the difficulty that star forward Lance Franklin was having with set kicking – and looking for other psychological ploys – two Hawthorn coaches visited Beilock in the US to seek advice.
“Interestingly, Franklin had figured out a trick for dealing with it that seemed to be working. Instead of stopping before the kick, as is often the norm, Franklin would just keep running, roll around and take the kick as quickly as he could,” Beilock writes.
“The coaches and I agreed that Franklin’s ‘just do it’ strategy was a good one. Golfer Aaron Baddeley, for example, has a relatively short pre-putt routine – a four count from the moment he grounds the putter to the moment he strikes the ball – and Baddeley is consistently rated one of the best putters on the PGA tour.
“In my Human Performance Lab we have consistently shown that skilled golfers putt better when we instruct them to putt as quickly as possible.”
In American football, defending teams often use the tactic to “ice the kicker” to disrupt field goal kicks by employing delaying tactics such as time-outs. Statistics show that this works.
It is interesting to note that Cloke and Franklin are both left-footed players. Since the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, is it possible that his makes them more susceptible than right-footers to the over-thinking left-brain “choke”?

Clearly the range of inner chatter that might be cluttering a player’s mind – his anxiety level – varies from week to week and during a game, depending on the circumstances of the game and how he sees his own performance.
On Cloke in particular, it may be instructive to compare his conversion rate against different opponents.
My observation is that Cloke may kick better for goal when opposed to men he feels he has the measure of, and worse when pitted against the AFL’s better defenders (you could say he “psychs” himself out on these occasions).
He even appears to mark more strongly when confident he has his opponent’s measure.
Another confounding factor for AFL players may be the crowd influence.
Beilock discusses at length the extra performance pressure posed by having a supportive audience (think of those school concert nerves!).
In this circumstance, performance anxiety is heightened, making skill execution more difficult.
The more you think about
not messing up, the more worried thoughts clutter your mind, and the less able you are to perform the practised skill.
Many footballers have noted that kicking an early goal – getting the first one straight – helps to defuse this anxiety and allows a more relaxed approach to subsequent attempts (and consequently a better strike rate).
However, I wonder whether Cloke kicks better in front of the hostile Subiaco audience than he does at the black and white MCG.