Kicking Is A Mental Game
Even though he’s not superstitious, I know I shouldn’t be writing about Josh Lambo and kickers this week. Lambo hasn’t missed since last year, either a PAT or a field goal so if he misses today, it’ll be my fault. Kind of like talking to a pitcher who’s throwing a no-hitter. Nonetheless, Lambo has something special going on.
This is his 4th year in the league, but Josh might not have been a kicker at all. He was a first round pick by FC Dallas in the MLS as a goalkeeper but broke his jaw seven minutes into his first game and eventually he turned to football. A strong leg in college landed him in San Diego for two years with the Chargers before the Jaguars signed him as a free agent last season.
“The successes as a placekicker I think came really from the failures as a goalie,” Lambo said about transferring his mindset in soccer to football. “In terms of just dealing with the adversity and not giving up.”
“I’ve worked with him on a couple things,” said Josh Scobee, the Jaguars all-time leading scorer who kicked for the team for 11 years.
“He doesn’t look like he needs any help right now that’s for sure. His kicks are right down the middle. What he’s doing is impressive.”
Mike Hollis was one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history during his tenure with the Jaguars from 1995-2001. He never worked with a sports psychologist but his thought process falls right in line with “trusting the process.”
“He’s obviously done extremely well,” Hollis said. “Josh is a very athletic kicker. With more experience comes more confidence and he has it.”
Hollis started Pro Form Kicking Academy is currently involved in a software company, Meal Prep Tech, but stays active in boxing classes and still kicks occasionally. He got involved with Pilates when he had back issues. “It’s great for our position, it l and strengthens muscles at the same time.”
“Brian Barker was a great help for me,” Hollis explained. “He said ‘don’t ever think you have to do anything different on game day. There’s nothing different with the field. The goal posts are the same. That separates a lot of guys who kick well in practice but don’t perform in games.”
Watching any football practice, you see the kickers off doing their own thing. It goes with the job. Lambo says he does a lot of Pilates and is a big fan of yoga for the physical “as well as the mental and spiritual benefits.”
That’s not something you hear from most NFL players but kicking is a mental game, more than physical. There’s the technique, the trust in the snapper and the holder but what’s happening inside a kicker’s head is the thing that most often determines a make or a miss.
“I always tried to dumb it down,” Hollis said. “Don’t do more than you need to. Dumb it down. If you get caught up as kicker thinking about things you’re going to go crazy.”
Last week Mason Crosby missed five kicks for the Packers, something Scobee says didn’t surprise him.
“I watched all the misses,” Scobee said. “His mechanics changed, he got short, not following through. You miss one it’s bad, you miss two and then the third one you’re pretty freaked out.”
Josh noted that he was lucky he didn’t have to kick a third one in a two-miss game playing for Pittsburgh that virtually ended his career.
“They cut me that weekend,” he explained.
“When I guy thinks too much about the result instead of the form of kicking, he’s thinking the wrong things,” Hollis said of the thought process that led to his success.
“I have definitely been studying mindfulness,” Lambo said. “And mediation is a part of that. Just being able to stay in the present moment and not let any situation get too big.”
“Most of the game is mental,” Scobee added. He worked with a sports psychologist starting in 2007 to get his mind right when it came to kicking.
“It was more about how to think positively, about how to overcome one bad kick or one bad game. Diagnose the problem, figure out what you need to do to fix that and do that. Don’t overthink it.”
“The most fearful thing was not knowing what to correct if I missed,” Hollis said on any lack of success he had. “That allowed me go dumb it down and go back to what I know. I tried not to care. Not that I wasn’t worried about my teammates or coaches. But if I focused on what I needed to do, I was confident I’d make the kick if I went back to everything I was supposed to do.”
“Every kick I made, I’d already made it in my mind,” Scobee said of his thought process before a kick. He had a routine before games, kicking from all over the field and he had a routine during the game going over things sitting on the bench.
“Practicing in your mind,” is how he described it. “There’s only so many kicks you can do on the field before your leg gets tired. Your body will respond to what your brain tells it so when you tell your body what it can do, it helps to make you successful.”
“I’d go out there during timeouts and halftime and change of quarters to visualize in my mind making a kick,” he added.
Routine is a big part of every kickers process, Hollis and Scobee agreed. They have a way they like do things; an order, and they stick to it. Lambo likes to have the media staff create a barrier around him when he’s prepping for a kick on the sidelines for a potential game winner so nothing changes.
Is that superstition? Kickers say no.
“If I am going to make the kick, it has nothing to do with what sock I am wearing or what shoe I put on my foot first,” he explained. “It is about me doing my job, and I can control it. External factors will not control the outcome of something that I do.”
So strong-minded seems like a prerequisite for any kicker. They’re in high-pressure situations, or so it seems, every week. But they don’t see it that way. Lambo says he acknowledges his thoughts, positive or negative when preparing for a kick and lets them pass.
“I do not live in it,” he explained. “If I am anxious, I am not saying to myself, ‘Oh no, I’m anxious!’ If I am anxious, I will acknowledge that I am feeling anxiousness. That is OK. I take a deep breath. I let it pass, and I rely on my muscle memory and my technique.”
And Scobee agrees.
“Pressure is a funny thing,” he says. “It’s usually for somebody who’s not prepared. I could prepare myself mentally for when I got out there on the field. I’d sit on the sideline and go through the whole process, including seeing the kick going through.”
And while Scobee and Hollis admit you have to be fully committed to be successful at that profession, they also agree that a certain amount of isolation is also important.
“I played my best when I paid attention to what I was going to do instead of everything else,” Scobee said. “I tried to be naïve to everything else and didn’t want to be the reason my team didn’t win.”
A game winning kick has special meaning and a special place in a kickers memory. Even though they’ve made the kick in their minds, as football players and members of a team, there’s some emotion when they make that kick on the field.
A 59-yard game winner against Indianapolis had Scobee running all over the field celebrating with teammates.
“I reacted that way because that was the first long game winning field goal that I had kicked,” Josh said recalling the moment. “I had a few more from shorter distance but I probably saved a couple jobs for another year or so with that kick. It was the emotion of what kickers dream of, being at home, and having such a positive impact on so many members of my team.”
And while the Jaguars had limited success during his career, he can only imagine kicking for a team that has this kind of potential.
“This is honestly the only time I’ve missed it,” he said. “I’m a bit jealous of the winning. Everybody’s in a good mood when you win.”