Imagine this… it’s the fourth quarter….you’re lining up the game winning kick…. It’s not terribly difficult, but it’s a game winning kick none the less. Things are weird. There are no fans in the stadium. There is a global pandemic going on…the game is being nationally televised…and on top of that… you’ve missed FOUR kicks earlier in the game. That’s the position Titan’s kicker Stephen Gostkowski found himself in on September 14th, 2020 during the final game of the NFL’s opening week of football. Gostkowski delivered, kicking the ball through the uprights as time expired, but it was undoubtedly one of the strangest games a kicker has had in NFL history. Gostkowski, likely a future hall of famer, who made a career kicking for the New England Patriots dynasty has had many memorable games, but this will be one game he remembers for a long time.
What was going on with Gostkowski? How could an NFL Kicker of his caliber perform so poorly?
Well, while I have never met Gostkowski and I have never kicked a football during a game in my life. I can use my training in sport and performance psychology to analyze the events that took place this past week.
Difficulty of Transition and Adjustment
From a psychological perspective there were a lot of aspects to this game that were unfamiliar for Gostkowski. He was kicking for a new team in a new system for the first time in his career. Gostkowski had spent the previous 14 years with the New England Patriots, playing in six Super Bowls and winning three of them. Gostkowski is no newcomer to pressure, but a new holder, new teammates and new colors on his jersey may have all contributed to his mindset between the lines. Adjustments and life transitions can be difficult for all of us even people at the top of their fields.
Arousal, Energy Levels, and Routines
Additionally, there were no fans in the stadium due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While this may not seem like a big deal at first, (no fans mean no distractions, right?) it may not be the case. When performing an accuracy skill such as kicking a field goal, it is especially important that athletes have a pre-performance routine. Routines help us to regulate our level of arousal, put us in the right mindset for our performance, and message our mind and body that it is time to perform. Having a good mental routine is vital for adding consistency to our game. While Gostkowski’s pre-kick routine is likely similar to the one he has used in previous years, having unique factors like a different level of energy in the arena, new voices in the huddle, and a new environment around him likely impacted this routine and the approach he took regulating his energy and focus.
Dealing with Adversity, Mistakes and Failure
An important lesson that can be taken out of this game is the importance of having a plan for dealing with mistakes or events that do not go our way. In sport and performance psychology we teach the value of not identifying with mistakes, creating a resetting routine, and playing present without letting past events influence our current situations. Staying in the moment and resetting after emotional outcomes is key to not letting one mistake turning into another (or worse… Three more). While Gostkowski appeared unable to do this on the two field goals and missed extra point attempt that followed his first miss, his ability to make the game winning kick despite the emotionally charged events that happened prior speaks highly of his mental toughness and ability to respond to adversity.
George Mumford's Book - The Mindful Athlete