By Steve Libassi
“He’s not a football player! He’s just a kicker!”
“Aw, just kick the ball!”
“All you have to do is keep your head down and follow through.”
“Wow, what a life! Come in two or three times a game and kick a field goal while all the other guys bust their tails all game long!”
“Why should I tie up valuable practice time and make a whole team stand around just to help one kid practice field goals when I’m not going to use him that much during the games?”
Sometimes I feel as if I have heard it all: the jokes, the ridicule, and the lack of appreciation for placekickers. It is a fact of life, though, that placekicking is not only under-coached and (maybe worse) mis-coached, but also the skill and training necessary to kick well is sorely underappreciated.
Placekicking may not be as physically demanding during the game, or as mentally challenging as other football positions, but, then, if it were that easy, wouldn’t more players be doing it — at least as a sideline, while they play traditional positions? If placekicking were that easy, wouldn’t there be more placekickers? Wouldn’t competition for placekicking time be greater, especially at the college, high school, and recreational levels? Sure, and it is at these lower levels that good placekickers are most sorely needed and can have the greatest impact on a game’s outcome.
Placekicking appears to be fairly basic: the placekicker lines up his kick, measures his steps, and kicks the ball through the goalposts. What could be simpler than that? But if you want to be a successful placekicker, or you want to groom a player to be a successful placekicker, and your goals are consistency as well as distance, then you will have to acknowledge that placekicking is more than just lining up and kicking the ball. The idea is not just to kick the ball; it is to kick the ball through the goalposts every time, regardless of the weather, field conditions, and distance — with only one try, with the team depending on you, with the fans for both teams screaming, with the defense yelling at you and taunting you and trying to block your kick, regardless of how good the snap and the hold are.
Proper Form and Mechanics
Placekicking is no different from other sports skills in one important respect: proper form is essential. Leg strength and, to a lesser degree, how hard a placekicker kicks the ball will lead to distance, but not to accuracy. For example, a golfer must work to control his swing to generate the consistent accuracy and distance on which a respectable golf game is based. The harder a golfer swings, the less likely the golf ball will take the proper flight path to the desired spot because the club face is less likely to hit the ball the right way.
Another example is a baseball player trying to hit a home run; the harder he tries to hit it out of the park, the more likely he is to either miss the ball completely or to pop it up. However, when he maintains proper mechanics, swinging through the ball on the correct plane, his success rate increases dramatically, often with the feeling that he barely hit the ball. Again, it is not how much effort he expends; it is how well he maintains proper form and balance, and how well he strikes the ball.
In much the same way, the vast majority of a placekicker’s accuracy and distance is determined by how well he prepares for the kick, approaches and makes contact with the ball, and follows through after contact. The distance being attempted magnifies the importance of proper form, since less margin for error exists the farther the kicker is from the goalposts.
Marking Off the Approach
Do not underrate the importance of marking off the steps properly, and never stop practicing it. Think about it. If the steps are not right, the kicking foot will not make proper contact with the ball. If the steps do not feel right after marking them off, re-mark them. Remember: a placekicker’s number one objective is to always make contact with the ball at the same place with the same part of the foot. Thus, he must make sure to line up at the same distance and the same angle from the ball every time.
The one-and-a- half-step approach to the ball supplies all the momentum and power a placekicker will need to kick the ball more than 50 yards, without introducing the lack of control and balance that comes from a longer approach. Of course, the other benefit is that he will kick the ball in less time than he would with a two-and-a-half-step approach, making it harder for the field-goal blocking team to do its job.
Coaching Tip: As the placekicker’s proficiency with the one-and-a-half-step approach (or any other length of approach, for that matter) improves, either he may need to move closer to the ball (to avoid topping the ball) or farther away (to avoid kicking “under” the ball). For example, if a placekicking student is having difficulty smoothing out his approach (consistently topping the ball so much that he kicks spirals through the goalposts), correct the problem by moving him eight inches closer to the ball, and then gradually moving him back to two inches as his one-and-half step approach improves and his stride to the ball lengthens.
The first step of the approach is the most critical, and requires the greatest amount of work to master. It is a driving step, a large and aggressive step that acts in concert with the upper body, which is leaning into the ball, and the arms, which are thrusting forward to generate the necessary momentum and power. The initial drive step is not a hop step, nor is it a slide step.
Coaching Tip: One of the biggest problems many inexperienced placekickers have is learning how to execute the second step/hop. Emphasize to your placekicker that he must actually become airborne, that he must not drag his kicking leg along and swipe at the ball. Not only will he not be properly balanced, he will not have generated the necessary momentum (and subsequent power) into the kick. The cause of the problem is his preoccupation with kicking the ball, a preoccupation that causes him to focus solely on making solid contact with the ball. In other words, he is focusing too much on putting everything he has into the ball rather than preparing himself to deliver a balanced, powerful blow that can only be generated consistently by a proper approach. Have your kickers first concentrate on getting a good, strong drive step because that good, strong drive step will lead naturally into a good, airborne step/hop into the ball.
Placekickers come to understand that, since height and accuracy are more important than distance on extra points and short field goals (up to 35 yards), they should err on the side of being too close to the ball at impact rather than too far from it. Therefore, they learn to adjust their steps accordingly. Until a placekicker becomes comfortable with, and adept at, marking off his steps and making the minor adjustments required by distance kicks, it is wise to give the holder the responsibility for gaining distance. Some new students remark after the first couple of practices that kicking is a lot more complicated than it appears. That is true, if the player is serious about kicking, if he wants to kick the ball well every time, and if he wants to kick the ball farther and more accurately with less effort.
Be careful that you do not inadvertently end up in a situation where both the kicker and holder make an adjustment such that the kicker ends up kicking a low line-drive with little or no accuracy. Minor adjustments to the placekicker’s measurements may be needed to ensure that his kicking foot consistently makes proper contact with the ball. For example, if he repeatedly finds that he is not getting enough height on his kicks, he needs to move slightly closer to the ball by marking his steps, then moving his plant foot one to three inches closer to the ball. This adjustment will ensure that his kicking foot strikes the ball at a lower point, thereby getting more lift. If the placekicker is getting too much height (the ball spins too quickly end-over-end), or if he wants to add distance to his kicks, he needs to move his plant foot an additional one to three inches away from the ball so he will strike the ball at a higher point. Note that it is the starting point, the distance from where the ball will be spotted, that determines height and distance, not a change in kicking mechanics.
Coaching Tip: The placekicker must mark off a slightly longer approach when kicking off a placekicking block than he will when kicking off the ground, in order to compensate for the difference in the ball’s position. For example, steps marked off for a teed-up ball (usually one to two inches off the ground) will result in the placekicker being too far away from a ball spotted on the ground because of the difference in height. Thus, whereas he will kick a teed-up ball well, he will top the ball and line drive it when it is placed directly on the ground.
Marking Off the Approach
The two basic methods for marking a soccer-style kicker’s steps start with the kicking foot one to three inches from the ball. As you consider each method, keep in mind the following coaching tips:
- The steps used to mark off the approach should be slightly longer than the placekicker’s normal stride. Too often, placekicking students take unnaturally large strides. The former leaves them too far from the ball, the latter too close. Either way, their subconscious minds unsuccessfully attempt to compensate for the problem during the approach.
- The angle of the steps taken from the ball should always be 65 to 70 degrees from the direction the kick will go regardless of where the ball is spotted. When the ball is being kicked from a hash mark, the placekicker must still approach the ball from a 65- to 70-degree angle. As a result, he’ll line up closer to the left sideline when attempting a kick from the left hash mark and closer to the right sideline when attempting a kick from the right hash. This point is crucial. Failure to properly measure this angle is why so many soccer-style kickers miss angled field goal attempts. Watch a placekicker on television attempting an angled kick. Most of the time you will be able to tell before he kicks the ball where the ball will go by the angle of his set-up.
Method 1 is the simpler of the two methods and achieves more consistent results. The placekicker takes three steps backwards at a 65- to 70-degree angle. Note that the kicker begins his steps with the toe of his kicking foot positioned one to three inches from the ball. He then steps back first with his plant foot and ends with his kicking foot behind him. Method 2 entails taking three steps straight back (as if the kick were being made by a straight- on kicker), taking two steps to the left or right, depending on whether the placekicker is right- or left-footed, then moving toward the ball six inches.
It is a matter of simple geometry that Method 2 leaves a kicker farther from the ball than Method 1. Thus, the kicker using Method 2 will have to step up six inches closer to the ball to ensure that he ends up the same distance from the ball. Method 1 is preferable, since due to its fewer “parts,” the placekicker is less likely to introduce errors in his measurements. Thus, Method 1 is more likely to consistently result in the desired contact with the ball. However, it must be said that it is more difficult to establish the proper angle from the ball when using Method 1, though proficiency can be gained through practice, repetition, and placekicking exercises that will be discussed later.
A variation of Method 2 is for the two side-steps to be taken at a 70- to 75-degree angle rather an a 90-degree angle, thereby bringing the kicker closer to the ball without having to move six inches closer to the ball after the normal 90-degree side-steps are taken. Obviously, the danger with this Method 2 variation is that now the kicker must make sure that this angle is correct otherwise he will be either too close or too far from the ball at set-up. Many kickers use this variation, then suffer through inconsistent kicking, sometimes kicking the ball well, sometimes kicking it short, and sometimes kicking it flat. Remember: simplicity is the key to generating placekicking consistency. Choose a method of measuring your placekickers’ steps that produces the same kind of kick every time one is attempted.
Some placekickers prefer to face away from the ball when marking off their steps. However, this variation, facing away from the ball, and then turning around when the steps are completed, only adds more margin for error (some kickers adjust for this problem by stepping back first with their kicking foot when measuring their steps.)
The bottom line, however, is that every placekicker must decide for himself which method he feels most comfortable with, determine which method produces the most consistently positive results, make the necessary adjustments, and practice the method diligently.
Any method of marking off the steps will yield inconsistent results in the beginning when the placekicker is still learning and trying to build muscle memory. Be prepared and willing, however, to adopt a different method if the results from one method do not produce consistently positive results after an adequate amount of practice. For example, many soccer-style placekickers quickly become proficient at Method 1. Others, however, cannot consistently set up at the proper angle. Therefore, their kicks are inconsistent; sometimes they kick well, sometimes they do not. While they kick the ball straight at all times, their poor set-up angle causes the ball to be kicked to one side or the other. Have them adopt Method 2, and their problems are solved. Others have problems adopting Method 2, so switch them to Method 1.
Regardless of the method a soccer-style placekicker uses to mark off his steps, minor adjustments may be needed to ensure that his kicking foot consistently makes proper contact with the ball. For example, if he finds that he is not getting enough height on his kicks, he needs to move slightly closer to the ball by marking his steps, then moving his plant foot one to three inches closer to the ball. This will ensure that his kicking foot strikes the ball at a lower point, thereby getting more lift. If the placekicker is getting too much height on the ball (i.e., the ball spins too quickly end- over-end), or he wants to add distance to his kicks, he needs to move his plant foot an additional one to three inches away from the ball so he will strike the ball at a higher point. Personally, I have had more consistent success marking off my steps properly when kicking off the ground by placing my kicking foot closer to the ball before rather than after marking off my steps. Note that it is the starting point, the distance from where the ball will be spotted, that determines height and distance—not a change in kicking mechanics or more effort on the placekicker’s part. Additionally, the longer the field goal that is being attempted, the more important is to adjust the steps accordingly since the margin for error is less.
Coaching Tips: The placekicker must mark off a slightly longer approach when kicking off a placekicking block or a kickoff tee than he will when kicking off the ground in order to compensate for the difference in the ball’s position. For example, steps marked off for a teed-up ball — usually one to two inches off the ground — will result in the placekicker being too far away from a ball spotted on the ground because of the difference in height.
The importance of setting up at a proper angle to the ball will increase dramatically the longer the kick that is being attempted for two reasons. One is that increased distance means decreased margin for error. The other reason is that placekickers will naturally put more effort, more oomph into the ball, the longer the kick. That extra effort makes it more likely that they will pull the ball just enough to miss to the left if they are right-footed kickers, or to the right if they are left-footed kickers. An experienced kicker will, therefore, add a bit more angle to his approach when attempting his longest kicks.
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