A lot of research has been dedicated in the last few years to the effect that “focus of attention” has on skill execution and performance. Here, I am referring to the key areas visually that an athlete will focus when executing a skill, as opposed to the method of which a coach will direct instruction verbally. Championing the cause, is Joan Vickers, a professor from the University of Calgary, Canada. Vickers’ research focuses on how cognition influences and guides decision-making in motor behaviour. Vickers’ discovery of “quiet eye” (QE), a short period of time when the eye’s gaze is stable on spatial information critical to effective motor performance has been a massive discovery. Coaching practices in sports such as Basketball (Free Throws) and Golf (Putting) have proven very successful.
So what does this all mean?
For a start, we will put the “physical” elements of the technique of place kicking to one side in this article. The above mentioned research has shown that both less skilled and highly skilled athletes have improved skill execution with the adoption or adaption of QE in their routine. I personally incorporate this into the psychological aspects of my coaching, but I must say with Rugby Kicking it is still rare to find a coach that does. Effectively I have taken the core of the QE concept and adapted it to my coaching process with the kickers I work with. For less skilled players, I still highly recommend the development of sound technique as a priority. QE will not mask poor technique. For skilled kickers, this has proven to provide the extra “one percent” to players needing to consolidate their consistency under a variety of conditions.
Do you know the saying “The Eyes Have It?” Well in the case of place kicking, very much so!
Throughout a player’s place kicking routine, the eyes are processing information from the immediate environment. The optimal information ONLY is required for effective focus of attention.
If you are a player, how many times do you gaze back and forth between ball and target? How long for? And coaches, are you aware of the “visual” routine of your kickers? Are they easily distracted? A great discussion point there, distraction, but we will come back to that….
Taking credible QE putting coach practices, we should direct our concentration to the objects (targets) that matter in the process. In Place Kicking we have two (2):
1. The Target ( To me the outcome target is between the uprights, but more specific than this is to create a Target Focus Point, such as a tall middle goal post or structure/person in the distance)
2. The Correct Contact Point on the Ball
QE in Action…..
At the “gather” point in your routine (before you begin to approach the tee), take a concentrated look at your Focus Point. This only (should be for a second, or so). Your radar command will have been started when you placed the ball on the tee as well, so no need to prolong here.
Bring a direct line back to the ball, finishing at the contact point you wish to strike. I like to imagine a tight string running from my target focus back through the ball, but it’s up to you.
At this point your eyes shall remain fixed on the ball contact point for approx 2-3 seconds (tests have shown this to be optimal for cognitive processing). Herein lies the challenge, you are to ONLY focus your attention (eyes) on the ball’s contact point. A tip to assist you may be to draw a black dot on the ideal contact point to highlight the ball’s focus point. My coaching instruction to players using QE is to imagine the black dot, even if none actually exists on the ball. This is quite a powerful aspect of the QE process, and an element that has improved goal kicking performance of those I’ve coached. The black dot concept seems to tie the whole QE process together for me.
From here begin your approach to the tee as you would normally, ensuring your eyes are still fixed on the ball through the kick execution. The key is to trust yourself with this. I am reluctant to say “keep your head down” as I prefer to educate players that it is the eyes we wish to remain in the “Zone”. A lifted head during a kick, of course will de-rail a positive outcome, but I like highlighting this with the importance of concentrated vision.
Vlok Cilliers, the Blue Bulls (Super Rugby) Kicking Coach gave me a great tip on a recent catch up. He uses a tennis ball under the chin of players that lift their head too early when kicking. Although perhaps not for every player, I have adopted this with success where some technical emphasis is required. Simply ask the player to kick (with ball under chin) and instruct them not to let the ball fall out. It is technically a forced way of keeping eyes down, but relatively easy for them to feel the benefits of establishing this head position without being explicitly asked to do so. I often challenge players not to look at the ball flight (or keep a low beam gaze) until after the ball has landed to further emphasise this point.
I trust that perhaps you will, if you haven’t already, give more “attention” to the psychological aspects of kicking in rugby. We cannot coach or improve mental effectiveness in isolation to the Technical, Tactical or Physical elements of the skill, but in my opinion this is the next frontier and one that plays only a small part generally in the coaching process of kicking. An effective focus of attention routine, with quality internal cues, is the difference between a kicker that maintains focus under perceived pressure and another that “chokes”. Please note this is an outline guide only, and no replacement for me actually coaching with you personally. There are a variety of kicking tests a coach may prescribe to determine a player’s susceptability to distraction (including gaze tracker glasses), but I would suggest the basic instruction outlined in this article will provide a positive starting point. And remember, this is a skill in itself, and requires structured practice (under pressure ideally!) to determine the transfer to match day conditions and distractions.