Analysis: Does Damian McKenzie’s Smile Actually Help Him Kick?

April 14, 2016

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In this article I thought I’d take a slightly different approach to breaking down a player’s kicking action and look at “Focus of Attention”.

For me this is such an overlooked area of coaching (goal kicking), yet so very influential in determining quality of contact and bulletproofing from both internal (your own thoughts and judgements) and external distractions (crowd jeering, opposition calling at you).

Annoyances like a crowd jeering, players running at you on approach or even those thoughts in your own mind can be quietened by a disciplined attentional strategy.

Why do we want a focused, quiet mind anyhow?

Good question, and I’m glad you asked.

Perhaps content for another day, but essentially a relaxed and focused state is much more likely to allow a shift to autopilot and thus increase our chances of a good kicking outcome. The more we try to control our thoughts (or our body), as well as taking in too much visual stimulation can certainly be counter productive.

The kicker in the spotlight today is the one widely regarded now as the ‘Smiling Assassin’, none other than the Chiefs (Super Rugby) dynamic fullback Damian McKenzie.

My observations are outlined in the video below, showing examples of Damian lining up for goal in his now trademark fashion.

Damian has introduced a ‘smile’ to his pre performance routine with the aim of ‘blocking out distractions’.

Although the planned outcome is fine, is this method of attainment really working for him? Could he have a better strategy to not only avoid distraction, but improve his kicking overall?

I believe, yes!

In particular, here are some key points in summary:

  • Place Kickers need to give structure to what they focus on (and how long for) before approaching the tee.
  • A target focus is much more likely to produce good reults than a ‘body control‘ focus
  • Too much information (for our eyes/brain to process) is too much information
  • Focus of Attention is a skill that must be practised
  • There are two targets (ball and goals), and the ball requires most attention for your body to calibrate the approach, steps and strike etc.
  • Focusing on smiling promotes conscious thought (a possible distraction and misdirected attention)
  • Knowing YOUR (yes, not the same for everyone) sweet spot a pre requisite
  • This strategy will improve accuracy and contact quality if practised or adapted

Click the video below for the analysis

It is worth pointing out, although I don’t know Damian, he has been quoted as saying he is ‘aware of people around him’ (when shooting at goal) making fun of his pre kick smile. He has also stated he has ‘been working hard on this to help prevent distractions’.

Some evidence that this initiative isn’t working perhaps?

Damian would be better served by not making “avoiding distractions” an aim or outcome. His current methods require conscious investment of thought as it appears. Rather, I feel “avoiding distractions” is a by-product of a good attentional focus strategy that is target oriented.

I guess what I’m suggesting is spend less time on the smile (avoid distraction) and more time on the ball (assist strike quality and avoid distraction).

It is an easy enough task for a coach to test whether a kicker is aware of distracting surroundings or operating on autopilot. I suggest saying something out loud whilst a player is about to approach the tee. A focused individual will not be able to recall what you said.

An extended focused gaze on the exact spot the player shall strike on the ball is in my experience the best way to avoid costly distraction when kicking from the tee.

So, my suggestions for Damian (as if he’s actually going to read this..):

  1. When you are in your “gather” position after marking out, take in a view of the goals for about one second.
  2. After taking in a view of the goals, bring your gaze back to the specific sweet spot on the ball that you wish to strike. Maintain a committed focus of attention on this spot only for about 2-3 seconds.
  3. Continue to gaze at the ‘spot’ on the ball as you approach the tee.
  4. The aim is a deep focus that actually clears your mind
  • Note, only one look at the goals (first) and one look at the ball (last), approach and kick….

Whilst some flexibility should exist within the coaching framework for this, it is fair to say Damian is a little erratic with his ‘direction’ of attention, so even just reducing his head swings with more time looking at the ball would help him long term.

As a sidenote it is fair to say that I have only isolated and discussed one aspect of Damian’s kicking routine. His action is the sum of many parts. Maybe fodder for another day but I also notice he often ‘finishes’ in different positions (posture), possibly a clue to weight transfer issues? As well, his stutter variations when opposition teams almost run his kicks down also suggest he is conscious of them and thus (possibly) misdirecting attention.

Click the video (20sec) to view a ‘close shave’:

A fine young prospect nonetheless. I had the pleasure recently of watching him play live in Canberra during the Chiefs rout of the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby. Great vision, tireless support, fast and skilful.

I certainly hope he realises his full potential and sustains a long professional career. My tip is a likely future All Black…..

By Stuart Lierich

One of many articles on gaze behaviour and ‘Quiet Eye’ in sport performance 


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  1. The PE Playbook – April 2016 Edition – drowningintheshallow - May 1, 2016

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