Kickers are a quizzical bunch. They are in their heads a lot, especially when the game at hand is the Super Bowl. And who could blame them? They live on the sidelines for most of the game, trot out to kick an extra point and the ensuing kickoff, and then, if Mercury is in retrograde and somehow the entire championship rests on their golden toe, they are summoned in the final seconds to win it all.

Opposing coaches would of course appreciate it if all kickers shanked the ball into the stands. Without any time left, team strategy sails out the window. They can’t run a more sophisticated play to block the field goal, and they can’t put guys on the line who are fast enough to turn over possession. The last weapon in the coach’s arsenal is the timeout, and it has the kicker’s name written all over it.

Statistically Unlikely

Icing the kicker — the practice of calling timeout a fraction of a second before the snap, so that the kicker has to regroup and kick again — is more a vestige of old-world thinking than a sharpened psychological tool. What little research exists on the strategy suggests icing doesn’t always live up to its intended degree of cleverness. If anything, coaches are doing kickers a favor.

In their book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim present their analysis of high-pressure kicks in the NFL between 2001 and 2009. Looking at cases where coaches tried to ice the kicker at various points in the final minutes of the game, and controlling for the distance of the field goal attempt, Moskowitz and Wertheim found no evidence that icing made any significant difference. A combination of mechanics and clean ball-striking determined if a ball found its way between the uprights, the two wrote, “not whether the kicker had an extra 90 or so seconds to consider the weight of the occasion.”

Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri (4) celebrates with defensive end Arthur Jones (97) after making a field goal during the fourth quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Reuters

Psychologically, Moskowitz’s and Wertheim’s conclusions make sense. NFL kickers have kicked the same field goals in practice thousands of times that they kick once or twice in live games. To a lesser kicker, a well-placed timeout might be jarring, especially if it’s his first time dealing with it. But NFL kickers, and, more specifically, their brains, know which movements just feel right.

“They may not be able to explain exactly what they’re doing in those situations, but for the most part many of them are really focusing on the process,” said Dr. Justin Anderson, a psychologist at Premier Sport Psychology, referring to the series of rituals and mantras that kickers use to slip into the highly sought-after “zone.”

In that place, athletes are calm. Screaming fans turn to harmless static. Even if a coach calls a last-second timeout, the center will still snap the ball and the kicker, performing a role dictated by routine, will still let the kick fly. And 90 seconds later, he’ll do it all over again — a fresh kick that looks just like all the ones before it.


In 2011, professional golfer and Irish phenom Rory McIlroy held a four-stroke lead at the PGA Masters Tournament heading into the final day of competition. He was poised to finish the day on top, provided he could maintain the solid play he’d demonstrated for three days prior. McIlroy ended up shooting an abysmal eight-over 80 that Sunday, sending his ranking plummeting to 15th on the leaderboard. Asked after the tournament what went wrong, McIlroy gave a familiar answer.

“Just lost a little bit of confidence on the greens around the turn,” he said. The final nine holes, the homestretch that was supposed to seal an all-out victory, instead fell apart into ruins. The pressure on the up-and-coming 21-year-old was simply too great. “When you're hearing roars, you knew pretty much what was going on.”

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to missing a par putt on the 10th green during third round play in the 2011 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, April 9, 2011. Reuters

Choking, and the deliberate attempt to avoid it, happens when experts forget how not to think. Decades of experience have carved neural pathways in their brains. The region in their prefrontal cortex responsible for executive functions, such as memory, coordination, and reason, effectively gets groomed to “turn off” when experts engage in their specialty. The signals that let kickers approach the ball just right and swing their leg with the perfect, discrete mix of speed and accuracy all accumulate to produce a successful field goal attempt. Abandoning those automatic actions is what gets them into trouble.

McIlroy’s story echoes the exact scenario all NFL coaches envision when they turn to icing. They hope for what happened to Sebastian Janikowski in 2007, when the Oakland Raiders kicker had a game-winning attempt in his sights, only for the whistle to blow right before the snap. The iced kick went through the uprights. The real one didn’t.

Why Bother?

Unlucky for head coaches, most mulligans don’t follow in Janikowski’s footsteps. If they cared enough to look into the data behind icing, they’d realize what Moskowitz and Wertheim found: Icing is irrelevant.

So why do they keep doing it? The short answer: Because they can. The longer answer? Public perception.

“I think some coaches want to do everything possible so that the media can’t criticize them to say, ‘Oh, they should’ve,’” said Dr. Jay Granat, psychotherapist and founder of Stay in the Zone. “They don’t want to leave any stoned unturned, and some of them view it as being thorough. If it works, they look like heroes.”

If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is the reputation for not indulging in frivolous, last-ditch scare tactics. That, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But no one remembers who came in second anyway.