Last year, Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos missed a game winning field goal at the end of regulation in the NCAA Football National Championship game. Following the game, I wrote a blog that discussed what factors go into kicking a game winning field goal from a Sport Psychology standpoint, and how players and coaches should treat the kicker in the moments leading up to the kick.
This year, in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey had his game winning field goal attempt tipped at the line of scrimmage by an opposing player before being rejected by both the upright and the crossbar – resulting in his team’s surprising exit from the first round.
For Parkey, for kickers who have missed field goals in similar moments, and for those who will be in a similar situation as early as this coming weekend, the question is: once you miss the field goal, now what?
There’s a lot of clichés that are applicable. And they’re all true…
“Focus on the process, not the outcome.”
“One play doesn’t decide a game.”
“You only fail if you don’t learn from the experience.”
However, those common sayings will not provide any comfort to Parkey today. If I were working with an athlete of his caliber who had experienced that disappointment on a huge stage, I would start by considering 3 things:
1. Self-Worth. Does the athlete tie his self-worth to his performance? For example, it’d be completely understandable for Parkey to doubt his abilities as a kicker and be angry and upset about what happened on the field. But if the athlete expands his disappointment by attributing his poor performance to who he is as a person by using comments like, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m a failure,” that would be an area for concern. We want to always be compartmentalizing. Our job performance doesn’t define who we are as a person, it’s simply one part of our life.
2. Grief Counseling. The feeling Parkey and his teammates are feeling today is a sense of grief and loss that’s similar to losing someone or something you care about. Getting those feelings of anger and self-blaming out and moving forwards towards acceptance would be critical to the athlete’s abiliy to move forward.
3. Community. I’ve said before on various podcasts and presentations that the 4 basic human needs are: food, water, shelter, and community. One of the biggest fears in these moments for an athlete is losing the relationships he’s established within a locker room and an organization. We must deal with the feeling of “I let everyone down.” Reality here is that one of those clichés listed above is more true than most: One play doesn’t decide a game. The Bears offense scored a touchdown on 1 of 11 drives. All pro pass-rusher Khalil Mack didn’t record a sack. The team simply didn’t play well. Parkey’s kick (in addition to being tipped at the line), may have been poor execution, but it was simply the final bad play in an otherwise poorly played game by the entire team. The coaches and players get that, even if the fans don’t.
4. Confidence moving forward. The last step would be to get the athlete in a place where he can learn from the experience and be confident in making a kick in that moment, or any kick at all, when given the opportunity next time. This aspect is where careers flourish or burn out early. Parkey KNOWS the mechanics of how to kick. He KNOWS that hitting the upright 6 times in a season is statistically and physically impossibly bad luck. But does he BELIEVE in himself moving forward that if he stays true to his process, continues to improve his game like every other player on the team needs to, that he’ll be able to deliver the next time he’s called upon?
The last note to consider here is the involvement of social media and the fans after a mistake or poor performance on a large scale. While I know players look at comments and I’ve been outspoken about social media playing a large factor in the decline of mental health in general, I do think this scrutiny and criticism is par for the course for a professional athlete. Parkey is a player who performs in the National Football League which is, when it’s all said and done, an entertainment business. These players’ jobs are to entertain fans, and handle their criticism – and they are paid handsomely to do so. Parkey’s main focus will be on his social standing with his teammates and coaches, and making sure he can remain confident in situations that require performance moving forward.