x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

There is a place for quirky kicks

While they are physical routines that provide entertainment, players are able to mentally prepare for a crucial shot.

Before taking his place kicks, Jonny Wilkinson, the England fly-half, squats down, clasps his hands and bows his head.

Then there is Australia's Quade Cooper. He looks like a matador holding an invisible cape as he addresses the kicking tee.

When James O'Connor, his teammate, steps in for his kicks, his routine could resemble somebody showing a child how choo-choo trains work.

At this Rugby World Cup, there has been no shortage of quirky place-kicking performances. Some players, like the Irish kicker, Ronan O'Gara, incorporate graceful turns. Others look like they are playing a flute or dancing a jig.

With each progressive tournament, it would seem, the place kicking routines get a little more ... idiosyncratic.

But they are also highly rehearsed and more often than not bring success. Wilkinson has been unusually out of form with the boot, converting less than half his shots at goal at this World Cup, but he remains within striking distance of becoming the most prolific scorer in international rugby.

So what is the rationale behind these pre-kick procedures?

Ken Hodge, an associate professor of physical education at the University of Otago, who also trains top athletes to help enhance their mental skills, said it has little to do with biomechanics.

"From the outside, it looks like a physical routine - which it is - but it's much more than that," he said. "Kicking is a lot more controllable than general play. It's a repeatable skill. The challenge is to maintain concentration and let the body do what it's good at."

He likened goal-kicking to golf, a sport in which many players go through pre-shot patterns.

Hodge said the physical routines are developed through trial and error and help players stick to parallel mental routines. He said it is imperative for kickers to eliminate thoughts that might intrude - like the crowd noise, a recent muffed play, or self-doubt.

"It's all about keeping the mind quiet," he said. "It's keeping the chatter out of it and sticking to useful, positive thoughts."

Hodge said Grant Fox, the former New Zealand kicker, has described reducing his thoughts down to just two: head down, follow through.

"Like physical skills, some players have more natural ability with mental skills," Hodge said. "I've found over the years that some athletes learn the mental side quickly, while for others, it takes a while."

When the Australian place-kickers were asked how they developed their odd arm movements, Cooper laughed, turned to O'Connor, and said: "He copied me." O'Connor shot back: "He thinks he's Superman."

Then Cooper feigned falling asleep from boredom while O'Connor tried to answer more seriously.

"I guess it's to put yourself in a good position. I don't know what Quade's one does for him, I think it turns his corner a little bit as well," O'Connor said. "It's to get you in the right position to strike the ball."

O'Connor credited Braam van Straten, the South African kicking guru, with helping him develop his style and ability over the past two years.

"Technically, there's no one better than Braam," O'Connor said. "He knows his stuff, and it's his passion, goal kicking, so if you could kick all day long, he'd be there with you. He's had a big influence on us."

In the end, says Hodge, the best athletes are able to combine their mental control with their innate physical ability. Having just one is never enough, he says. For instance, take his own golf game.

"I have a fantastic mental game," Hodge said. "But my swing's awful."