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AFL goals

Why goal-kicking in AFL is about more than technique

Bent knees. Hook foots. Dribble kicks. Buddy’s arc. What language are we speaking?

These are words from the dictionary of Australian rules football. More specifically, these peculiar terms relate to goal-kicking – arguably the most crucial skill in footy.

You might hear these words pop up throughout the AFL season. Whose goal-kicking routine will stand up under the pressure of competition? And whose will falter in the big moment, resulting in tears, jeers and perhaps the odd microwaved membership?

Technique is a key component of goal-kicking. Just as important is the mental aspect. So how do AFL footballers create a mental routine that stands up to stress, fatigue and variable conditions?

Dr Melissa Weinberg, an Honorary Fellow from Deakin’s School of Psychology and sports psychologist to some of the biggest names in the game, breaks down the mental side of footy’s most scrutinised skill and outlines how aspiring athletes from all codes can better execute under pressure.

What makes goal-kicking so difficult?

It might be tempting to rant on your favourite sports talkback program when your team’s full forward gets the ‘yips’. But before you do, spare a thought for the difficulties they face every time they line up for goal.

Yes, AFL players are highly paid. And yes, many aspects of AFL, from training to tactics, are more sophisticated and finely tuned than ever before. But as Dr Weinberg explains, goal-kicking is a particularly difficult skill to access because it ‘develops at an individual level’.

‘We can’t expect current players to learn from past players’ mistakes when it comes to performing a specific task like this. And to suggest that because they’re paid more they should kick straighter seems odd to me – why should more money in the pocket translate to better goal kicking?’

A common reference point for venting fans is the impressive accuracy of free throw shooters in basketball. How can they reach accuracy levels of above 90%, while AFL goal-kickers struggle to hit 55%?

As Dr Weinberg explains, it really is a case of comparing apples with oranges.

‘You’ve got to remember a free throw in basketball is always from the same angle, the same distance from the ring, and is unaffected by wind or rain. You can repeat the free throw a thousand times a day to perfect the muscle memory. In footy, you can control the general motion of how you kick the ball, but accounting for all the variables like weather, fatigue, angle, pressure and distance is what makes it so challenging.’

Techniques for success

We’ve established that goal-kicking isn’t always as simple as it might appear from the grandstands. So how do players get into the right headspace to overcome these challenges? Dr Weinberg shares some of the techniques she uses to help footballers find the middle of the big sticks more often.

  • Repetition – coaches can use repetition drills that involve kicking a set number of shots from various positions. Drills can be designer to incorporate elements of pressure, fatigue and confidence, and it’s up to players to negotiate those elements and still execute the action that matters.
  • Recreate your environment – players need to make the practice environment as close to the real game as possible. You’ll see different strategies incorporated to simulate not only the noise, but the pressure and exhaustion, which can all be done through targeted training drills.
  • Redirect your focus – to avoid getting distracted by outside noise, players can redirect their focus to something else. It might be the colour of the footy, or the way the ball feels at the point where it touches your hand or the boot. Something that requires a focused and alert brain, but where you’re in control of the object of your attention.
  • Imagery – as opposed to visualisation, imagery involves incorporating all of the senses in the experience to try to make it as life-like as possible. It’s not just about what you see or envision, but what you’re hearing, feeling, even smelling and tasting. The more we can do to make our experience of the situation as similar as possible to the one we’re training for, the better prepared we’ll be.
'In footy, you can control the general motion of how you kick the ball, but accounting for all the variables like weather, fatigue, angle, pressure and distance is what makes it so challenging.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Quieting the little voice inside

All footy fans have seen it. A player missing from 20 metres out directly in front, only to kick the impossible goal from the boundary some minutes later. What does this say about the role of expectations when it comes to goal-kicking?

‘A somewhat contradictory piece with regard to expectations is that for the player to be able to perform to their best, they need to believe it’s safe to fail,’ Dr Weinberg says.

‘Some coaches worry that if players feel like it’s OK to fail, that can be a sign that they don’t care enough and that they will​ fail. What actually needs to happen is players need to know they’ll still be valued as a person [no matter the result] in order to be able to perform at their best. The more the act of goal-kicking is tied to the person’s identity, the harder it can be to get it right.’

How aspiring athletes can get in the zone

When it comes to finding the right balance between stimulation and relaxation, every player is different. According to Dr Weinberg, younger players across all sports need to find out what strategy works best for them, depending on what part of the arousal spectrum they fall into.

‘I’ve worked with athletes who get very nervous, and they need to engage a strategy to calm themselves down in order to perform at their best. Then there are athletes who actively need to pump themselves up. It’s about figuring out where your individual zone of optimal functioning is, and then engage a routine or strategy to get you into that zone.’

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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