Chalk Talk: Putting The “Special” In Your Specialists

Having a reliable and consistent kicker is something every coach wants. However, a majority of coaches have never played the position, and thus struggle as to how to best prepare their specialists to help the team.

On ball fields across the country, the specialists are often seen practicing off in a small corner. Position coaches are usually more than willing to do whatever it takes to help their players succeed, but that does not typically occur with the specialist. So, such training traditionally either does not get done or it gets outsourced to a professional kicking coach who may only get to see the specialist a few times over a course of a season.

Being a specialist requires a unique skill set. Whether a punter or kicker (or both), there is one overriding goal. One must be able to perform (physically and mentally) with complete reliability to benefit the team.

Developing a specialist is very to developing an athlete in the weight room. Strength and conditioning coaches evaluate their athletes based on skill, range of motion, and experience. For instance, if an athlete does not have correct movement patterns, there is no sense of having them lift heavy weight because they are setting the athlete up for failure. The same goes with developing specialists. If they have bad form and technique, there is no need to have them kick 50 yard field goals.

I have been training and developing specialists since I played in high school 10 years ago. Below are some of the key stages that I have used in the physical and mental development of specialists

Training in the following areas will “make or break” a kicker. It’ll separate the good kickers from the great ones, and the great ones from the elites.

Offseason And Pre-Season Training

Do you want a good specialist in the fall? Then start in the winter, continue into the spring, and put on the finishing touches in the summer. Specialists need to develop personalized training regimens (10-11 months a year) that will help maximize their skills.  Specialists must learn from many training methods (from repetition, demonstration, segment/sequence breakdown, successive approximations, and overcompensation).

It is in the off-season and pre-season that any major changes in form could be done. It is best only to make fine tune adjustments as the season approaches and/or it is “in season.”

Training is not kicking until you tire out your leg. Matter of fact, the best kickers do not kick until they drop. Rather, they do a lot of “form kicking” (to work on their mechanics) and then do a lot of physical and mental “support training.”

Flexibility Training – This is a definite secret to kicking and is more than just injury protection and/or stretching out before you kick. Flexibility training will increase muscle elasticity, which in turn, will generate the power that kickers/punters want. A little each day adds up.

Agility Training – This is important not only for when blockers come at them, but the quick bursts required during agility drills develop all the little supporting muscles of the calves that help with balance, which is vital for specialists.

Balance Training – This is so often overlooked. A specialist must be in balance throughout the kicking motion and have coordinated muscle movements. If a specialist gets “out of balance,” much like anything else in life, the kick will be negatively influence in terms of height, distance, trajectory or accuracy. Many kicks are missed because the specialist was out of balance during the kicking motion.

Core Training (Abdominals) – If you think about it, nearly every kick is a mini-crunch. abdominal work will help kickers with explosiveness and by maintaining balance throughout the kicking motion.

Conditioning – Specialists need to be in good shape.  Unfortunately, too often, one’s performance goes downhill (whether losing height, distance, or accuracy) as the game progresses because the kicking leg is getting tired. This is especially true if a specialist plays another position. When games come down to crunch time, that’s not the time to have a tired leg. When running to condition, specialists should stride at 75%- 90% speed. Never sprint full out so to avoid pulling a muscle. Striding also will help flexibility.

Weight Lifting And Resistance Training – There is more to preparing for the season than lifting weights. Yet, strength training needs to be done to develop muscles in order to propel their kicking literally to even greater heights/distances!

Specialists should not only lift with the team but have a few exercises programmed specifically for them so they train using their kicking motion. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by taking one’s steps and full kicking/punting motion in chest high water in a swimming pool. The water resistance encountered is tremendous on both on the back swing and follow-through. Additionally, it is all accomplished with less force and pressure on one’s knees.

Mental Training For Specialists

Critical to their overall performance, specialists must be able to develop (and master) confidence, remaining calm under pressure, goal setting, imagery/visualization, and relaxation breathing.

They need to maintain level emotions, poise, and focused concentration with all kinds of distractions and weather conditions.

Specialists must be “mentally tough” to perform their jobs, but they must also understand and accept the following points.

  • They don’t get a second chance.
  • There will be long hours of practicing that lie ahead, often by oneself.
  • The game may be on the line when the kicker enters.
  • The results will be immediately visible to everyone.
  • Sometimes, it will be frustrating when things don’t go well.
  • Linemen are disappointed enough when the drive stalls, but at least all their blood, sweat, and tears counted for something with a field goal.
  • As a punter, when you take the field, no one on your team is happy because your team has to give up possession. Your coach will likely be yelling at someone as you enter the game. But, a great punt can turn things around and can motivate your defense!
  • You will enter the game under all kinds of pressure situations
  • Kicking can be frustrating, but rewarding too.
  • In the spectator’s eyes, you can often be the hero or the bum. Know how to handle both.
  • You’re never as good as you think you are, but you’re never as bad either.
  • You need to have a short memory. Forget about the misses (and the makes) of the previous game. It’s the next kick that matters!

In-Season Training

Specialists need to be able to maintain all the skills that they developed during the offseason and during the long season as well.

With school (and studying), time is challenging. Specialists and their coaches need to know what to practice and when. Specialists certainly should not tire out their legs, but need to practice enough of the “right things” so that they can perform on game day.

Elite kickers know how to be a “game day” kicker. They prepare themselves to be ready mentally and physically. Again, they know they need to practice a lot of things they really don’t want to practice. For example, most punts in a game are done against the wind, but how often do you see punters actually practice against the wind?

RELATED ARTICLE: Developing Exceptional Kickers And Punters

Practice time is not the time to try to look good for anyone who may be watching. Rather, practices are to improve upon areas of weakness and to practice situations that will appear in the game.

Specialists need to be challenged mentally in practice. Likewise, kickers need to do appropriate sideline preparation. Preparing oneself physically and mentally during the course of the game is critical for when the kicking team is called to the field. Because as we know, one kick can make a difference!

This article was written by Kyle Pignatiello, Running Backs, Specialists, Video and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, SUNY Cortland.

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