NFL-Beyond the ‘yips’: Dallas kicker Maher faces mental battle in playoffs

By Amy Tennery

(Reuters) – Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher must tame his inner nerves in Sunday’s divisional round of the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, after a record four missed extra point attempts in his last outing shook fans to their core.

He sent his first two disastrous failed attempts wide to the right and a third to the left before halftime in Monday’s 31-14 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to miss another PAT in the third quarter.

It was the first time a player had missed four PATs in a game, a dismal distinction all the more baffling after a rock-solid regular season that saw him convert on 50 of 53 attempts.

“It just really underscores that success in these high levels of athletics is not just what your body can do – it’s how your mind operates,” said Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College who authored the book “Choke.”

“Oftentimes we find that when you have a bad play or a bad performance, in order to try and perform better the next time you start trying to control everything you’re doing and when you’re performing a skill that you practiced to perfection, ironically, that attention to detail can actually mess you up.”

The Cowboys this week signed kicker Tristan Vizcaino to the practice squad, even as head coach Mike McCarthy insisted to reporters that the move, “doesn’t take anything away from our trust in Brett.”

On Friday he seemed to end speculation over Maher’s future – for now, at least – telling reporters, “Brett has the ball.”

“The goal is to get back into whatever routine he’s had in the past that has made him so successful,” said Beilock.

She said even a mantra or keyword can help distract his mind or, she added, “focusing on the fact that he’s made these a thousand times in the past.”

‘IN THE ZONE’

There will be plenty of added pressure for Maher and his teammates on Sunday, with a hostile away crowd at Levi’s Stadium and Dallas fans expecting revenge after San Francisco knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago.

“He’s got to have people that believe in him,” said Rick Perea, a leading performance psychologist who has worked with several NFL teams including the 49ers.

Perea pointed to exercises that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, including breathing and visualization techniques, to help regulate anxiety before and during game day.

“When they’re on the parasympathetic side, their leg swing path is true. Their thinking is very clear, very little muscle tension. So they’re really in the zone, if you will,” said Perea.

“The sad thing about all this, is that when you have an outing like that, people will doubt you,” said Perea. “I’m glad the Cowboys have stood by him… he’s 100% capable.”

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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