Powerful, Accurate and Injury Free Kicking - A Mental Guide

Kicking Training for Rugby and Football

Training for kicks – just how can you improve kicking performance?

On the face of it, kicking a ball seems the simplest thing in the world. But as John Shepherd explains, powerful, accurate and injury-free kicking doesn’t just happen by accident; it requires the right mental approach combined with appropriate skill development and physical conditioning

Have you ever wondered why you seem to have two left feet, or why you’re prone to hamstring strains when it comes to kicking a ball? And where you should look when you are about to put the ball in the net from the penalty spot? Although it’s something we take for granted, the ability to kick is like any other sports skill in that it can be developed and improved. And like other sports skills, improvement requires the correct mental, as well as physical, approach

Using the mind to improve kicking

Mental training can play a vital role when it comes to improving kicking technique and one of the most important training methods is visualisation, which involves running through the performance of a sports skill in the mind. For this to be most effective, the skill should be practised at real speed; visualising a skill at slower speeds can be detrimental, as it can ‘pattern’ this skill in the brain at a ‘less than optimal’ velocity – ie the motor system becomes better at executing the action, but only at lower speeds.

When visualising a kicking skill, you should find a quiet spot, relax and run through it in your mind in varying conditions and states of fatigues. For example, an elite rugby goal kicker could visualise slotting the ball between the posts from a position that is least preferred (eg on the ‘wrong’ side of the posts), in the wind and rain, in front of a TV audience of millions and against particular opposition.

Regular visualisation will bolster confidence, physical practice and maximise the potential for successful kicking. To aid visualisation a ‘script’ can also be established. Basically, this is a set of instructions that the athlete runs through repeatedly in their mind as they visualise the kicking action.
Here is an example that could be used to support the visualisation used by a football penalty taker:

  • I will place the ball calmly and securely on the spot;
  • I will look at the goalkeeper to assess his position, inhale, and turn around and walk back nine steps;
  • As I do this, I will breathe out and remind myself of where I am going to place the ball;
  • I will pause, turn towards the goal, and look at where I am going to place the ball;
  • I will see the ball going into the net where I want it;
  • I will breathe in and slowly out before I start my run;
  • I will start my run;
  • I will strike the ball cleanly with the in-step of my foot, placing the ball to the left of the keeper, low and hard into the corner;
  • I will not lift my head or eyes until the ball is on its way into the back of the net.

Visual acuity

How does David Beckham bend it? The former England captain is one of the world’s greatest deadball specialists. He has a unique kicking action, which has been attributed to his specific lower leg physiology, enabling him to give the ball more spin, curl and dip. His ability to wrap his kicking foot around the ball is enabled by his non-striking leg seemingly being able to bow almost stick-like, as he strikes the ball. This drives his kicking foot into the ball in a very unique manner.

So what do you do without Beckham’s legs? Well, research has indicated that the angle of the approach run when taking a kick will have a significant effect on kicking biomechanics (the greater the angle the greater the ability to impart swerve, dip and curl)(1). And deciding where to place the ball before striking it is crucial, as is where and how you actually look when you strike the ball.

Japanese researchers considered the latter in regard to short and long in-step kicks(2). Players were asked to aim at a target; the top three scorers were defined as the ‘high-score group’ (HSG) and the three low scorers were defined as the ‘low-score group’ (LSG). Analysis indicated that:

  • The HSG was characterised by longer ‘quiet eye’ durations (constant focus gaze) on the target prior to kicking;
  • The LSG spent less (quiet eye) time focussing of the target prior to kicking;
  • The HSG score group kept their eyes down for longer when they struck the ball, specifically keeping focused on a point between the ball and target.

This research corroborates the accepted wisdom of looking at the ball when kicking, and not where it is going to be kicked when striking it. This is to avoid lifting the head (and in the case of the research above raising the eyes), which alters the biomechanics and accuracy of the subsequent kick.

Preferred versus non-preferred kicking foot

Most of us have a preferred kicking foot and a team of researchers from Denmark have looked at the possible biomechanical reasons for this(3). Seven skilled soccer players performed maximal speed place kicks with their preferred and non-preferred leg. The kicks were analysed with high-speed video recording equipment. Among numerous variables, the rate of force development in the hip flexors and the knee extensors (quadriceps) was measured using a dynamometer.

Not surprisingly, higher ball speeds were achieved with the preferred leg. The researchers attributed this to higher foot speed at the point of ball impact and a consequential ‘better inter-segmental motion pattern’ (ie smoother kicking action). Specifically, in terms of muscle recruitment/action at foot-strike, this was related to the angular velocity of the thigh.

Research carried out on kicking in Aussie rules football also vindicates the importance of skill when it comes to kicking optimally with either foot(4). The researchers concluded that, ‘Kicking a football accurately with a certain velocity over a certain distance is dependent on the speed of the kicking foot and the quality of the contact between the foot and the ball – qualities that are primarily skills led.’

Any football player wanting to achieve parity between their kicking legs should therefore emphasise skill and, to coin a well used phrase in coaching, follow the mantra that ‘perfect practise makes for perfect performance’. They should also begin early, during the ‘skill hungry years’, between the ages of 8 and 12, when the body and mind can most rapidly learn the correct motor skills.

Kicking conditioning

In most sports, improving strength and power improves performance. So does the same apply to kicking?

Greek researchers examined the effects of a football strength and technique conditioning programme on the kinematics (movement of the body/limbs) and electromyographic (EMG) muscle activity during in-step kicking(5). Ten amateur football players made up the experimental group (EG) while 10 other players served as controls.

The EG followed a 10-week football-specific training programme. This combined strength and technique exercises. All participants performed an in-step kick using a two-step approach. The researchers recorded:

  • Kinematics in the form of three-dimensional data;
  • EMG readings from six muscles in the swinging (kicking) and support legs prior to and after the training programmes;
  • Maximum isometric leg press strength;
  • 10m-sprint performance;
  • Maximum speed on a bicycle ergometer.

The researchers discovered that compared to the controls, the EG improved significantly in relation to maximum ball speed and the linear velocity of the foot and ankle, and the angular velocity of all the joints during the final phase of the kick (it has been previously noted that faster foot speed/limb speed results in longer and more powerful kicking).

However, training had insignificant effects on EMG values, apart from an increase in the average EMG of the vastus medialis (thigh muscle that contributes to leg extension, ie kicking). Additionally, maximum isometric strength and sprint times were significantly improved after training. This lead the researchers to conclude that ‘…the application of training programmes using soccer-specific strength exercises would be particularly effective in improving soccer kick performance.’ However, not all the research backs this up.

Further research from Denmark considered three different 12-week strength training protocols on 22 elite football players(8). Four groups were established:

  1. A high resistance (HR) group who performed 4 sets, 8 reps at 8RM loading;
  2. A low resistance (LR) group who performed 4 sets, 24 reps at 24RM loading;
  3. A loaded kicking movement group (LK) who performed 4 sets, 16 reps at 16RM loading (loaded kicking drills include those using elastic bungee or power chords, which wrap around the foot and allow the kicking action to be performed against resistance.);
  4. A control group (CO).

When peak isokinetic, concentric and eccentric force was measured, the researchers discovered that isokinetic knee joint strength was unchanged in the LR, LK, CO groups. However, the HR strength training players experienced greater eccentric and concentric force generation capability when kicking. However, despite this apparent kicking strength gain, actual kicking performance estimated by maximal ball flight velocity was unaffected – contrasting with the findings of the Greek team.

This researchers concluded that only the heavy-resistance strength training induced increases in isokinetic muscle strength, and that the actual value of this training was likely to be more about injury prevention – specifically in terms of providing stability to the knee joint during fast extension (kicking) movements.

Thus it appears that experienced footballers can benefit from specific training, but the effects appear to be peripheral to the actual enhancement of kicking power. The heavy weight protocol does seem to offer a pathway to increased power but this may not translate directly into kicking distance due to the specifics of the kicking action and the high skill requirement. It seems therefore that (as with most technical sport skills) enhanced strength must be constantly married to technique if this is to translate into improved performance.

Beating kicking-induced hamstring injuries

Those involved in kicking sports are more prone to hamstring injury. A British team discovered that the incidence of hamstring injuries for top rugby players was 0.27 per 1,000 player training hours and 5.6 per 1,000 player match hours(9). On average, injuries resulted in 17 days of lost time, with recurrent injuries (23%) significantly more severe (25 days lost) than new injuries (14 days lost).

Second-row forwards sustained the fewest (2.4 injuries/1,000 player hours) and the least severe (7 days lost) match injuries. Running activities accounted for 68% of hamstring muscle injuries; however, injuries resulting from kicking were the most severe (36 days lost). Similar relatively high rates of hamstring strain have been discovered in professional football(10).

In the rugby study it was discovered that players who included Nordic hamstring exercises in addition to conventional stretching and strengthening exercises in their conditioning routines, had lower incidences and severities of hamstring injury during training and competition.

The Nordic hamstring exercise specifically develops eccentric strength in the hamstrings. This is important as it is during the ‘lengthening under load’ eccentric muscular action phase of numerous speed/power movements, including kicking when hamstring injuries are more likely. Researchers have in fact estimated that 85% of the energy involved in kicking at and after foot-strike is a consequence of the eccentric action of the hamstrings(11).

Conclusions

Specific conditioning methods seem to be slightly peripheral (particularly for experienced players), while high resistance weight training has its advocates and can be useful in terms of injury prevention, as can eccentric hamstring exercises. However, it appears that the biggest factor for improving kicking ability in terms of accuracy and distance are repeated, technically correct practices, with consideration paid to where to ‘look’. Mental training can also be highly beneficial.

References
1) Med Sci Sports Exerc 2004; 36(6):1017-23
2) Percept Mot Skills 2006; 102(1):147-156
3) J Sports Sci 2002; 20(4):293-9
4) J Sci Med Sport 2003; 6(3):266-74
5) Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006; 16(2):102-10
6) Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006; 16(5):334-44
7) J Sports Sci 2006; 24(9):951-60
8) Acta Physiol Scand 1996; 156(2):123-9
9) Am J Sports Med 2006; 34(8):1297-306. Epub 2006 Feb 21
10) Br J Sports Med 2004; 38(6):793)
11) Am J Sports Med 1998; (6):185-193

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