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Optimum Performance: NFL kickers a special breed

Having worked with more than 20 NFL kickers and punters in my career, it was no surprise when newly minted Saints kicker Shayne Graham booted a 32-yard game-winner in the wild-card playoffs at the Philadelphia Eagles. It was a veteran move.


Graham’s 4-for-4 performance on field goals at cold Lincoln Financial Field, especially the 46-yarder from the right hash mark into the wind, was impressive. “Stroke the ball clean and hit it pure,” said Graham. “It’s just like any golfer that’s lining up to play a playoff hole. You hit it, and you hit it pure.” | The Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan commented that after the big kick, Graham followed his father’s advice, “not to enjoy it too much.” Always best to listen to dad.

In my past experience with pro kickers such as Nick Lowery, Eddie Murray, Morten Andersen, Jason Elam, Al Del Greco and John Carney, among others, each kicker approaches his art with a unique flair and from a varied background.

For instance, Elam flew private jets in the offseason, while Lowery was an aide to a Congressman. Del Greco could have played on the PGA Tour.

Andersen, a client of mine for 19 years, had an NFL career that spanned 25 years. He participated early in his career in community theatre — in one instance opposite my wife as her romantic interest. Don’t worry, he was afraid to run with me.

Some NFL strength and conditioning coaches still do not appreciate the specialized training these hybrid athletes require, such as enhancing the rotational aspects of the hip and preserving the inner-thigh strength of the plant leg to prevent chondromalacia patella — damage to the cartilage under the kneecap.

According to Andersen, “If you don’t have a good heel strike at ball contact, you have a potential for a knee injury (anterior cruciate ligament) in the plant leg as a result of a week glute (butt) muscle.”

In my experience, some kickers were prone to develop spondylolisthesis — the forward slippage of one vertebral body with respect to the one beneath it — as a result of the powerful rotational forces imposed on the spine at ball impact. Along with a patella protection program, I also included a groin, core and thoracic spine stabilization exercises as part of my injury-prevention program for kickers.

A few special teams coaches tend to overkick a veteran in the preseason, which could shorten their careers. You only have so many pitches in a pitcher’s shoulder, and the same applies to a kicker’s leg.

“There are three things the (special teams) coach has to do,” Andersen said. “Communicate effectively what is expected, facilitate to allow the athlete to have the best conditions to excel and manage the kicker efficiently, such as not overworking his leg.”

As to the mental side of kicking, Andersen, the all-time scoring leader in the history of the NFL, said the league exposes a player every Sunday if he is not prepared.

“You can’t take a kick with you when it leaves your foot.” Andersen said “When it leaves your foot, it has to leave your mind.” Which may not have happened with Graham’s predecessor Garrett Hartley, who was released by the Saints after the loss at St. Louis in Week 15.

Graham, who has kicked for 13 teams, has made 250 field goals in his career. Andersen points out as an athlete, “you can control two things: attitude and effort.” Everything else he says, “is just noise.”

To a veteran kicker, noise should be just another day at the office.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. Contact him at

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