Being an NFL kicker is a stressful job. At any moment in a game, your name can be called upon and a mere inch can be the difference-maker between being the hero or villain.
The art of trying to sneak a football through the upright from 50 yards away with the clock winding down, the game on the line and the crowd in your ear isn't for everyone. But Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins has made a career out of these situations, constantly succeeding in the high-pressure moments.
The key? Staying in the same mindset no matter what is going on.
Take for example the classic last-minute kick. While it is just another attempt, potentially similar to or closer than one made earlier in the game, it comes with different implications. The moment becomes hectic as teams work to beat the clock and get down the field. When the kicker steps on the field, he'll decide whether his team goes home winners or losers. At that moment, things can get overwhelming.
Hopkins, however, sees it as just another kick.
"I don't treat it any different as far as any kick throughout the game," Hopkins said. "I'm not thinking any of those things, good or bad. I'm just trying to stay focused on the moment on hand and doing the same mental cues that typically make the kick successful."
For him, that starts with determining the potential distance of his kick. Throughout the game, Hopkins and his team will take note of how conditions such as wind are impacting the trajectory of kicks. From there, the team sets out to put him in an ideal situation based on the flow of the game.
In these types of games, Hopkins isn't preparing for one specific kick from one specific distance. While analytics and time play a role, anything goes when the game is on the line. As Hopkins explains, the goal may be to attempt a 53-yard try on a day where the wind is causing problems, but a 62-yard field if necessary. So, it's all about sticking with the routine and being prepared to adjust.
After the distance is figured out, Hopkins must then deal with the fateful 'icing' of the kicker, in which the opposing team may call a timeout prior to the kick to try and throw off his rhythm. Though potentially frustrating, Hopkins doesn't let a timeout alter his flow.
"I do a couple dry runs, try to visualize the kick on my own," Hopkins said when describing what he does during the timeout. "Then I just try to recreate the same routine to the ball that any other normal kick would be when I just run on with no timeout or anything."
When it's finally time to attempt the kick, there aren't any worries of the outcome going through Hopkins' head. He just focuses on the movements needed to send it through the upright, and lets his body do the rest. And whether the kick ends positively or negatively, Hopkins carries with him some perspective to show just how calm he remains even while performing a highly stressful job.
When he walks off the field, he's not the hero or scapegoat to his young son, he's just dad.
"The way he looks at me, or we interact, doesn't change at all based on how I did," Hopkins said. "So having that to go home to is another aspect of keeping me grounded."
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