Of all the sports, it is said golf is the one played primarily between the ears. Skill and technique are all well and good, but neither is much use if gatecrashed by mental fragility. The sport’s history contains many a great player who one day had it, and the next day lost it. Scottish golfer Tommy Armour coined the term “yips”, describing the phenomenon as “a brain spasm that impairs the short game”.
Over the years, it has been enough to turn grown adults into dribbling wrecks. Sam Snead, one of the greatest players to set foot on a course, had the yips and it almost finished him. “You know those two-foot downhill putts with a break?” Snead once said. “I’d rather see a rattlesnake.”
The AFL equivalent of a two-foot downhill putt is the set shot. And despite the modern game’s advancements in coaching and mindfulness, inaccuracy in front of goal continues to plague the professional footballer. Players who drill them blindfolded at training, but who suffer from stage fright on matchday, have spoken of hearts pounding and goalposts constricting, as if they’re trying to thread a needle rather than boot stitched leather between two big sticks. “Of all the hazards, fear is the worst,” Snead said.
Imprecision off the boot is hardly new – “bad kicking is bad footy” is one of the sport’s greatest and oft-quoted truisms – but the problem is getting worse. Official statistics reveal a steady decline in goalkicking accuracy with an overall figure of 53.6% in 2002 plummeting to 45.8% in 2019. Since Champion Data started breaking down these figures in 2013, set shots has fallen from 54.6% to just 51.1% last season.
Wonky kicking is a recognised coach killer, but it also has the potential to turn an otherwise legitimate title campaign to dust. Brisbane are this year’s case in point. On present form the Lions are as good a shot as any to lift the premiership trophy on 24 October – under lights at the Gabba, no less – but they will be doing no such thing unless they fix their wretched kicking for goal.
The Lions have come a long, long way in the past two seasons. From 2010 to 2018 Brisbane’s output was on the wrong side of mediocre, finishing no higher than 12th all the way down to rock bottom in 2017. Smart recruiting and the emergence of Chris Fagan as the prototype modern-day coach saw the Lions spin on a dime, finishing the 2019 regular season in second place and they are presently perched in fourth spot with games in hand against their nearest rivals.
But the big knock has been their ability to win when it matters. And to kick straight when it matters. In 2019, Brisbane exited the finals series in straight sets despite twice registering more scoring shots than their opponents – including a remarkable qualifying final in which they kicked 8.17 to Richmond’s 18.4.
This season, the Lions have eight times kicked more behinds than goals. Eye-watering returns of 10.23 against Adelaide and 4.17 against the Tigers are the worst offenders, but for the most part Brisbane are managing to paper over the cracks with victory. Just. Prior to their bye in round 14, the Lions kicked 7.11 against lowly North Melbourne and won by point before returning 6.14 against St Kilda and prevailing by two points.
Against the Saints, Eric Hipwood was more Eric Yipwood with three behinds and one that missed the lot, his set-up and kicking routine betraying a man bereft of confidence. At least he is on the right side of the ledger in 2020, for now anyway, with 17.14 for the season. It is still a dividend he will want to improve upon, as will Hugh McCluggage (5.15) and Dayne Zorko (6.11). Not all of these are set shots, but the theme is recurrent.
“Goalkicking continues to be a problem for us and we’ll continue to work hard to improve it,” Fagan said. “They think more about the result than the process itself. That’s a maturity thing. It’ll come, I know it’ll come. I watch them at training and there are days they hardly miss.”
If Daniel Rich, one of the sweetest strikers of a Sherrin in today’s game, has seen enough from his half-back post, he isn’t letting on. “I’ll back them all day long,” Rich said of his wayward teammates ahead of Friday night’s clash with Collingwood. “They put a lot of work in and to be honest it’s easy to sit back and criticise.”
For Lions fans, it is not so easy to sit back and watch a team with a serious shot at glory throw it all away with woeful kicking for goal. The solution to Brisbane’s conundrum rests on their ability to fix it, or even if it is fixable at all. Footballers are eternal optimists. Tommy Armour was not. “Once you’ve had ‘em, you’ve got ‘em,” he said of the yips. Fagan will hope the Scotsman was wrong.
Follow Brisbane’s clash with Collingwood at the Gabba, starting at 7:50pm AEST on Friday night, with the Guardian’s liveblog