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A look at the sports psychology behind Cowboys kicker Brett Maher and his missed extra points

Maher set an NFL record for the most missed extra points in a game. The key to fixing his slump could be not changing anything at all.

DALLAS — Sports psychologists call it paradoxical performance, but to everyone else it’s called choking.

On Monday night, Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher missed four PATs (extra points) in the team’s playoff against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the most ever in an NFL game.

He also missed an extra point against the Washington Commanders last week, putting his streak at five missed extra points before he made his final attempt on Monday.

“I’m money Maher’s biggest fan,” quarterback Dak Prescott said after the game. “I just played like sh-- a week ago. That happens.”

Only nine times in NFL history has a kicker missed even three extra points in a game, happening most recently in 2019 by Bucs’ kicker Matt Gay.

TCU sports psychology professor Robyn Trocchio said under stress, muscles can tighten and change kicking mechanics.

“Body language changed. You could start seeing him thinking a lot,” she said. “I was watching and wanting him to believe in himself and wanting him to get that confidence back.”

“It’s just an automatic task for him,” said UT Austin Sports psychology professor John Bartholomew. “If you allow that to happen, that’s when you find success, but when you’re trying to manage the stress of the situation, that’s when you not overthink but you try to control the situation as much as possible and you can’t control an automatic task and perform well.”

Maher has had his best season in the NFL prior to Monday. He made 50 of 53 extra points and 29 of 32 field goals, including making nine of 11 field goals from more than 50 yards away.

Bartholomew used the analogy of tying shoes.

“Tie them, but then start with the other lace,” he said. “We find this really difficult to do because we’re taking something that’s an automatic task that you don’t have to think about, and now you’re actually having to think.”

The Cowboys have seen this before. In 2009, Nick Folk, now with the Patriots, missed seven of 11 field goals before being released. 

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday he’s behind Maher while adding that they’d still consider having two kickers on the roster.

“This is a classic case of looking at what he’s done for this team on the field all year, not just last night,” Jones said.

Bartholomew said the misses aren’t a sign of mental weakness, they’re a sign of strength.

“Rather than crumble under that you’re instead going to work to find ways to find success and push that forward,” he said. “Trying to control your performance in that moment is a sign that you’re responding to stress in a positive way.”

Trocchio’s advice is for Maher to visualize success and focus on his pre-kick routine, like a golfer or free throw shooter.

“Let’s talk about times when things were going right,” she said. “What were you doing? What were you thinking? How were you feeling? A lot of times it’s, ‘oh I really wasn’t thinking I was just kicking, oh ok, let’s get back to that.'”

Maher said he believes, it’s just a matter of kicking.

“Get back at it,” he said after Monday’s win. “Hit some balls, have a great week of practice, get myself ready to go.”

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