SANTA CLARA Popsicles. Early in his career, that was the thought inside Joe Nedney's head as he lined up for a kick.
In 1992, when Nedney was enduring a rough patch at San Jose State, coach Ron Turner found a good way to nudge the big kicker out of it.
Turner kept a cooler of popsicles on the sideline during practice. If Nedney made his field goals, the team was rewarded with popsicles at the end of the hot, sweaty sessions. If he missed, the cooler stayed shut.
"It was fun; it was relaxing. I always made it," said the San Jose native, who broke out of his slump and went on to kick for 15 seasons in the NFL, the last six for the 49ers.
The beauty of concentrating on "popsicles," Nedney said, was that it made every kick as simple as possible.
Simplification is the challenge for whoever wins the 49ers' current and unprecedented kicker competition.
Playoff kickers already are under enormous pressure. Those who have been great in the regular season but have botched critical field-goal attempts from Scott Norwood to Nate Kaeding to Billy Cundiff are a staple of NFL postseason lore.
For the winner of the 49ers' competition, the spotlight promises to reach megawatt intensity because of the baggage each candidate brings.
Incumbent David Akers was booed during his last home game and is in the midst of, by far, the worst rut of his career. Akers has been particularly bad from beyond 40 yards, missing 11 of 19 attempts from that distance this season.
His challenger, Cundiff, hasn't played since Oct. 7. He missed a 31-yard field goal that day and was released two days later. His most recent boot in the playoffs which would have tied the AFC Championship Game for the Ravens and sent it to overtime ended up sailing well left of the goal post.
How do you forget such an unforgettable event when you're lining up for a big kick?
Michael Husted spent nine seasons in the NFL and now coaches and consults with kickers from high school to the pros.
Husted tells his pupils that one of the best ways to filter out bad memories, the crowd, the doubt-filled glances from teammates, is to concentrate on breathing.
"When we're nervous, we hold our breath," Husted said. "I teach my students, when in doubt, focus on your breathing; focus on the rise and fall of your breaths."
That's the kind of advice usually given to young men who are just beginning to navigate the mentally demanding role of being a kicker. Nedney said that's one reason the 49ers' situation is unique.
For one, kicking competitions almost always occur in training camp, not in the postseason. Moreover, the issues Akers and Cundiff have been dealing with usually afflict much younger kickers.
Akers is 38 and in his 14th season. Cundiff, 32, is an eight-year veteran.
Both played in the 2010 Pro Bowl, and Akers was a Pro Bowl player and an All-Pro last year as well.
"We're talking about their mentalities like they're young guys," Nedney said. "That's the uncharted territory we're going through now."
Nedney said tricks like "popsicle" and techniques like breathing can help a kicker rediscover his rhythm. But nothing replaces sheer confidence, something that Akers seemed to struggle with on his two misses last week, both of which were poked just left of the goal post.
The only thing that will restore that confidence, Nedney said, is making a critical kick.
Nedney didn't use "popsicle" for long. Later that year, the Spartans trailed Wyoming by a point, and Nedney was given a shot at a game winner from 60 yards. He said the Wyoming coaches called multiple timeouts to freeze him, and he remembers the stadium echoing with the chant, "16 (stinks)." Nedney wore No. 16.
Nedney nailed the attempt, and after that, he felt he could make anything.
"It would have been good from 70 (yards)," he said. "It was the best kick of my college career."
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