January 11, 2019

Are professional athletes allowed to make mistakes?

Nothing less than death threats is what Cody Parkey received, among other things (because he was also given money by Eagles fans), after missing the 43-yard field goal that allowed Philly to take the win in front of a disheartened Chicago crowd.

Photo: Getty Images / Jonathan Daniel

It’s a high price to pay for a missed deflected kick, no? Parkey scored nine of the 15 points the Bears put up that night. He played his part and, then, he made a mistake. A mistake, just like the ones you and I make once in a while at work. Some will say that he tends to hit the crossbar a little too often (four times earlier in the season against the Detroit Lions!) and that, since he earns millions of dollars, he should have made it. Others will argue that the causality between Treyvon Hester’s finger and the velocity of the ball is strong enough to acquit the kicker.

Either way, the damage was done. Parkey was s-l-a-m-m-e-d. We all have opinions about everything and anything and most of us share them. On Twitter, on Facebook, as gifs, as homemade videos, and much, much more. In 2019, mistakes rarely fly under the radar, especially those of pro athletes. So, are they allowed to make them?

For a kicker, the pressure is enormous and blunders are unacceptable. “That’s what we’re hired to do, make clutch kicks. Unfortunately, we only get one shot; you make it or break it,” says Boris Bede who registered 30% of Alouettes points on field goals in 2018. “That’s what’s hard about our position. You can score 45 points in game, if you don’t make the ones that can change the outcome of the matchup, that’s all people will talk about.”

Are critics just as harsh towards all athletes or even towards all players on a football field? On that point, receiver Geno Lewis agrees with Boris. “We should all be held to the same standards, but the reality is that expectations towards quarterbacks and kickers are incredibly high. Quarterbacks because they’re the centrepiece of your offence and kickers because everybody considers that they only have one role to play.”

Throughout their college career and as they make their way into the pros, the guys learn how to deal with the pressure that has undergone an excessive increase over the last decade with the growth of social media. Only a few years ago, an athlete had to compose with the comments of journalists in the newspaper and on the radio, or with the boos of unhappy fans at the stadium. Today, millions of people can instantly bully you (or even wish you DEATH!) in a matter of seconds. Earlier this year, our partner, VICE, released an interesting video featuring quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. who opened up about mental health issues among athletes, particularly football players. The conclusion is that there is still a stigma surrounding them. Speak up and you may be perceived as weak, furthermore, your manhood may be questioned.

“You don’t want to be seen as too emotional. I never had to work with any type of specialists because I consider myself as a very psychologically strong individual,” says Lewis who is incapable of simply brushing off a drop. “I put a huge pressure on my own shoulders. I remember in 2017, we were playing Saskatchewan and I didn’t make a catch that could have sealed the deal. I was so mad at myself! I didn’t want to be cheered up, I wanted to know what I had done wrong to do better next time.”

According to Geno, the ability to perform under high pressure is what sets legends apart.

“Pressure makes diamonds. Some people shine in the most stressful moments, others crumble,” he believes. “Personally, I feed off doubt. I love when people doubt me because it gives me the opportunity to prove them wrong.”

If some are gifted with the power of turning negative feedback into positive energy, others prefer hitting the mute button. To rise to the professional level, as an athlete, you have to be somewhat of a perfectionist. You constantly force yourself to push your own limits and, generally, that’s enough pressure in itself.

Boris Bede

“The standards you set for yourself should be the highest. You work every day to attain them and to ensure that your movements become seamless and natural,” says Boris who admits to silencing the noise. “At the college level, you’re in a bubble, you’re supported and protected. When you join the pro league, you have to gain professional maturity that allows you to control and manage yourself. It becomes your job. You are responsible for your performance and what you put out on the field. It’s your own resume you’re selling.”

Can pressure be an excuse for a professional player to make a mistake then?

“It’s a good question. I believe preparation and visualization should be sufficient. The more I read on the topic, the more I learn and the more I realize how crucial visual preparation is, mostly at my position since all kicks should be the same. Whether it’s a kickoff or the last field goal of the game in the Grey Cup, you have to execute it the same way. You shouldn’t feel stressed because you know you worked on your movement continuously for so many years. You can never lose faith in your movement.”

After helping the Rouge et Or win the Vanier Cup in 2012 and 2013, Boris, just like Cody Parkey, lived a kicker’s worst nightmare. With two seconds to play in the 2014 final, he missed a 48-yard field goal that would have led to overtime and possibly to Laval keeping its title for the third consecutive year. Boris held himself responsible for the loss.

“As soon as the ball leaves your foot, you’re responsible for the outcome. Even if the ball had been deflected, I would have made it my fault,” Boris admits.

However, both Boris and Geno agree that you can’t lay the blame on one person only. Not in football.

“I don’t think one player can lose a game. There are circumstances and series of plays that lead to another“ Lewis explains. “We all expect the guy next to us to do his job. It’s all about trust.”

Eugene Lewis

The rationale is the same in the case of a win. One player can’t make the game or even the play. Remember Superbowl 2008, Giants vs Pats? It was 14 to 10 for the Patriots with 1 :15 to play. Third and five at the NY 40-yard line. Manning connects with receiver David Tyree who catches the ball and then squeezes it with one hand against his helmet to secure it. NFL Films said it was the play of the decade. A play that could have ended on a whole other note had the series of actions leading to the catch happened differently. The play wasn’t the making of the receiver only. It was also the making of two elite defensive ends and one linebacker who exceptionally missed their sacks. It was the making of a quarterback who ducked under defenders and saw his receiver change his route to come back towards the line of scrimmage. Nothing went according to plan on this play. The circumstances made it work, but it very well could have failed.

“In decisive situations, there are two possible outcomes: people are either going to hate you or praise you,” said Lewis to cap off an enriching conversation. “Whether the public allows us to make mistakes or not, the reality is that we are going to make them. What matters is that you do more good than bad and that applies to everyone.”

When a fan pays to attend a game, he expects to get his money’s worth. Understandable. Sports are entertainment. You want to be entertained. But sports are also raw emotion – a lot of emotions on the field, in the stands and even in living rooms – and emotion makes us human. Human like you and me, like all these guys who play football for a living.