When Brett Maher, the Cowboys’ new kicker, came onto the field for a 37-yard field goal attempt in the middle of the first quarter, Gillham sat up a little straighter. When Maher’s kick split the uprights, he was like millions of other Cowboys fans.
“I’m human, so of course I’m happy, but I don’t want to say it was ‘relief,’ because that implies there was some doubt,” Gillham said. “Outside of the fact that every kicker is human and therefore will miss at some point, there was no doubt.”
For the past 20 months, Gillham has served as a sports-performance consultant for Maher. He is not a kicking guru. He is not a clinical sports psychologist, either. To Maher, he is critical to his success in making the Cowboys’ roster.
“I’m very capable of staying in my own lane with Brett,” Gillham said. “I don’t talk about kicking mechanics. I’ve got nothing to say there. That’s not my world. I don’t comment heads or tails on a coach’s decision ... That’s not anything we can control. It’s more on approach.”
In his first game replacing Dan Bailey, the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, Maher missed a 47-yard field goal attempt against the Carolina Panthers. Many believed Maher entered last week’s game against the Giants with even more pressure.
Week 2 was not a good one for kickers. In nine games, 19 kicks were missed across the NFL -- 12 field goal attempts, seven point-after attempts. Two kickers -- Zane Gonzalez of the Cleveland Browns and Daniel Carlson of the Minnesota Vikings -- lost their jobs. The Vikings signed Bailey to replace Carlson.
“The biggest thing, I think, for me is the belief that every [field goal] is worth three points,” Maher said. “A lot of people, they know that that’s true, but they think that the kick in the fourth quarter with three seconds left when you’re down two is the most important kick that you could ever have, and trying to adopt the mindset of, 'Well, the kick in the first quarter can be just as important as that one.' Maybe you won’t be in that position later in the game if you miss that one.
“Really trying to attack every single kick and not try and put an emphasis on one vs. another or an extra point vs. a 55-yard field goal or first quarter vs. fourth quarter and just having the same process through everything."
Maher made both extra points and added a 29-yard field goal to the 37-yarder against the Giants.
The success against the Giants was not a confirmation that the partnership has been worth it. The confirmation is in the process that led to Maher making the Cowboys’ roster.
Physically, Maher felt like he was ready to be an NFL kicker in 2012 coming out of Nebraska, where he made 39 of 50 field goal attempts in his career.
What followed was a nomadic experience that saw him get cut by three NFL teams, including the Cowboys in 2013, in five seasons. He had almost as many seasons not playing pro football (two) as playing (three in the Canadian Football League), but it did not lead him to think about quitting his dream.
“I felt like I was capable,” Maher said, “but at the same time if you get told 'no' enough times, you’re either going to just kind of shrink up and accept 'no' as an answer or you’re going to figure out what little things you can do to make a difference to try and make it in the next level.”
"Brett pitched it as, 'Essentially, I'm looking for that little bit more.' That's music to my ears, because that's what I want. An athlete who says I'm looking for more doesn't mean, 'I'm terrible where I'm at.'" Andy Gillham
Almost by chance, Maher and Gillham got together. Maher’s father, Brian, is a superintendent in Sioux Falls, and he has worked with Gillham’s wife. That led Maher’s call to Gillham, who runs Ludus Consulting. Gillham has a background in strength and conditioning with a Bachelor of Science in fitness and a Masters in human performance from Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He has a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology from the University of Idaho.
He has relationships with athletes in multiple sports of the United States and Canada, but most of his work is with coaches and administrators at the youth, high school and college levels.
“Brett pitched it as, ‘Essentially, I’m looking for that little bit more,’” Gillham said. “That’s music to my ears, because that’s what I want. An athlete who says I’m looking for more doesn’t mean, ‘I’m terrible where I’m at.”
From there, Gillham asked three questions:
Does the mental side play a role in sports performance?
“Most everybody says yes,” he said.
What percentage of success comes from mental?
“There’s no study that’s ever been able to document it, but the percentage is always greater than zero,” Gillham said.
Does the focus on the mental side of the sport match whatever percent you think it is?
“That’s the 'aha! moment,'” Gillham said.
Maher and Gillham would not get into the specifics of their routine. During the week, they will talk over the phone to go over scenarios or different things that come up in a practice. They talk before games and have a debrief after. Maher said visualization plays a big part of his process. From the time he jogs onto the field to the time he attempts a kick, everything is timed out.
“I think it’s important that you work on that piece of it as much as you do the physical piece,” Maher said. “Make sure you don’t get too high when things are good. Make sure you don’t get too low when things are bad and really zone in on what your process or routine is. Just take every day, every opportunity, every kick for myself as a separate entity and go out there and try and go for 1-for-1 every time on the field."
That he missed the 47-yarder against Carolina did not alter their routine the following week. That he made all four of his kicks against the Giants did not alter the routine this week. They spoke about Seattle Seahawks returner Tyler Lockett a little bit and the configuration of CenturyLink Field to get adjusted to sight lines.
“It comes back to living in the middle,” Gillham said.
Gillham’s approach is essentially a tried-and-true credo that you get out of it what you put into it.
“The single strongest way to feel self-efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Gillham said. “If you accomplish something, the more ways we can find to give credit and say, ‘Yeah, we’re excited,’ and, ‘This is what’s supposed to happen.’ That’s why one day at a time is important. It does positively impact an athlete’s self-confidence. We all know if we feel a little better, we give a little more.”
This week, Gillham will be in Seattle to see Maher kick in person. They will meet up Saturday. They will talk again before the game.
At some point when Maher jogs on to the field, Gillham will get a little closer to the edge of his seat, expecting success.