The final seconds are ticking off the clock and the opposing team is lining up to kick a game winning field goal. There is no time for another play so the game is on the kicker’s foot. You have a timeout to use.

Calling the timeout causes the kicker to stand around for another minute pondering his fateful task. They call it “icing” the kicker because the common perception is that the extra time in the spotlight and the extra time to think about it will increase the chance that he chokes. On the other hand you might think that the extra time only works in the kickers favor. After all, up to this point he wasn’t sure if or when he was going to take the field and what distance he would be trying for. The timeout gives him a chance to line up the kick and mentally prepare.

What do the data say? According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, icing the kicker has almost no effect and if anything only backfires. Among all field goal attempts taken since the 2000 season when there were less than 2 minutes remaining, kickers made 77.3% of them when there was no timeout called and 79.7% when the kicker was “iced.”

So much for icing? No! Icing the kicker is a successful strategy because it keeps the kicker guessing as to when he will actually have to prepare himself to perform. The optimal use of the strategy is to randomize the decision whether to call a timeout in order to maximize uncertainty. We’ve all seen kickers, golfers, players of any type of finesse sport mentally and physically prepare themselves for a one-off performance. The mental focus required is a scarce resource. Randomizing the decision to ice the kicker forces the kicker to choose how to ration this resource between two potential moments when he will have to step up.

If you ice with probability zero he knows to focus all his attention when he first takes the field. If you ice with probability 1 he knows to save it all for the timeout. The optimal icing probability leaves him indifferent between allocating the marginal capacity of attention between the two moments and minimizes his overall probability of a successful field goal. (The overall probability is the probability of icing times the success probability conditional on icing plus the probability of not icing times the success probability conditional on icing.)

Indeed the simplest model would imply that the optimal icing strategy equalizes the kicker’s success probability conditional on icing and conditional on no icing. So the statistics quoted in the WSJ article are perfectly consistent with icing as part of an optimal strategy, properly understood.

But whatever you do, call the timeout before he gets a freebie practice kick.

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