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November 3, 2007

Mind sweeper: Guru clears Trojan minds

Greg Woidneck would stand at the ready. Except he wasn't ready.

The punter's arms would dangle, awaiting the snap. His body stood still. His mind raced.

"I need to get my drop farther away from my body. I want to pin this one inside the 20. I want to kick this one far. Oh crap, there's a little wind in my face; I need to try and kick it harder."

Meanwhile, Will Collins would hold the ball, awaiting the cadence.

"Don't snap it high; don't snap it high; don't snap it high; don't snap it high …"

Collins would channel every concern, each previous error into his hands, as they prepared to shoot the ball 14 yards back to Woidneck. With increasing regularity, the snaps seemed to fly a touch above, below or to the side of his struggling punter's chest.

"I needed to reboot the computer almost," Collins said. "Kind of flush the memory."

Said Woidneck, "I kind of just freaked myself out and tried to fix everything."

His punts were getting shorter, their arc's flattening. He averaged more than 40 yards per punt in three of his first four games, but his season average has dropped to 36.1.

Enter the guru.

"I help them do what they already know how to do," Sean Brawley said. "I'm not a technique specialist in kicking. I'm a former tennis pro. But, I've gotten very good at facilitating learning and helping people get out of their own way."

He is not a sports psychologist, and he is not a football coach. Pete Carroll calls him "the only guy that has really been sanctioned as a legitimate Inner-Game instructor for Tim Gallwey."

Gallwey authored The Inner Game of Tennis, a book that borrows from Zen philosophy, among other elements, to teach athletes the art of focus. After Carroll accepted the USC head-coaching job and moved to Los Angeles, he sought out Gallwey, whose secretary introduced him to Brawley.

Brawley has appeared sporadically at football practice since Carroll's arrival, mostly to observe. Once the team breaks, he can dig in - striving to increase awareness and focus in a struggling player.

Reggie Bush develops a fumbling problem? Give him a day with Brawley.

Ryan Killeen can't find that space between the uprights? Stick Brawley in his ear.

"I don't know how he does it, he just does it," kicker David Buehler said. "He just works miracles. … It's all about feel and imagination."

Brawley, a 1982 USC graduate who said he spent about three years on the professional tennis circuit, also has taught seminars to Trojans coaches.

Recently, he received a call: The punter and snapper needed help. The kicker wouldn't mind a brief word.

Brawley mainly works corporate gigs these days, but he showed up at Howard Jones Field on Monday and came back Tuesday.

"Negative thoughts create a negative environment," he told Woidneck and Collins, from the sideline at Tuesday's practice. "I've got news for you: Sing a song while things are going. You can't possibly have negative thoughts."

Woidneck did not care to share the songs he has tested out, but he said his punting improved immediately. Even the mishits were better than they had been.

"I already know how to punt," he said. "I've done it thousands of times. So, back there, I should just be focusing on something simple."

He blocks out concern by saturating his mind with a single aspect of the process: connecting his right foot to the ball's sweet spot.

For Collins' concentration, Brawley turned Woidneck's body into a grid, numbered one through five. The target area is No. 3 - right around the "44" on the Woidneck's uniform.

Collins said he has been dissatisfied with his performance since USC's game at Washington, Sept. 29. This week, the long snapper has tried to shift his focus, resting his eyes on Woidneck's number, instead of worrying about the result.

So far, it's working.

"The worst thing you can do, if you're a kicker or punter or long snapper, is think," Collins said. "It's all muscle memory."

Said Brawley: "All we're doing is helping something that already exists. It's not like we know something that they don't know."

Brawley's methods might have been a tough sell, at first. But when Killeen overcame early struggles to finish the 2004 season with nine field goals in the final three games - against Notre Dame, UCLA and Oklahoma - he, in turn, established the Inner Game's credibility among players.

Woidneck is becoming a student of the philosophy, as he reads The Inner Game of Tennis. Collins said, "You've got to be open-minded about it. Sometimes you think about, 'He's not a football player; he's not a long snapper - what does he know?' But he knows."

Woidneck and Collins will test their new approaches today in the Coliseum against Oregon State. If Woidneck's average shoots back above 40, his mind likely will be free of clutter.

"Just keep it simple," he said.

For a smooth snap to the punter, Collins will try to fill his head with one thought:

"Snap a three."


Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com


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