The game continues to advance and back in the day the most important aspect was the physical aspect of the game. There has been a vast number of introductions over the years from strength and conditioning, game analysis and nutrition to mention a few.
The most important in my opinion and an aspect that the majority of teams in the world find irrelevant or put so little value to is Sports Psychology.
What happens if a side is equally matched in the physical, preparation and execution aspect?
If the game was at a knife edge a side that had the greater mental fortitude would win it. When all else is matched, the mental side will win it.
I decided to find out a few things from world renowned mental coach Tim Goodenough.
BC – How important is the mental aspect of a side going into a tournament like the Rugby Championship or Rugby world Cup?
TG – “To answer that you have to define mental toughness, and then it gets a little bit clearer. We believe at the Investec Rugby Academy that mental toughness is the ability to play at your maximum every time. It is how often you play at your full potential or being at that level when it actually counts.
I like Timothy Gallwey’s analogy which I have paraphrased, he says your performance is equivalent to your trained ability minus your interferences. Metaphorically if you an All Black and at your best you can get to 10; how often are you playing at 10?
So if they have zero interferences they will be playing at a ten. If they have interferences they will be minus two or minus three (or more) which will mean they are playing at an eight or seven.
If the opposition then has a maximum level of 8 and they have no interferences they will have the edge over the opposition. “
From that point of view, I think it is the most underdeveloped skill in rugby. I think those who work in developing mental skills and mindsets need time and buy-in to build the relationships necessary to have a positive impact, it is a process.
BC – If mental toughness allows teams to progressively play more to their true ability, how does a side go about developing their mental skills and mindset?
TG – “Well, first of all a side must have a coach who buys into having someone fulfil the role of the mental coach. From there three things will determine the impact of that mental coach.
Firstly the integration, reinforcement and active support of the coach for the lessons and themes of the mental coach. Secondly the buy-in of the captain and leadership of the group (and therefore the majority of the team) and thirdly the skills and character of the mental coach.
Character is required to build trust and relationship and the mental coach needs the skills of keeping the complex simple, challenging the group, supporting the group and holding both 1-1 and group growth conversations.
It’s not enough to say you have now got a sports psychologist or mental coach and everything will be sorted.
Aside from what is mentioned from a buy-in point of view another important aspect is the time he has, and how much relationship he or she can develop in that period. Its personal work and you have to build a relationship with the individuals to be effective.
People talk about how important a mental coach is in rugby particularly but how many sides have a sports psychologist? To go broader than that, in any sport – can you name 5 top sports psychologists/mental coaches in the world? Many cannot.
Most teams acknowledge the mental side is important, but somehow stumble in finding the right person, or having the best strategy to maximise the impact of the sports psychologist.
Many more teams just talk about its importance and ask the coach to play that role – which comes with its own challenges. Can you name one professional team that doesn’t have a physiotherapist? When we can say the same about mental coaches sport will have gone to a whole new level.
The All Blacks have worked with Gilbert Enoka and more recently Ceri Evans to develop not just their mental skills and systems but most importantly their culture.
The amount of feedback that suggests the culture has been owned and bought-into by the entire system is very high and the All Blacks culture is consistently cited as a competitive advantage and differentiator.
More recently in South Africa Pieter Kruger has been appointed to work with the Springboks after successful stints with Pukke and the Lions amongst others; his challenge will be to create that level of buy-in in a fraction of the time.”
With the first two questions one can get a sense of what the world of sports psychology really is like. The examples of the All Blacks and the Lions among a few of many highlights just how much of a factor it is in the game.
A team will need to have this aspect when going into big tournaments and will face several factors that are interferences.
BC – From Tim’s point of view, if you have a side which hasn’t beaten a rival side in a long time and it’s a big game, how do you deal with that scenario?
TG – “Let’s make this answer quite specific- if the Springboks make the semi-finals at the RWC and meet the All Blacks a side they don’t beat consistently, especially away from home, then this would be the process that would guide me.
The first thing is to acknowledge that there some level of interference that is stopping us performing more consistently against the AB’s, especially away from home. So we sit as a squad and say, what’s going on against them away from home?
How much does that impact a RWC away from home scenario? Once those interferences have been acknowledged and identified, we then need to put in strategies to remove their root cause. Then it’s about how do we focus on being the best version of ourselves that we can be? We have won two games in ten against them. What strategy do we use?
Do we back our strategy to beat them? Do we have fears or anxiety that we need to work through?
If part of that conversation is that in our heart of hearts we believe they are better than us, we need a way to acknowledge that, and yet still believe we can win.
For example if the All Blacks are 10/10 from a Trained Ability point of view, and SA is a 9 with zero interferences then we have a strategy. So at South Africa’s optimum with no interferences they will play at a nine; you will now need the opposition to have one/two interferences to lower their level of performance.
This will give South Africa the chance for a win but will also need the entire side to be on board and to play at the same level. There must be buy-in from everyone and they must work through any negatives that may be linked to that game.
Rugby is also such a physical sport and you will find many rugby players will not want to talk about this stuff which is more emotional or talking about a perceived weakness. It would be considered in some circles to be weak to be fearful, scared or nervous.
Imagine a South African man is at a braai and he turns his wors and then looks at his mate and asks, “How have you been?” His mate responds- “I am feeling a bit insecure as my boss has been a bit harsh on me, and that makes me question my sense of self-worth” Not very likely.
A team will need to work individually and collectively on their interferences and the leaders need to make sure there is support for the mental coach for him or her to be effective. You win a big game not on the day but weeks, months and sometimes, under special circumstances, days before.
Looking at rugby it is one of the sports where you are least likely to get an upset. Looking at the World Cup only four or perhaps five teams actually have a chance to win it. For those teams their culture and their mental skills could be the edge.
The culture of a team defines who they are, what they do and don’t do and why they do it. If you look around, you will see the All Blacks and the English have strong cultures.
If you asked a dozen All Black’s what ten words define their culture you would probably get almost the same answers. Will we get the same level of understanding with our own Springboks?
Thanks to Tim, we have managed to get a small glimpse at how big a world mental toughness is. This could be reason why difficult people who were brilliant players but defined as unable to play within the team as they could have been an interference are side-lined.
These are the factors that come into most selections, how teams are selected, how the best sides in the world are separated from the rest. It highlights the importance of the profession and it is a sign that most sides must work to get one on board.