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Mind over matter

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During his time out from top-level coaching, John Mitchell has learned how a mentor can have a greater influence on team success by working through the strengths of individuals.
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By: John Mitchell….John writes for the new Vodacom Rugby Portal

I believe that to have a complete influence on a player, as a coach, you need to know what makes him tick.

Some players are relationship-orientated and want to know how you feel about them, before talking about a decision that was made or a tackle that was missed.

An executor or a doer wants to know that he is working hard, but sometimes you need to tell him to settle down and not overdo it, and rather focus on being accurate in a contest.

Meanwhile, a strategic-minded player will be disappointed if he’s not involved in determining the team’s strategy and game plan.

And then you have the influencers, who influence others by their moods – both up and down – and base a lot of their psychology on the vibe of the group collective. They are competitive people who are driven by the motivation of winning. They are also highly emotional and respond a lot in the moment without understanding the consequences.

Most coaches will speak to their team as a group between five or six times a week. Some weeks, a coach may not get to speak to every player individually. As such, the message that he sends to the team as a whole has to be relative to the strengths of every individual. If your message only applies to one type of player, then the others are not going to receive it.

When I coached the Chiefs in 2001, a lot of our motivation was derived from the fact that the franchise hadn’t done well in the past and there had been infighting between the provinces. We wanted to change that.

Meanwhile, when I arrived in Perth in 2005 as the first ever Western Force coach, it was all about building a new brand and culture. I discovered that players were motivated by being foundation members and part of something new. If ever I needed to know how to focus on the individual strengths of players it was at the Force, but I didn’t have that knowledge then that I do now. As a coach you need to understand why players make the decisions they do.

In 2011, I became the Lions’ sixth coach in the space of a few years, so many of the players had endured six different coaching philosophies at the union. There had been a lot of generic motivation at the Lions, which I removed because I didn’t think it was the right pitch. I chose to work on individuals myself.

I also inherited 130 players, some of whom I knew weren’t going to be productive, so I also had to deliver some bad news, which is not exactly positive psychology at the starting point.

In my opinion, there isn’t enough time in professional sport for conscious decisions, so a coach must work on players’ instinctive decision-making through repetitive practice. Repetition reduces the cognitive thought process, making the conscious decision instinctive.

I believe it’s about context giving meaning to content in a structured way without emotion.

Negative emotion in rugby is a killer. It’s evident that teams that can control their emotions on the field achieve more success than those that can’t. That’s why it’s vital for coaches to focus on the mental side of the game and know what motivates their players as individuals.

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