For generations, it has been a coaches’ greatest challenge to have every player effectively motivated so their team will collectively perform to maximum ability. Everyone who has ever coached rugby will understand that feeling when they walk into the changing room before a game and sense the vibe.
It becomes immediately apparent some players are ready and some players are not.
The key, of course, is to identify those players that aren’t ready and help them prepare. The ultimate challenge, they say, is how can any one man read the minds of 15 players?
I believe it is of crucial importance to teach those players the individual skills to prepare themselves effectively for a performance. There has to be process and the sooner a player develops his own process the better.
How much easier would it be for every coach if all his players had their own process, they knew what motivated them, and how to prepare to perform at their maximum every time they played?
As coaches, all we would have to do is worry about the strategic plan: how we are going to beat the opposition and what we need to do, not whether we are mentally prepared to perform.
Last weekend there were some classic examples of this.
The Chiefs and the Highlanders were completely ready to perform at their maximum collectively. With this came meritorious victories.
Both teams had game plans and both were able to implement them: the Chiefs wanted to dominate up front and play the game at speed. For the Highlanders, it was fairly simple – they knew they had to contest every area with intensity, particularly the breakdown area, which they dominated.
Counter-rucking and quick quality ball meant there was really only one team on the field, and who would have thought it would be the team playing against the mighty Crusaders.
When I look at the matches in Australia, it is hard to identify a team that was ready to the same degree.
Even the Reds made uncharacteristic mistakes and did not appear to be in the groove – something I’m sure Ewen McKenzie will address.
One player who was completely in the zone was Mike Harris, with his extraordinary record of success: 24 successful goals from 24 attempts in Super Rugby.
At the International Rugby Academy, our definition of mental toughness is: “The ability to perform at your maximum every time you play.” We teach mental skills and mind management and we practice these skills on a daily basis for three weeks.
Players need to understand themselves and appreciate they are all different, they are motivated differently, and they have different arousal levels.
Coaches need to help their players develop a process that works leading into a game, and fine tune that process until it becomes automatic.
As a player becomes more experienced, this gradually develops, which is why so many players at the twilight of their careers can still perform at a more consistent level than they did when they were young.
We believe if a player can develop those mental skills at 18, 19, 20 years of age, they will be much more successful on and off the field.
I’m absolutely certain that more coaches need to address mental toughness as their first priority at the commencement of each season rather than let it develop naturally.
Arousal level is an easy one to understand; roughly 50% of players on a team are high arousal, while the other 50% are low.
Maximum performance can be achieved at approximately halfway between high and low arousal.
If you are a high arousal player, you need to bring down your arousal level to perform at your peak. If you are a low arousal player, you must lift it.
The coach cannot expect to be able to read every player, but he can create an environment where each player takes responsibility for his own preparation.
It makes me think back to when I was a young rugby player, and I remember my coaches walking into the room, smashing their fists into the palms of their hands, yelling, ‘Fire up, fire up! Switch on!’
I look at that image now and understand that type of motivation was helping approximately 50% of their team and was highly detrimental to the others.
There are probably coaches now doing exactly the same thing, and really, it is just a matter of awareness and understanding of motivation and arousal.
The coaches who understand this are more successful.
An example for me in the other code is Wayne Bennett. He clearly knows how to prepare a team for a performance. It doesn’t matter what the team, what the standard, he understands that formula.
I mentioned in a previous column that some coaches know how to win a campaign. Preparing a team mentally to perform is one of the fundamental factors required and I firmly believe that a team of well-motivated and prepared players will almost always beat a team with better individual players.