After watching Queensland flounder in Origin 2, England will attempt to overcome their own "vulnerability" in a bid to keep Eddie Jones' perfect record…
I had an interesting conversation with a former Western Force player once. I asked him what they did to psyche themselves up before a game.
Did they have any professional help, like a sports psychologist to motivate them? His answer was that no, they didn’t have anyone, because they believed that if you can’t get yourself up for those games, then you never will. So it was left up to the individual to motivate themselves.
A friend of mine once played rugby in Blacktown, Sydney, so you knew it was a tough competition. One game they tried using a sports psychologist to motivate the team. It was a disaster. They were so revved up that they were penalised off the park and had several players sent off. They lost by a big margin. They never tried that again.
Different people have different arousal thresholds. That is, some people need more motivation or topping up of their arousal levels than others to perform at their optimum. The trick is not to underdo it or to overdo it – easier said than done, as my mate’s team found out.
So that started me thinking: what would be the benefit of employing someone to try and ensure that everyone had their top two inches in the right headspace before the game? Would there be a significant difference in performance? I’m sure there must be some people out there employed to do this.
Try this little exercise next time you are playing golf. Start with putting while you’re doing your warm-ups on the practice green. Repeat this to yourself over and over: “I know it’s going to go in”. Just keep repeating this mantra. Use it to block out any other thoughts. It banishes negative thoughts and banishes that nervous feeling before taking any pressure shots. It’s marvellous the difference it makes, at least for me. Then work up to chips, irons, drivers et cetera. It’s an interesting exercise and can probably be applied to many sports.
Have you ever had that sensation at training where you feel like you can run like the wind forever and you feel on top of the world? You may even think to yourself, “Wow, I feel good and I’m going to have a great game this weekend. I’m going to smash the opposition”.
Then comes the game, your feet turn to lead, you can’t seem to catch your breath and everyone seems to be running away from you at a rate of knots. Negative thoughts enter your head and you start to feel the pressure to perform building. Welcome to game-day nerves. During training there isn’t any pressure on you and your mind is in a good place. It doesn’t matter so much if you drop a pass or miss a tackle.
During the game your mind is probably thinking mostly negative thoughts about what could go wrong. Humans are innately pessimists. If you ask people what could go right in their lives in the future, they will come up with a very short list. But ask them what could go wrong and they will fill a notebook. It must be an ancient survival technique built into our DNA. Try it yourself and see what happens.
So what can you do about game-day nerves? You need to come up with a method to block out negative thoughts. You need to stop thinking about dropping that pass or missing that tackle, otherwise you will. Then the pressure will increase on you with the next pass or tackle and it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and down you’ll spiral into a negative feedback loop.
One method concerning banishing game-day nerves is to try and trick your mind into believing that game day is just another ordinary day. That’s why some coaches on game day will tell you to just go out there and enjoy yourself and have some fun or pretend it’s something enjoyable, like your previous training run.
By blocking out negative thoughts, you can help to banish those game-day nerves. This will in turn help you to establish a positive feedback loop – though it’s easier said than done.
If you miss a tackle or drop a pass, then just dust yourself off, say that it’s only a game and try to do better next time. Nobody’s life is depending on the outcome. That’s why teammates should only encourage others positively to do better next time. No-one likes to let the team down and no-one means to let the team down. When it does happen there’s no need to rub their noses in it, because that will have the opposite effect.
The above method is similar to visualisation or mentally rehearsing certain plays or shots at goal. But it is more general and applies on a much broader scale.
I remember Keith Miller’s famous quote, “There’s no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse!”. Cricket was just a pleasure for him. No wonder he did so well – plus he had a little bit of skill, opening the bowling and coming in at first drop for Australia.
Yet another example of banishing game-day nerves comes to mind. I once had to open the batting with a very young guy who had never opened before. He asked how he should approach the game, as he was very nervous. All I said was that there was no point being nervous. All nerves will do is help you get out, so forget about having nerves. Don’t let them rule you. Instead take command and rule them.
It must have struck a chord, because we went on to have a decent opening stand from 20 or so overs in a 40-over match. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just instilling self-belief and confidence in my opening partner.
I also remember a one-day international between Australia and the West Indies. There were two balls to go and the Windies needed six runs to win. There was a midwicket conference and the batsman at the striker’s end asked the other batsman what he should do. The reply went along the lines of there are two options. Either he could hit the first ball for six and win the game, or he could hit a single and then the other batter would hit the last ball for six and win the game.
The batter on strike hit the first ball for six. The power of positive thinking.
The harder I work the luckier I am. I have heard this expression many times. What it means is that if I work hard enough, then I won’t need to rely on luck to win games. It won’t matter if I have good or bad luck, because I will be so far out in front anyway. Luck should average out 50-50, but you only notice the bad luck, especially in a close game. Try and take luck out of the equation.
Taking the referee out of the equation is a similar way of thinking. I have read that the All Blacks try to put as many points as possible on the opposition as early as possible to take the referee and the opposition out of the equation. There are few teams in the world that can make this happen consistently. It also demoralises the opposition if you are 20 or 30 points in front with ten minutes or so left in the game. You don’t want to give the opposition a sniff of victory, or they might have a red hot go. The mind is a powerful tool.
The other thing I notice about the All Blacks is that they trust in their systems and processes to win the game. It doesn’t matter to them if they fall behind on the scoreboard early in the match. They try to put it behind them and not think about the score line. They trust that playing the way they want to play will see them through to victory. Being happy playing how they want to play helps them win most games – another powerful tool for thinking positively and not letting your mind run away with negative thoughts.
Steve Waugh refined mental disintegration as a tool to demoralise opposition players. The Australians would sledge the opposition until their concentration was broken. They became angry or upset and often they got out. It might be crude and unsportsmanlike, but it’s effective. Instead of positively reinforcing their own players, the Australians were trying to instill negative thinking into the opposition players. It must have worked most of the time, otherwise they would have stopped doing it.
I was only very young when Magnum, PI was on TV, but I still remember one episode very well. Magnum was talking about his college football days and that sometimes they were up for the game and sometimes they were down. It just happened that way. But when they were hot they were really hot, almost unbeatable. He called it “being in the groove”. Then the British caretaker, Jonathan Higgins, replied all Zen-like and called it “the flight of the unguided arrow”.
I think what they were both saying is that once self-belief and confidence are instilled in a team – assisted by banishing negative thoughts and by creating a positive feedback loop – then the team will play to the best of its ability. There’s no need for the players to even think about it; just go out there and let it happen. This should be the aim of most sporting teams.
What about the marathon runner who wins gold? They cross the finish line at a canter and still have plenty left in the tank for a victory lap or two. Their mind is running on a high. Then there are the runners-up. They are thankful to get over the line and collapse in a heap. It sometimes makes you wonder if they are going to have a heart attack or something. The mind is always at work on both the winners and the losers.
Another simple exercise that has always amazed me is to grab three people from any group or team. One is to be lifted by the other two but only in a standing position and by grabbing onto the forearms on each side, which should be at right angles to the body.
But first take the one to be lifted aside so you won’t be overheard and tell them that there will be two attempted lifts. In the first lift they must think of their body as being as light as possible. That is, made of feathers, tissue paper or something so light that it would lift off and blow away in the slightest breeze. Their mind must be thinking all the time, “Up, up. I want to go up. Up, up, up and away like a balloon”.
For the second attempt the one to be lifted must think heavy – heavy like lead. Heavy like a wrought iron hang-glider. They are so heavy that they are sinking down into the ground. There is no possible way the two other guys are going to lift them. Keep thinking heavy thoughts during the entire lift. Then have the lifters comment to the group, comparing the two lifts. Which was easier and which was harder? Like me, you will be amazed at the results.
What about the English cricket team and the recent Ashes? I read that they had to watch all their dismissals after a Test match. Would that be positive or negative feedback? Would that be a good or bad thing? It’s hard to believe in this day and age that there is nobody coaching an international team in ways that provide positive feedback to instill self-belief and confidence. It’s truly amazing. Maybe someone will recognise this and make the necessary changes. The Poms could certainly do with some changes to the way they approach Test cricket.
Does anyone have any other mind games to motivate teams? To instill self-belief and confidence through positive feedback? There are bound to be ways that I have missed. The collected thoughts of a team are better than those of a single individual – as long as an idea meritocracy is in place. More on that in Part 3.
Please feel free to give your knowledge and experiences back to the rugby community.