Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Drive Inside That Separates Top Rugby Players

I have had the chance to spend some time recruiting in New Zealand, and no sport is as popular there as rugby.

As all sports continue to evolve when it comes to the science of sport - both physically and mentally - so, too, has rugby in New Zealand.

Emma Stoney of the New York Times writes of how mental-skills coaches have helped develop elite rugby players.

How many times do you see an athlete crack under pressure and turn a chance to win into a defeat?

In rugby it typically manifests itself in bad decision-making. Pushing for a try when three points from a drop goal would do or giving away a penalty at a crucial point in the game because of overeagerness or lack of discipline.

The best players are those that can keep a cool head in high-pressure situations.

Back in rugby’s amateur days, sports psychology was often seen as psycho-babble and the use of mental-skills coaches was unheard of. If a player had admitted talking to a “shrink” he would have been ridiculed and more likely than not seen as the weak link in the team.

But now no team is complete without one. Coaches have come to realize that little separates professional athletes physically and that much depends on how players mentally prepare for a match and react during the game itself.

“There’s been a real drive for that over the last decade I guess,” said Dave Rennie, who will take over as coach of the Chiefs Super Rugby club in September.

“It probably wasn’t readily accepted initially by a lot of players, but I think if you talk to the modern-day players, they would acknowledge that a lot of players they are playing against have a similar physical ability and similar skill set, and it is generally the people with the mental strength who can consistently perform.”

Andrew Hore of the New Zealand All Blacks can see the benefits of having a mental-skills coach working with a team, although he chooses to use his own mentors when the situation requires it.

“I definitely think there is a place for them,” said Hore, who has played 50 tests for New Zealand and over 100 Super Rugby matches for the Hurricanes. “Even if only 1 person out of the 22 is going to get benefit from it then, it’s something to look at.

“Some people have mental-skills coaches they talk to, and other people have mentors they ring up and get the brutal facts about how you are playing.

“I’ve got a couple of guys like that who I can ring. I ring my dad every day and he tells me if I play well.”

Dave Hadfield, a mental-skills coach who has worked with most of the New Zealand provincial teams, the Hurricanes and Crusaders Super Rugby teams and New Zealand’s Under 17s and Under 20s side, says ignorance has been the biggest hurdle the profession has had to overcome.

“Sports psychology in general is not that well understood. In the past a lot of players would think you must be nuts to need it. They’ve felt that talking to someone who worked in that area was a sign of weakness.

“It’s much more accepted now because most of the modern coaches have much more knowledge of that area,” he said. “If you talk to any top level coach and ask, ‘How important is the mental side of sport?’, you will not find one who does not say it’s critically important.

“The challenge becomes how you integrate that knowledge into your program. That’s often where coaches struggle. I would say a lot of work I do is with coaches helping them to understand the area better so they can apply it and use it in their coaching.”

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