Professional athletes, particularly those who operate at the highest level often remark that their success is often attributable to a large percentage of mental preparation or resilience; in addition to their known physical or technical skills.
However, how often in school sport do we train the minds of our players to prepare them to play sport at the highest level? How much of every practice or activity is reserved for mental development, to prepare them to face the pressure or stress of the game ahead? Or, in truth do we use 100% of the time available to practice skills, systems and techniques but forget to assist them in developing their individual mental resilience and ability to improve themselves in this element of their game?
WARRIORS Mental Model.
In the Warriors we acknowledge that a large proportion of performance is attributable to the mental readiness or resilience of our players; our mental model is taught in order to provide them with a proven, readily understandable and practical means to address fear, anxiety or stress which might otherwise impair their on (or off) field performance.
The squad Mantra of “DONT be Angry (Red HEaded)… DO be Calm/Cool (Blue Headed)” drives our mental approach; in order to get from A to C you need to go through B, and just like putting in the hours in the Gym to get RIPPED for summer to look your best, with mental preparation you also need to be F****g RIPT or Focused, Receptive, In the Moment, Present and Task Orientated in order to perform your best.
WHAT IS PRESSURE
Pressure for Rugby players is a combination of Expectations, Scrutiny and Consequences playing on the mind of the individual; these cause players to move into a default response position which is characteristic of Aggressive, Passive (withdrawn or inattentive) and Escape (Shutdown) behaviors… each of us has a default position to this pressure or stress and it is often to adopt a comfortable or familiar mental construct/position to deal with the situation, this requires us to ESCAPE.
RECOGNIZING PRESSURE (INFLUENCES & TRIGGERS)
But how in the midst of a game, training or other activity do we even know what mental state we are in? How do we recognize the need to change our behaviors, or to change our approach to meet the challenge in front of us? Much like a physical training activity we need to identify mental triggers which help us recognize that we must take action in order to adjust to the situation. In a game of rugby when someone looks to pass us the ball by looking at us and beginning the passing motion, we instinctively raise our hands to receive the pass…. this physical reaction can be applied to our mental state.
If we drop a ball, make a bad pass or miss a tackle we begin to focus on that event, rather than on the next… and this places pressure on us as we look to “redeem” ourselves by doing more (often more than is needed) during the next event, and if this does not work out we begin to spiral… our intent being to rectify the mistakes and atone for our earlier errors, but in reality our performance deteriorates as we focus on past events and we begin to lose contact with the immediate events around us.
This leads to TRIGGERS; small events which individually are of minor nature, but when we over focus on them they become destructive to our overall game. Everyone has a set of major TRIGGERS which can impact their performance, often they are centered around key actions on the field or INFLUENCES…. here are some real examples:
- Player A. Player A is a very capable player and the best kicker in the team, but when the weather is windy or wet he begins to worry about his kicking, his normal routine is disrupted when he attempts to kick the first kick… rushing his approach and changing his body position, leading to a miss. He becomes frustrated and blames the weather, his next kick being even worse as he shifts his foot position and changes his approach run angle. INFLUENCE – Weather, TRIGGER – Changed Routines.
- Player B. Player B is the fastest runner on the team, and the most able to find gaps in the opponent line to score, but when he is tackled hard early in a game he becomes frustrated and changes his running lines from the gaps, to try and run at players and bump them off. As he does so he is tackled more often and becomes more and more frustrated, eventually not running at space at all and often being shut down quickly by the defense, his confidence drops and he begins to make 50/50 passes which often fall to ground. INFLUENCE – Being unable to avoid early tackle in the game, TRIGGER – Changing his running angles away from gaps to direct into opponents.
In both events the players have allowed INFLUENCES to move them from a CALM BLUE HEAD position, to an ANGRY RED HEAD position; and as they move further away from being calm they become more and more heavily impacted; eventually leading them to ignore the things they do well, and fall into bad habits they inherently know are bad for their game success. Players must realize when certain INFLUENCES are beginning to affect them and where do they go under these INFLUENCES… towards RED or BLUE?
Pressure can rob a player of their sense of control within a game (or more generally.. practices etc.), and this is usually evident in the level of attention of a player; and where attention goes – energy flows. If the player moves towards a RED head; the following generic micro TRIGGERS can be identified:
- Physical Response. A feeling of being tired, exhausted or generally heavy; slow to respond to on field events, or a lethargy which does not allow the player to ENJOY what they are doing.
- Mental Response. Increasing levels of self (or team/collective) doubt, a feeling of being disconnected from the events around you, and time seems to speed up giving you no time to adjust or respond to opponent activity; you feel you are not ENJOYING the game.
- Emotional Response. Frustration, Anger, Fear or uncertainty being to cloud your thinking; you become disconnected or distracted from the game and mistakes all have excuses which are out of your control; allowing little space for ENJOYMENT
A common element here is the LACK OF ENJOYMENT of the player during the game, especially with youth players their level of immediate enjoyment can have a huge impact on their performance; too much focus on mistakes or errors that might occur in the future, or some wide ranging generalization that something they just did would have long term impact on the game, rather than players being able to remain immediately present on what they are doing NOW or IMMEDIATELY next can cause them to worry about things they cannot control. This spirals and impacts their enjoyment; often it is the behavior of the coaches (and parents) who dramatically enhance this pressure and stress… and subsequently the lack of ENJOYMENT of the player leads to declining performance.
Particularly as coaches we have the responsibility to coach well, and this extends to how we treat players during stressful periods; do we arm them with the tools they need to respond to the pressure, or do we assume we can do this for them?…. a simple fact is that teams which are driven by coaches are less capable than teams driven by players. Often the RED HEAD situation is more often created by poor coaching rather than poor player effort.
A Cool/Clear head allows players to control their attention and ensure that they are focusing on important processes and tasks, rather than using up limited space for negative thoughts and actions. Players in a BLUE HEAD state have:
- INTENSITY. They are focused very much on what they need to do right now, or immediately next; not worrying about long term issues (e.g. Winning the game), but more importantly on how their next action (pass, kick, run) can positively improve their game. The collective result of this Intensity in them moment will naturally lead to improved end of game conditions.
- CLARITY. They know with absolute Clarity what they need to do now, and immediately next to get the most positive result; they don’t waste energy on thinking about what just went wrong, they use their energy to focus on what is needed now/next to be successful. Clarity of purpose, plan and part (what part the player has) is critical.
- EXECUTION FOCUSED. They DO what is needed, they don’t agonize about various options or events which could go wrong; they make a decision about what activity (tackle, pass, run etc.) is needed right now or immediately next, and focus all their effort and attention on getting that correct.
A result of the BLUE HEAD approach is that the player has a new sense of CERTAINTY (about what they need to do), they are connected to the moment through understanding their role and part in what is going on now (rather than being mentally 5 minutes, or 60 minutes mentally distanced), and they are able to perceive time as SLOWING rather than speeding up as they pay attention to the immediate events, actions and responses that affect them right now.
If a lack of ENJOYMENT is the outcome of pressure/stress and errors and leads to RED HEAD situations, the increase in ENJOYMENT is an antidote to the fear, uncertainty and distraction. By increasing the ENJOYMENT factor for the player, their potential to more easily find a BLUE HEAD position is improved; doubt/fear/uncertainty are the enemy and must be defeated… by the player remaining totally present in the MOMENT and being able to get out of the RED HEAD and back into a BLUE HEAD they will dramatically improve their overall ENJOYMENT of the game and it will seem as if they have more time to think, act and respond than other players on the field.