Rugby Mental Skills, and Handling the Inner Critic

Rugby mental skills, and handling the Personal Critic

Most sportspeople know that feeling. Those times when mental skills are essential when the pressure is on! If not handling defeat well, then recovering from it to be a stronger person for it.

Handling pressure, when a player’s mind can resemble something like a ‘concrete mixer’ is an example. Times when the ever-present internal critic can be your greatest enemy. So, what can rugby players do to control the uncontrollable?

According to New Zealand women’s rugby sevens coach Allan Bunting, it is where the very best shine. His players are World Champions, and like Richie McCaw and countless others, it is where individuals display a strong set of mental skills where they can survive the high-octane world of professional sport. They group together as a team, to claim world titles and championships.

Individually, handling the ‘inner critic’ is another skillset which modern athletes require. While it has been a factor for time immemorial, the ability to overcome and to mute that emotion. To somehow ‘put controls in place’ from abilities learned and developed over careers.

Many a rugby player – indeed any sportsperson – will use game time to improve their performance. That is both physically and mentally. Although, do not let anyone tell you the game is entirely physical. Untrue. And for many sports, mental skills could be more of a substantial component than the game itself.

Rugby mental skills, and battling through the ‘concrete mixer’

The ability to be mentally strong, to think in positive terms – especially to yourself – is an ingredient for success. Applicable to ‘the ones’ who perform right from the outset or, even those like Richie McCaw (see main image) who took the learnings from a disastrous 2007 Rugby World Cup to become all the better for it.

Performing; winning you might say, is about staying cool, maintaining organization within a team sport.

Strategies to regulate breathing and alertness, to keep up communication levels [in every sport] from numbers 1 to 15. And critically, to stick to set goals.

Those abilities and particularly, the rugby mental skills to succeed, are all skill sets learned over a career in the sport. One where repetition assists. Some of which is why on the increasingly competitive World Rugby Sevens Series circuit, making every one of those 14 minutes of match time count can be the keys to the teams’ success.

Allan Bunting (see below image) refers to the on-field conditions like a concrete mixer. That feeling when everything happens at once. Individually, overloaded, out of breath, and badly in need of a calm head.

Allan Bunting, Black Ferns Sevens coach at Blake Park, 2018. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

“We inject them quite slowly, send them out on the field with quite a bit of support around them. With senior players around them to counter that feeling of being in a concrete mixer alone.”

Over the last cycle of Sevens Series building into the 2020 Olympics, Bunting and his group have done that successfully. To not damage young players, and keep experienced players fresh over the demanding schedule.

He remarked how “you won’t often see us chuck a whole group of young players out on the World Series, because there is a chance of ‘make or break’. When you chuck that jersey on it can be quite a scary experience. Having a poor experience like that too young can be quite damaging.”

Developing mental skills is key to professional rugby today

In terms of rugby mental skills, compare it with a position of being the All Blacks captain. The toughest role in NZ rugby. And for McCaw it involved handling the inner critic after failure at a Rugby World Cup; which was an incredibly difficult step in the career of the champion player.

McCaw certainly experienced the ‘concrete mixer’ during the 2007 RWC quarterfinal.

Overcoming post-RWC anxiety, taking lessons from it, and using external life coaches and mentors in learning from those experiences was ultimately important in assisting him to redemption; two consecutive RWC titles being the most satisfying reward for player and the All Blacks fan base.

Everyone can relate to the anxiety which high-level sport can create. Sweaty palms, tunnel vision, clouded thoughts, and for some, a feeling of ‘wanting to escape the pressure cooker’. Yet for the elite, many will want to embrace that pressure. To work harder, and to realize their personal and combined potential. Those are some learnings that professional sports have discovered in the last 25 years of professionalism.

And whether the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown stalled active sport for a time, those who might use this time to re-energize their appetite for the game, will come out the other end better. To learn life skills to manage external pressures that will translate into their sports lives. After Covid, some may find they can handle the often jumbled experiences on the field better.

They can handle the concrete mixer which in pro rugby, and come out the other side.

Handling the inner critic, building the skillset to succeed

Internally, everyone has an inner critic. Honestly, human nature can be critical of personal actions. And in sport, success and performance breed criticism. That can be shown openly – watch a cricket batsman or tennis player verbally insult their own actions.

While some individuals ‘gee themselves up’ by screaming and shouting, within a team, it’s just you and your mates. Walking back to your tryline, support and positive messages are helpful to everyone.

Olympic Rugby Sevens program delayed until 2021
Kenki Fukuoka, right, and Yusaku Kuwazuru of Japan following their defeat during the Men’s Rugby Sevens semi-final match between Fiji and Japan. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Apart from that tactic, rugby mental skills are a big part of the sport. Over the course of a career, those skills help; or hinder, individual enjoyment. Your inner critic may become your weak link if the individual cannot adequately control any insecurity or doubt. Retreating after an opposition scoring movement is when you need to reset and react positively.

Not becoming defeatist, questioning your own ability. it can happen off the field, as much as on it.

It can affect a XVs player or a Sevens player equally. Getting caught up in the moment, losing the clarity required to perform your role. As a viewer, you can see it in the faces of players – like on the All Blacks players’ faces in that 2007 RWC quarterfinal loss.

“Anyone can get in the concrete mixer. You might be a Portia Woodman but leaving someone out on the field too long can be quite damaging. Having someone fresh on the bench that can do the job – it’s not because the replaced player can’t do it, its that rugby is a physically taxing sport.

“You only have five subs, so it’s quite strategic in sevens. Knowing your players too, as some can last longer in the concrete mixer. When they’re under the pump, and who can last out there” was the conclusion of Bunting.

Women and men can each use mental skills to cope in the most difficult situations, be it on defence or attacking to regain the lead.

Rugby coping skills and reaching your Potential

Coping skills in sport is becoming a more important element, as the rewards get higher and higher. The Olympics, World Series, or a Rugby World Cup, for athletes today, it is a profession. Hardly comparable to popular American sports earnings or even their psychology yet, both a Michael Jordan or Megan Rapinoe have the same will to succeed as a Richie McCaw or Kelly Brazier.

Mental strength is clear to see. World-class athletes control the uncontrollable, work harder than the opposition, and their team management can rely on them to ‘be there’.

When the moment counted at the Commonwealth Games, Bunting had confidence in his players. “Yeah, Kelly. One of her biggest strengths is her endurance. She knew everyone around her fallen down, everyone had given everything but, we had every faith in Kelly to make it”.

“She gets caught in the concrete mixer too. Her and Sarah Goss are one of the few who can ‘keep going’ once they’ve been caught in the concrete mixer. Their experience shines through.”

In any hemisphere, individuals that can be relied on, are key members of a team. On the flip side, if you have doubts or have to battle your inner critic, that is also a factor that contributes to success. Your teammates want to know you believe in yourself, so yes even stars have doubts sometimes but, they can ‘mute’ the critic.

They build on their confidence, and like McCaw achieved, work to rebuild the personal skillset to reach new heights of self-reliance. Negating the inner critic, using past experiences to better yourself, all key steps to overcoming the psychological side of professional sport.

Ready to accept the pressure, and thrive in it!

In rugby terms, coming back from one of the most unexpected results in Rugby World Cup history, rates up there. Beside the Brave Blossoms defeating South Africa in Brighton, is the All Blacks failure in Cardiff, 2007.

Richie McCaw took the learnings from that, brought in mental skills coaches like Gilbert Enoka (see below image) and Ceri Evans each gave him and his group of players advice and tips on surviving the brutal world of professional sport.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen, Richie McCaw and mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka (R) talk during an All Blacks captain’s run. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

He came out on the other side of the concrete mixer – the continuity of leadership in his captaincy, and in the coaching of Sir Graham Henry, set in place the steps toward redemption. 2011 was a vast improvement in terms of rugby mental skills. A hard-fought win over France was built on failures in 2007. And in 2015, the group had further matured into a secure, confident, and organized unit.

McCaw could rely on his own, and his teams mental toughness, to overcome Australia 34-17.

In conclusion, there is no golden pill. Experience and learning from mistakes is key. Some have instant success like Sonny Bill Williams [debut season winning the NRL Premiership] but otherwise, overcome adversity like McCaw. Others like Kelly Brazier, develop the skillset that sees them excel on the biggest stage. A metamorphosis for some overtime, to becoming skilled athletes who perform to the highest level.

For the best, trials and tribulations are key ingredients. Humble beginnings blossom into greatness. And they accept the pressure and thrive in it. Champions, and better people for it.


“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images