Games don’t come more pressurised than those that marked the final weekend of the 2015 6 Nations. With results dictating any one of four sides could still claim the title every point counted and every tackle had to stick. The players who took the field for Wales, Ireland, England and France knew what was expected of them and if they were nervous it didn’t stop them setting about the task in hand – to win and win big.
— RBS 6 Nations (@rbs_6_nations) March 21, 2015
When talking to coaches for Rugby Revealed I asked what qualities they looked for in their players. Among the top traits was the ability to handle pressure. A player’s mental strength not only marks them out in terms of their drive to improve, it’s also evident when the game is underway and the pressure to perform is on. For many it is this quality that makes good players great.
“Great players are the ones that can perform consistently under pressure. Sometimes they are not the fastest, strongest or the most gifted rugby players but they are the ones who can deliver under pressure.” John Dams
John Dams is Strength and Conditioning Coach at Harlequins but with many years working with the top players around the world he knows it takes physical and mental strength to win. His views echoed many others who saw mental preparation as one of the most important elements of winning at the top level.
Teaching Players to Perform Under Pressure
Rugby, like most professional sports is embracing mental skills coaching as a way to prepare players for those big moments.
Isa Nacewa is a former player who knows many of the Irish squad well, having played and won with many of them for Leinster in his five years with the club. Today he is the Performance Coach with the Auckland Blues, where he uses his experience to help young players prepare mentally for games. He outlines his approach to developing the skills and habits that are required to keep a player performing under pressure at the top level.
“If you really break down performance and the areas that they were poor at I can pretty much pinpoint the things they can control and the things they can’t control. I flush out the things that aren’t in their control that will influence their resolve in the game.
It’s about high standards, good habits, preparation during the week and knowing that by game time all the boxes have been ticked and confidence is at a high.”
Sir John Kirwan, Head Coach at the Auckland Blues explains the importance of the work Isa is doing with his Blues players. “He is teaching our young players how to prepare each week to take some of the pressure off them and how to work on their key roles so that they are the complete rugby player.”
While there are ways to prepare and improve players skills in this area what cannot be forgotten is that top players relish the challenge of the big match moments. In 2014 Wallaby Fly Half Bernard Foley faced taking a Super Rugby championship winning kick outside his normal range for club side The Warratahs in the final minute of the game. His response to facing this pressure kick speaks volumes about the mindset of elite professionals.
“There are big moments where you have to take the kick. That’s why I did the extras after training. That’s why I would kick 100 balls a week. That’s why you kick goals, to take that responsibility.”
Bernard Foley, Sydney Morning Herald
Focus on the Process not the Outcome
— RBS 6 Nations (@rbs_6_nations) March 21, 2015
If a player is to handle pressure they must not let the situation affect their performance and they have to remain focused on their responsibilities. After the Scotland Ireland game, former Scotland scrum half Andy Nicol said Scotland had “played the occasion and not the opposition”, suggesting they had lost their focus on simply winning the game and instead looked at their part in the eventual destination of the championship.
By contrast Man of the Match, Ireland’s No 7 Sean O’Brien speaking after the win said “we [the Irish] had to go out and stick to our process and win the game first and let the scoreboard look after itself.”
The ‘process and outcome’ approach is something that O’Brien’s former Leinster team mate Nacewa shares with his players now he is a coach. “I always try to tell players it’s the process that will get you to where you want to be and not the outcome.”
He gives as an example of this approach being successful, the famous Leinster comeback in the 2011 Heineken Cup Final in which he and O’Brien played under Coach Joe Schmidt, now Ireland Coach. Isa shares his insight on the players’ perspective on that famous game.
“In that Final we were down 22-6 down at half time but we hadn’t played. As soon as we took a break and said “we haven’t actually done any of our processes yet. Let’s just go back to the step by step process and the outcome will take care of itself.” That was the message.
I don’t think there was doubt in our heads, it was 40 minutes that had just flown by. Maybe there would have been a bit more doubt in our head if Saints had got that kick from the side-lines before we went into the sheds. There are turning points in games where that kills it, but all of a sudden the ball hits the upright and we are still sprinting off the field like we haven’t even played yet. We just looked at the process – the scrum sorted their thing out, the Backs sorted their stuff out, and Johnny Sexton just turned into a maestro and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and won it.”
Experience is the Key
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) March 22, 2015
Experience was something Captain Paul O’Connell sited when interviewed after the 40-10 Ireland victory. He referenced club experience in Europe as a factor in helping to keep his players focused on their goal.
“We were focused all week on how we were going to win the game. We have a lot of experience from the Heineken Cup and The Champions Cup where you come into the last two games never wanting to chase a bonus point. You just want to win a game first and that’s what we tried to do.”
Nacewa highlighted Shane Jennings’ contribution to the 2011 Leinster victory where his experience helped to bring the win. “He [Jennings] was calm enough and experienced enough to come on and keep driving those around him to stay focused and do what they had to do for the next play. What’s the point on focusing on the mistakes we just made, just focus on the next play. That’s what experience does as well.”
In his coaching role Isa encourages younger players to learn from their older and more experienced team mates. “A lot of it isn’t rocket science; it is to do with having really high professional standards and learning off the older guys.”
How Coaches Deal with Pressure
— Independent Sport (@IndoSport) March 21, 2015
After the 6 Nations trophy was awarded, Joe Schmidt was asked if games like this built character in teams. He joked “it certainly builds coronaries in coaches!”
The Coach’s contribution should never be overlooked in a winning team, and their role in mental preparation is part of that. Schmidt is known for his attention to detail and meticulous preparation as Isa Nacewa experienced first-hand under Schmidt at Leinster. “Joe Schmidt’s record speaks for itself, yet he still watches 7 games on our next opposition after our game to be ready for the following week but he knows the game inside and out. He knows it’s about creating the right habits and how you train.”
Nacewa believes consistency is key when it comes to coaching. “Coaches need to take a step back and see if they are being consistent in the messages they are giving the players throughout the whole week. If the coaches let slip then obviously the players let slip and that reinforces bad habits.”
Up to the Challenge
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) March 22, 2015
In a few months we’ll see if the promise this Irish side have shown can take them to the next level. After their success in the 6 Nations, the pressure is on to deliver on the game’s biggest stage, the Rugby World Cup.
6 Nations Highlights: Watch Scotland v Ireland
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com