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Condor Performance Blog - April 2012 Archives


Monday, April 30, 2012

Mental Analysis of National Rugby League (NRL); Round 8

NRL Round 8 – Rooster v Dragons

The events at the end of this match make it a stand out for review this week, especially in light of the fact that this is not the first time this season that a seemingly impossible come-back win has eventuated.

Here’s how the mental element of performance produces these results, and will continue to do so.

As a game draws to a close everyone (players, spectators, commentators, coaches; any human watching with interest) will make a calculation that involves two key elements; the score and time remaining. Some will make this calculation after building a significant half time lead, or after scoring plenty of points early in a match.

Spectators will often leave the ground as a result of their answer to this calculation (presumably to get an early start on the blogs that are calling for the heads of the coach, players and anyone else responsible for the loss).

Commentators will start to sing the praises of the team in front and often talk up the hopes of the opposition, usually as part of their job description to keep the viewing audience interested in the contest so they watch it to the end (thereby seeing all the advertising).

Coaches will have thoughts and views about the likely outcome of the game and may have some interchange decisions to make and messages to send out to the players.

For mentally tough players, none of this makes any difference because they know their job and they know what the task at hand is; how they do their job is the difference between winning and losing.

The Roosters showed visible signs of mental vulnerability and they have showed these signs in the past (see Round 2, 2011 on our facebook page). The Dragons also displayed some signs of mental vulnerability; however, there was a significant factor in their favour – Ben Hornby.

Here’s how the events unfolded.

• Jamie Soward blows up at the referee regarding a line-drop out decision and concedes a penalty right in front, 10 metres out for back chat (poor emotion management producing a loss of discipline) • Roosters kick the penalty goal and lead 24-16 with 4 minutes remaining (most are thinking ‘game-set-match’ Roosters, but no one can predict the future!) • Post-match player interviews reveal that Ben Hornby’s message behind the goal line is ‘We are still in this’ and given it’s his day, due to breaking the club record for most appearances, his troops ‘buy in’ and follow their leader • The Dragons successfully regain possession off a short kick off and score on the same play (Roosters display a lack of urgency, a lack of awareness and poor execution in securing possession and defending the play because they thought they had an 8 point buffer and could get away with it – ‘surely the Dragons can’t score twice in 4 minutes’) • Dragons convert and are still alive at 22-24 with 2 minutes remaining (time for only 2 sets of six; ‘surely we can defend one set of 6’)

What happened next reveals the mindset adopted by the Roosters, possibly not collectively, but at least by their skipper, Braith Anasta - go slow.

With such little time remaining the temptation is to kill time by crawling back to halfway and reduce the opposition to only 1 set of six tackles to go the length of the field. Tie up boot laces, pull socks up, throw grass into air to check breeze and so on.

The mental difficulty of this mindset is maintaining intensity when competing at a ‘walk through’ pace. In fact, the ‘go slow’ is the ideal way to avoid competing! Yes, that’s right – going slow screams ‘I DON”T WANT TO COMPETE’ followed by a softer ‘because we’ve got it won anyway’.

So, with the avoidance of competing on their mind, Anasta stands in the centre of the field and prepares for the re-start. Now given that Anasta has been prone to kick the ball out on the full from the restart in the past, he does the 2nd worst thing he could possibly do (from the mental perspective). He performs a slow and exaggerated kick-off to punctuate the avoidance of competing.

Specifically, Anasta points to his left and right, takes a few steps back, composes himself, raises his hand in the air, then kicks off. Phew, it didn’t go out, despite the fact that this sort of break from his usual routine prior to a kick off increases the risk of error.

When the surge of energy that the previous try provided the Dragons is matched with the slow and flat energy levels displayed by the Roosters you get the exact ingredients for a one sided walk over.

Think about it; one team highly charged, full of intensity with nothing to lose and another team desperate to avoid competing, going slow, thinking they have it won or hoping not to lose it from here.

• The Dragons receive the ball and go the length of the field, not to score, but to earn a repeat set • Anasta again slows down the restart, this time taking longer with the line drop out than he did with the previous kick off – ‘Hey Dragons, did I mention WE DON’T WANT TO COMPETE’ was written all over his effort. • The Roosters markers must have had concrete shoes – they didn’t compete while they were standing still on the last few plays prior to the match winning try. Meanwhile, the Dragon’s dummy half bursts out towards the ‘A’ and ‘B’ defenders, creating some attacking options, applies pressure by running at pace and with intensity. • Dragons score. All over red rover.

So, post-match interviews are conducted with players who are either shattered or singing the benefits of never giving up; guess which players were which.

Surprisingly, no media commentators mentioned the word choke (which it was), maybe because that would take away from the Dragon’s fine performance.

The loss occurred in the minds of the Roosters and despite comments from Brian Smith that they haven’t practiced short kick offs for a while, practice won’t be enough.

The players already know how to defend it. They let themselves down mentally.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mental Analysis of National Rugby League (NRL); Round 7

NRL Round 7 – Manly v Gold Coast

‘I didn’t see it coming’ were the words Geoff Toovey used regarding Manly’s 1st loss at Brookvale in 12 games. This is not true; here’s why.

During the week’s media commitments Toovey labelled this round’s clash with the Titans as a ‘danger game’, plus he was aware that Manly would only have a 5 day turnaround from their Monday night performance against the Panthers. So he did see it coming. Coaches say they ‘didn’t see it coming’ when they don’t know why it happened. ‘It’ of course refers to a poor performance. Here’s how the mental element contributed to how Manly produced a poor performance all by themselves.

What is a danger game? Is it a game that is played on a field with land mines in it, so you lose a leg if you step on one, or is it a game that has a greater risk of physical injury?

When Jack Nicholson’s character is asked about danger in the movie A Few Good Men the exchange goes like this:

Tom Cruise: “He was in mortal danger?” Jack Nicholson: “Is there any other kind?”

It is ridiculous to label a game of football, or a game of anything for that matter, as a danger game. There is no real danger, only perceived danger, which is why such a label is mentally destructive. The worst outcome for a team in any game is a loss; where is the danger in that?

The same applies for must-win games, crunch-games, games against bogey teams; all of these are complete rubbish because they are all mentally destructive.

A must-win game suggests that winning is optional for the other games.

A crunch-game suggests that this game is more important than all the others (which it’s not; all games require the same skills be executed, so making some games more important only increases pressure, reduces performance and produces losses).

A bogey team suggests a mental obstacle that a certain team provides, which only exists in the minds of those who choose to believe it.

Coaches make the mistake of labelling these games in an often misguided attempt to motivate their team. If the coach believes that his team needs extra motivation, it would be a good idea for the coach to do it properly and add something that was actually going to increase his teams’ motivation. All ‘danger game’ labels increase is pressure and guess what, pressure leads to poor performance.

This is why danger-games and so on are self-fulfilling. The seed of poor performance is planted into the heads of the players who take on these rubbish labels and beliefs.

Coaches often get the relationship between motivation and nervous energy wrong. If you think your team needs motivating, ask yourself why?

Have NSW lost so many State of Origin series because they aren’t motivated? Do they really need to be told how important the series is? The role of the coach is to manage this balance and the more the coach understands the influence of the mental element the better they are at getting this balance right.

Perhaps Manly were mentally and physically flat following a Monday night game. If so, this means you load up on rest and relaxation so they can produce the required burst of energy on game day, especially given a 5 day turnaround. If you are physically flat and then get a rev up from the coach, you start burning mental energy before it’s required, leaving little for game day.

The extra emotion added by a senior player’s 200th game tips the scales over and the balance between motivation (too much) and nervous energy (too much) is disturbed.

Toovey then plants another rotten seed during the week; he reminds his players about the Parramata game as an example of what happened when they are ‘supposed to win’. What was he thinking?

This is like reminding someone about a car crash they recently had before they get in the car. How would you feel about being driving if that was you? For most people, it will increase their nerves (pressure) and reduce their performance – exactly where they need to be to have another crash!

Again, coaches make this error in a misguided attempt to motivate their players to avoid repeating their mistake. This is basic psychology – as a coach you need to focus your players on what you want them to do, instead of what you want them to avoid.

For example, don’t think about ice cream. Whatever you do, don’t think about ice-cream because it’s very dangerous. We have to avoid ice-cream at all costs, especially this weekend because it’s so much more important that we avoid ice-cream. Are you confused by this?

It is very hard to read ‘ice-cream’ 4 times in 20 seconds without thinking about it, even though I said ‘don’t’ and I told you how dangerous it is!

Same applies for errors, penalties, missed tackles and dropped ball. If you don’t want those things to happen then you need to say what you do want (completions, discipline, solid contact and soft hands). Say these things at training and say them often. This forms the habit of directing your player’s attention to what they need to produce, which builds consistency.

This is why the half-time talk is so important from the mental perspective; coaches can really kill their teams’ chances by saying the wrong things.

So, Manly regularly drop the ball (I bet the call ‘no dropped ball’ could be heard in Beacon Hill), miss tackles, concede penalties and produce a flat performance.

From the mental perspective, you could see it coming a mile away.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Mental Analysis of National Rugby League (NRL); Round 6

NRL Round 6: Wests Tigers v Brisbane

This rounds analysis had to focus on the Tigers as there have been a number of mental elements at work over the first 6 rounds.

Firstly, let’s discuss expectations, both from inside the club and outside the club. We have already mentioned the expectations of the Titans (see round 2) this season and the Tigers are no different from any other NRL club; they all have expectations about what the season will bring.

Mentally this type of thinking is referred to as crystal ball gazing or fortune telling. Clubs who lose grand finals or miss out on grand finals will often indulge in this sort of thinking by using statements like ‘one step further this year’ and so on.

The thought ‘one step further this year’ assumes the performance of last season is locked in for this season, except for the small changes needed to improve. It also assumes that every other team’s performance will remain the same. Both of these assumptions never happen; there are far too many variables involved. Hence, every club has a clean slate every season; thinking otherwise means falling into this trap and anyone claiming to win the comp in February is a goose (think Souths circa 2010 and 2011; notice the difference this year).

This brings me to those outside the club; specifically, the media, betting agencies and fans. The media’s business is to sell the game to the fans by telling stories and building expectations. The betting agencies are in the business of increasing turnover (to guarantee their profits) by playing on the fans’ expectations and the fans are in the business of telling the club how to do their job and expressing their delight and disappointment with their team’s fortunes during the season.

The Tigers have suffered by being installed as premiership favourites before the kick-off to the season even occurred. This lofty expectation becomes the unrealistic benchmark their performance is judged by and not meeting that expectation is harshly dealt with by the media (those responsible for building it up in the first place). Hence, stories like the Tigers are soft; that there is unrest within the group and so on. All of it is garbage. They are simply a football side adjusting to a new roster, just like everybody else.

When you are an expert commentator and your expert opinion turns out to be incorrect, your job description says you smash those responsible for you getting it wrong, which in this case are the players in the team you poorly judged. Experts won’t come out and say ‘I got it wrong. I misjudged them.’

Now let’s look at the on field performance of the Tigers this round, which clearly demonstrated the effort, desire and commitment of the group to put another ‘W’ on the board. Against quality opposition, the Tigers let themselves down through a small period of time in the 1st half, which can only be put down as a mental lapse.

Poor skill execution is often viewed as a technical flaw; it’s not. The origins of poor skill execution are mental – concentration, attention, confidence, pressure, nerves and so on. Desperation to score leads to pushing passes under pressure, its opposite is showing patience and composure when opportunities present themselves. Snatching at opportunities shows a lack of confidence in creating more opportunities in the future, hence the perceived need to convert this opportunity right now.

The Tigers were so close to converting an opportunity of their own, giving them a lead they desperately needed to build their confidence so they could play from in front. When it didn’t happen, Brisbane was good enough to score.

What happens next is a reliable sign of a team’s mental toughness because they have to overcome the disappointment of what just happened in 90 seconds. This mental task becomes harder if players believe there was an injustice that they suffered from the referees (ie the opposition were offside).

By letting a high ball bounce at the end of the next Brisbane set, through lack of communication, the Tigers allowed Brisbane to score again immediately. Now we have compounded an error with another error. Beau Ryan’s reaction shows a glimpse of the emotions the Tigers would have been experiencing behind their goal line during the conversion attempt. How would Tim Moltzen be feeling knowing his name has just been put under Ben Barba’s on the list of fullbacks shaky under the high ball?

Managing emotions, confidence and concentration are all key mental skills required to stop the slippery slope of poor performance. Cheers from the crowd when Moltzen successfully fields a kick, only to lose it in the play the ball, serve to increase the difficulty of the mental task at hand; maintain composure and perform well.

The Tigers do go on to regain their composure, however the damage has already been done. Their commitment to stick at it right up to the final minute is a good sign. They are dangerous with the ball in hand, however, consolation tries are easier to score than match winning tries (less pressure to execute).

So how do the Tigers turn things around?

The Tigers have the players and the skills; they just need to execute them for 80 minutes, which is easier said than done.

The Tigers’ style is built around the players backing themselves, which means taking on risk, such as shifting the ball in their own 20 and so on. This requires a number of mental factors to be stable (confidence, nerves, attention, concentration, mood and so on), which is not the case for the Tigers at present.

So, they have two options: work on their mental skills and keep the way they play the same, or, change the way they play (less risk) to reduce the demand on their mental skills.

For example, currently the Tigers will shift the ball from a penalty restart from the left edge to the right edge using a play that involves two decoy runners. The 30-odd metre lateral movement (multiple passes; more risk) often doesn’t involve them moving the ball forwards, as most teams do with a one-out hit up (one pass; low risk). Subsequent shift plays are then run at a defence that isn’t on the back foot, hence, increasing the pressure on the Tigers and undermining their skill execution.

For teams who are short in confidence (or not executing skills on game day), reducing the number of attacking options helps build some certainty in their play, which in turn builds confidence. As their confidence builds, the attacking options can be expanded again. Just because the ball is received in ‘good ball’ territory (outside a team’s 30 metre line) it doesn’t mean a yardage set can’t be played (a ball received inside the 30 metre line).

This is how you manage the balance between the technical and mental elements. More compact, but direct plays will help the Tigers build some momentum (and confidence), and then they can play their brand of ‘touch footy’; when the defence is under pressure instead of them.

To use Brian Smith’s words, some more time being ‘low on the shift’ might be just what the doctor ordered for the Tigers.

Every team is still in this competition; only 20 rounds to go!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Mental Analysis of National Rugby League (NRL); Round 5

Round 5: Parramatta v Manly

“Here we go again; Manly and Parra..”

Parramatta’s win this round means that every NRL team has now won a match, with only Melbourne yet to taste defeat this season. This provides me with an opportunity to dust off one of my favourite quotes regarding winning and losing in sport. It comes from an unlikely source; the female lead in the movie ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ and it goes like this:

“When you win, sometimes you actually lose; when you lose, sometimes you actually win; and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie.”

The message here is that there is more to winning and losing than meets the eye; especially from the mental perspective.

For example, the Tigers won in round 1, but their subsequent performances and results have actually been on the losing side of the ledger. This round they lost but their performance took a step in the right direction. The Titans are in the same boat. The opposite applies to Cronulla, who despite losing in round 1, actually ‘won’ in many ways, as reflected by their subsequent performances and results. Winning often covers up some of the cracks that get put under the microscope after a loss.

This is why I have selected to look at Parramatta’s performance this week. In fact, I have been waiting for Parramatta to win so I could write this analysis of them as they have been mentally poor for a number of seasons now and there is plenty to be learned by looking at why.

It’s easy to stick the boot into a side and throw coins when they are losing and it is amazing how positive the press become after a win. Many post-match articles are talking about this victory as a ‘season changing win’ despite Parramatta still being last on the ladder.

The reality is that they played well and they won one match of football; no more and no less.

The next challenge for the Eels is reproducing their performance; however not everything that happened this week can be reproduced.

For example, Nathan Hindmarsh can’t retire every week to help motivate them; Jarrod Hayne can’t come back from injury every week to ‘fist-pump’ them up and fans can’t throw coins or boo them off the field every match to add fuel to the motivational fire.

What will fill this gap for next round?

Despite Hayne receiving most of the headlines and the credit for the win, it was the improved performance across the team that produced the victory over Manly, even though the Eels still did their best to almost give the game away.

Nathan Hindmarsh put in his typical performance, yet this week the media are singing his praises, especially after ‘that hit’ on Brett Stewart with 20 minutes to go. Hindy makes those tackles every week, so why was his effort on Saturday night considered to be more special than any other week?

Why was Ben Roberts more threatening? Despite throwing a pass over the side line, Roberts laid on both the tries for Hayne to score.

Why was Fuifui Moimoi busting the line almost at will, albeit running through the smallest bloke in the opposition (Daly Cherry-Evans) on one of those occasions?

The word from Hayne himself was it all came down to attitude. Hence, the mental element is the spark that ignites performance; the missing piece in the puzzle of Parramatta’s inconsistent performance.

Producing consistent, quality performance is all about attitude and the Eels have been guilty of only producing it in patches.

Physically and technically Parramatta are a well trained and drilled football team and have been for years. You only have to look at the hi-tech instruments they are currently using in preparing their team physically and technically. Their sponsorship and partnership with the University of New England (Armidale) will only enhance their application of sport science.

The mental element of sport science is the area that has let Parramatta down over the past few seasons.

The ‘streak of ‘09’ was unable to be replicated in 2010, suggesting that no-one bothered to keep the recipe, if in fact a deliberate recipe for that success existed. I suspect it didn’t exist, based on the underwhelming 2010 performance.

A new coach brings in a new recipe for 2011 and the team hits a glass ceiling; unable to win close matches. Not just a couple but almost 10 close matches.

This is not a random occurrence that will be ‘character building’ (Kearney’s words; hinting at the ‘winning’ aspect of losing). In 2011 something systematic brought the Eels undone; they were psychologically lacking. Hence, the consistent close losses.

Specifically, in 2011, Eels’ media conferences were littered with comments that indicated mental errors were the catalyst for their close losses; on one occasion (I believe against the Roosters after leading 12-0) it was admitted that half the team wanted to defend the lead and the other half wanted to score more points. I think that game was lost 13-12.

Witnessing Nathan Hindmarsh throw his mouthguard into the ground after a close loss in 2011 is only character building IF the Eels know exactly what mental skills let them down AND how to correct them. This is the recipe the Eels need.

Without knowing what mental skills are required and how to develop and practice them, the Eels’ players will continue to be thrown in the deep end. If they continue to drown, it’s because they aren’t mentally skilled enough – meaning they lack the mental skills to be able to consistently perform.

New coaches don’t always bring those mental skills to the table; sometimes new players do and the rest of the playing group feed off that. The current view at the club is that the mental element is ok; the rest of the season will demonstrate whether this is true or not.

The content of Shayne’s Round-by-Round Analysis is the property of Condor Performance and can only be reused by getting permission from the author. He can be emailed at shayne@condorperformance.com

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