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The Mental Toughness Digest (MTD)

The “MTD” is in the process of moving to it’s new home at For recent editions and how to subscribe for free please go to The below is now an archive of editions published before March 2016.

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.

4 comment(s) so far

Written by Lucy Prieto at 01:30 PM, on April 23, 2012


Motivation being the process that elicits controls may be rooted in a basic need to minimize physical pain and maximize pleasure. Our internal motives are considered as the needs that every human being experience. All organisms are born with certain psychological needs and a negative state of tension is created when these needs are not satisfied. Our basic and most primitive need is safety or survival instinct – this need, if activated, would take precedence over any other basic needs and motivation will focus on intrinsic motives. This primitive instinct which is automatically and subconsciously activated would take over any higher levels of cognitive processing causing the individual to hyper-focus on survival. Any others mental processes such as planning, concentration, decision making and so on would be compromised affecting the individual’s performance. Understanding the degree to which this mechanism is influential in humans behaviours and that it may be activated by just an apparent and not real presence of danger might allow us to better work with extrinsic motivation. Remember, motivation is rooted in a basic need of minimizing physical pain and if we tell players that ‘danger’ is out there waiting for them we are setting them up to failure in their efforts to perform well. Furthermore, if this technique of telling players ‘what to avoid’ is used on a regular basis and for a long period of time we might be conditioning players to associate the field with danger activating this survival instinct while decreasing quality of performance constantly. Therefore, better outcomes are based on using the right type of language to motivate players to achieve the desired goals.

Written by Megan R at 04:43 PM, on April 23, 2012


A very insightful perspective Lucy. Essentially, mental toughness training develops ones capacity to manage basic physiological responses that would otherwise limit excellence. You might like this quote that highlights the value of visualisation in achieving mental toughness:

“When a performer begins to experience physical or emotional pain in the heat of the battle, the brain, whose primary role is self preservation, asks the question: ‘Why must I suffer?’ The champion will answer the question with the vision they have carefully constructed, and they will continue to fight. Since the masses lack this mental clarity and have no reason to suffer, they quit as soon as the pain kicks in. Developing a world-class vision is the secret to world-class motivation.” S.S.

Written by James Smith at 08:32 PM, on April 29, 2012


Geoff Toovey perhaps did not consider the impact of his label “danger game”. Perhaps he’s received limited coaching in mental toughness? He would not be alone. Many coaches throw away thoughtless comments to the media in response to questions.

Would a coach with proven success do this? Consider Wayne Bennett’s approach to the media. He chooses to spend more time focusing on his job – mentally preparing for next round.

Bennett was once asked, “How did you know he would make it to the top?” He simply replied, “Every time he fell over, he got up again”… Here is a clear visual picture of mental toughness.

Written by Cinzia Zuin at 05:17 PM, on May 06, 2012


Coaches who want to have success and performance at the forefront of their players’ minds need to develop a good understanding about cognitive behavioural processes and how they translate to performance in a game. Whatever is at the forefront of a player’s mind, whether by choice or because it has been planted there by a coach constantly repeating it, will typically be what manifests in a game. That is, if a coach focuses on mistakes, missed opportunities, missed tackles, tries, conversions etc beyond what is necessary in a half time and/or post game analysis it’s unlikely the team will enjoy much success. Assuming full accountability and responsibility for performing well rather than attaching labels to the nature of the game ie danger, must win etc is a far more effective strategy in games being won.

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