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The Mental Toughness Digest (MTD)

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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.

5 comment(s) so far

Written by Chris Waters at 06:23 PM, on April 30, 2012


The strategy of defending a game in the last few minutes of play has been used successfully by many teams in many sports (soccer, AFL, NBL, NRL). It often opens up a debate about its merits (not entertaining, negative play etc). Regardless of personal opinions, this may not have been a poor choice of strategy given that it has worked in the past. It does, however, require players to remain focussed on what they have to do, from moment to moment, to execute the strategy. Staying present in the moment and adapting behaviour in pursuit of a goal, or staying focussed on the job at hand, greatly improves the probability of performing what has to be done to win the game. Your description of the way it happened raises questions about whether it was a team plan to ‘slow things down’, and if so, did the players know what they had to do in order to execute the plan?

Written by Shayne at 12:57 PM, on May 02, 2012


Hi Chris,

Thanks for your post.

We don’t support the ‘go slow’ option as a strategy to defend games, regardless of whether it has been successful or not or if is entertaining or not.

Mentally tough athletes fight to the end, as opposed to laying down as the end draws near.

You point about staying focused on the job at hand is a good one. Unfortunately, when an athlete, or team, go slow they are focusing on the result (which hasn’t happened yet as it is in the future). This reduces their ability to stay focused on the task at hand, hence, the drop in performance.

Robbie Farrah mentioned the term ‘quick sand’ to describe his teams’ similarly poor performance at the end of their game. Thrashing-around-going-nowhere is the unpleasant experience Robbie refers to; going slow or clocking off invites this experience to occur.

Mental toughness involves competing in high pressure situations and avoiding this is not mental toughness. SD

Written by Cinzia at 05:00 PM, on May 06, 2012


Performance not outcome should always be the focus of play, regardless of the stage of play. To get caught up in the time remaining leads to the potential for choking as players who are not mentally tough start to lose focus on their performance. As anxiety increases beyond appropriate levels so too does the potential for mistakes. It’s more likely that performance strategies identified in the lead up to the game will be discarded and that the team as a whole will lose sight of their goals for the day.

Written by Shayne at 06:40 PM, on May 15, 2012


Cinzia, you are spot on.

Written by Jess Sea at 12:27 AM, on May 18, 2012


I’d have to agree with Cinzia, it is often easier to remain focussed and ‘switched on’ when the result hangs in the balance. However a true sign of mental toughness, which all players at this level should strive to process, is not being phased by the performance of the opposition, whether they are playing exceptionally well or exceptionally poor. The best motivation comes from intrinsic sources, so when you play to the best of your ability for the full 80 minutes, you are able to gain positive self esteem and self worth from your performance. Also for games down the track that are more challenging and push you to further physical limits, you always have an example you can draw on for further inspiration.

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