Over Coaching in Professional Sport

Money is pouring into elite sport, especially in places like The UK, resulting in more coaches and support staff than every before. It is too much?

After the last edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, we received a comment from one of our readers that was so insightful and interesting I felt that it required an entire edition in order to properly answer.

Here is the comment:

“ … bad result in the game of course if you’re English, but good article! I would add that (related to your points I think) in my view England lacked leadership on the pitch, particularly in the forwards, to react to problems they were facing. I do think the modern professional rugby player tends to be over-coached and, having generally not been to uni or in a ‘day job’, lacks the leadership and problem-solving skills acquired in those walks of life. Thoughts?”

This comment, of course, was in response to the previous edition of Mental Toughness Digest which took a look at the psychological and tactical elements of the recently concluded Rugby World Cup. I heard during the commentary that the English team had close to 30 members of support staff with them during Japan 2019. In other words for every starting player, there were two members of backroom staff available.

Sport at the highest level can be cruel and I’m guessing that had England taken out the World Cup on 2nd November we would all be congratulating those behind the decision to provide them with so much support. But is more support always a good thing? In having every aspect all the players’ lives catered for them are they losing some of the basic problem-solving abilities most “normal” people develop when they are in there late teens and early 20s? This is certainly the premise of the question above from the reader and one that I would like to explore in a little more detail.

I don’t mean to use the word normal above to imply that professional athletes are not normal – I work with hundreds of them and most are actually very normal. What I really mean is that their lives are very different from what most people experience – especially in terms of their work.

My professional instinct is that many professional sporting teams have taken the concept of support too far. You might liken it to many variables that could all be placed along a Bell-shaped (normal distribution) curve whereby the far left and far right-hand side are both non-ideal situations with the middle being the sweet spot. As per the below were the Y-Axis would be ‘return on investment’.

Let us put this into the context of example at hand. If you go back 30 years professional rugby union players did not exist so those that represented their country at the first World Cup (1987) were definitely under-supported.

Although it might be tempting to suggest that the superior time management skills and problem-solving abilities of these bygone players were “all good” due to the fact that most of them had a normal job – it’s not quite that simple.

The lack of support for international rugby union players in the 1970s and 1980s made for a very stressful existence. The players essentially needed to keep two full-time employers happy; one that paid their salaries and one that selected them to play for their country.

Some of you may know I was named after the great Welsh scrum-half (halfback/number 9) Gareth Edwards and I’m lucky to have a signed copy of his autobiography taking pride on my bookshelf. In this book, Mr Edwards sums up the difficulty of being an international player in those days:

Fast forward 30 years and we have a team that takes 30 coaching/support staff to an international tournament.

Have some teams gone from the far left of the bell-shaped curve to the far right? Have the Springboks, as an example, ended up somewhere in the middle – the sweet spot so to speak whereby they have the essentials taken care of but the players are this still required to do a fair amount on the own? 

The really fascinating sub-topic within this discussion is the question about whether or not these highly qualified, highly paid support staff are actually increasing or decreasing the amount of dependancy experienced by the players they are working with?

One of our philosophies at Condor Performance is that we are essentially trying to make ourselves redundant in the lives and performances of our clients from the very beginning. 

We feel that it would be psychologically negligent to do anything as sport and performance psychologists that would make one are sporting clients feel like they needed us or depended on us in order to perform well.

Sometimes this means that we complete our job in just 2 or 3 months. To really get a good idea of our monthly approach to sports psychology then watch the below video.

Many years ago I remember having a conversation with our CFO Derek. He expressed concern that this philosophy was counter-productive from profit and loss point of view. Actually, as it turns out, it’s mighty helpful as our clients know that we are going to get in there, get the job done and then get out. This increases the possibility that they then recommend us to their friends and teammates.

I’m pretty sure I was right because in 2020 it is likely that for the first time in our history we will require the services of more than 10 sport and performance psychologists.

I do not know enough about how other professionals involved in sport are trained nor do I know enough about how other types of psychologists from other countries are trained but the ones that are fortunate enough to work for us are basically instructed to help their clients become their own mental coach – one that is free and available 24/7. 

It is due, in part, to the philosophy that we spend a remarkably small amount of time with our athletes whilst (or just before) they are actually competing. It would be very easy for us to do this given now than 99% of our sessions take place via video conference. A quick FaceTime video session 1 hour before kickoff is far easier in 2019 that it would’ve been in 2009. But we still generally avoid having too many sessions of this nature. Why? Because we want our clients to be able to problem-solve on the fly when the pressure is on. That is quite literally one of our mission statements.

If I were the head coach of an international rugby union team I would have a very, very small group of support staff that accompanied me and my players to international competitions. 

Probably the first two to get a plane ticket would be the physiotherapist and the team medical doctor in order to manage any physical issues that players take into the tournament or pick up during it.

I would also insist that one or two highly skilled massage therapists were in attendance as there are simply no shortcuts to helping players recover from such a physically demanding sport. Due to the fact that in this hypothetical situation the head coach is a highly qualified sports psychologist (me!) then there would probably be no need to take another one.

I certainly wouldn’t be taking anybody who is supposed to specialise in the technical aspects of the sport (biomechanics) as all of this would’ve already been completed well before we left the airport.

As mentioned in the previous article tactics are becoming more and more a part of the “sports psychology” realm (at least the way we define it) but my knowledge of the game might need to be boosted by having an assistant coach who knows the game backwards. This is the role I see former players taking on more and more in the future.

Finally, I would take a professional comedian with us to just hang out with the players and make sure that the atmosphere remains relaxed and light.

Slashing the support staff budget by two thirds would free up significant funds that could be spent elsewhere. How about an annual trip to Mozambique for the players to help out in some of the poorer villages; problem-solving and some perspective all warped up in one.

Last year we wrote an article called The Problem with Privilege which explores these ideas on an even deeper level.  

Rugby Union Psychology

Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole – born in South Africa, educated in England and lives in Australia – is a world leader in the mental side of rugby union

Observations of The 2019 Rugby Union World Cup

Due to the fact that many readers of The Mental Toughness Digest come from countries where rugby union is not a major sport then let me quickly start this article by providing a quick summary and context of the Rugby World Cup that has just finished in Japan.

The first point to mention from a psychological point of view is that the Rugby World Cup is by far the most valued prize in world rugby. In other words, unlike many other sports such as soccer, hockey and tennis which all have several majors competitions nothing comes close to the Rugby World Cup for rugby playing nations.

The Rugby World Cup is played every four years with New Zealand (The All Blacks) taking out the two previous editions in 2011 and 2015. These two tournament victories took New Zealand to a total of three (they also won the first one in 1987), one ahead of South Africa (1995 and 2007) and Australia (1991 and 1999) and two ahead of the only other country to have lifted the William Web Ellis Trophy – England (who won in 2003 after Johny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop goal against the Wallabies).

This means that strong rugby union nations such as Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Japan and Argentina have never gotten their hands on the Rugby World Cup.

Due to the fact that a handful of countries dominate the sport the initial stages of the competition are a little strange with powerhouse countries often beating ‘minnows’ by scores more common in cricket than rugby.

This means a much higher degree of predictability about who will make the final eight compared with a FIFA Soccer / Football World Cup for example. All four previous winners of the Rugby World Cup made it through to the quarter-finals of this year’s event. Furthermore, three of these rugby unions superpowers got through to the semi-final as well with only two-time winner Australia missing out on a place in the final four. Wales beat France to play only their 3rd ever semi-final.

Like most sports, it’s really at the pointy end of the competition – the knock-out stages where the mental side really kicks in. By ‘mental side’ we don’t just mean sporting mental toughness but tactics as well. Decision making, especially that required under pressure, is an entirely psychological process.

Examples were-a-plenty in both the semi-finals and the final. 

During the first semi-final that saw the mighty All Blacks take on The Poms (sorry, I mean the English) the game started with a little controversy. The English team, coached by a true lover of mind games Eddie Jones, lined up in a giant V whilst facing the famous New Zealand pre-game war dance – The Haka.

England started their mind games well before the opening whistle in their semi-final against New Zealand.

England was later fined for this which is something I disagree with. I am fine with one country being allowed to have an extra psychological boost just before the opening whistle but it should be left up to the opposition to decide if and how they observe or respond to this.

Of course, as is pointed out in this previous edition of the Mental Toughness Digest it’s never possible to really know what factors result in a win or loss in sport by I suspect that New Zealand was slightly distracted by England’s unorthodox facing of the Haka. England won the match comfortably 19 – 7.

In the other semi-final South Africa beat Wales 19 – 16 in one of the least attractive games of rugby union you’ll ever see. Tactics completely dominated this game with The Spingboks kicking the ball as often as possible. In my work as a performance psychologist I am becoming more and more involved in the tactical side – especially in the one on one work with coaches – but even I was stumped about why South Africa would want to give the ball away as often as they did. I suspect the brains trust knew something that I didn’t because The Boks scraped into their third Rugby World Cup final.

Based on the form of the two semi-finals England were down as clear favourites to take home the William Web Ellis trophy after the final in Yokohama on 2nd November.

But form is a hugely overrated concept in sport – it’s a reflection of the past which is completely uninfluenceable.

It was obvious right from the start of the final that the English players were trying far too hard. What, surely it’s not possible to try to hard – I can hear you think? Oh yes, it is my friends.

For those of you who we are either working with at the moment or who we have assisted in the past you might remember that one of the cornerstones of our mental coaching model – Metuf – is the idea that the hard work and effort needs to be kept in the preparation basket with the main aim of sporting competitions to be as relaxed as possible.

Let me explain why. Motor skills – such as catching, passing or kicking a rugby ball – all fall along a continuum of automaticity. On the one extreme, the action can be what we call “cognitive” which means a lot of thought is needed to attempt this skill. Think of a child learning to ride a bicycle. On the other extreme we have what is called the Autonomous Stage. Think about the action of brushing your teeth as an example. This action can and should be executed with little or no mental effort. In fact, the less mental effort you apply and the more relaxed you the more likely your best version of these motor skills will prevail.

It is for this reason that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance are such advocates of what we called The Relaxed Competition Mindset which is based on something called The Law of Reverse Effect.

The Law of Reversed Effect states; “The greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or understood another way “Whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) are in conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.”

Despite having a coach who has a great understanding of the mental side England tried too hard in the Rugby World Cup final. Their skills were negatively impacted by their over-eagerness.

On the flip side, South Africa relaxed, kept things simple and changed up the tactics that they’d used in the previous six games of the tournament. Suddenly they stop kicking as much and ran the ball and I suspect in doing so left the English game plan in tatters (who would have been expecting them to kick).

All of these factors – and many more – contributing to an emphatic 32 – 12 win that saw “The Boks” equal The All Blacks tally of three World Cup wins.

What is truly remarkable is that six of the nine Rugby World Cups have been won by only two countries – South African and New Zealand. Eight of the nine have been won by just three countries – although Australia’s right to be regarded as a rugby union superpower is somewhat in question at the moment with their last World Cup win exactly 20 years ago now.

It is impossible to really know why South Africa and New Zealand are pulling away from the rest but my guess is it has a lot to do with how seriously they take the mental and tactical side of their coaching development programs.

I will end this article by encouraging you to watch the press conference below with triumphant South African coach and captain – which is riddled with clues of a psychological nature. And my favourite part of this interview – Rassie Erasmus, less than an hour after winning the most sought after prize in world rugby – is already planning for the British and Irish Lions tours two years from now. Enjoy and as always use the space below to add your own thoughts and questions.