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.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

7 thoughts on “Rugby Union Psychology”

  1. Cheers Gareth – 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?

    1. Tom, this is an excellent point and to be honest not one that I had considered. I would have to agree. Rather than limit my detailed reply to this to the comments sections here I will write an entire blog post on the topic in the coming weeks – happy with the title “When Professionalism In Sport Backfires”? I heard the English team has two “backroom staff” per player in this World Cup. Watch this space, Gareth

  2. Nice blog but not too sure about letting other teams do what they want during the Haka – tradition suggests that it’s disrespectful to do anything other than just line up. Maybe I am biased as a Kiwi but I am happy with status quo …

    1. G’day Mick – I hear you pal but traditions are not like laws, we can break a few in the pursuit of fairness. My feeling with the Haka has always been that from a psychological point of view it’s a touch unfair to a) not allow most other international teams an equivalent and b) force them to be on the receiving end of a ritual that if we’re being honest – originates back to the days of tribal warfare. I would suggest either allowing all teams to do something for 2 minutes before KO whilst the opposition watches or move the Haka to much earlier – 30 minutes before Kick Off – to lessen the one-sided mental effects that might flow into the actual game. Thanks for your comments ..

  3. Hi Gareth,
    Interesting points so far and I agree with your replies. One thing that I thought was obvious was England’s attitude – it’s in the bag! This was obviously based on the performance of the Springboks performance against Wales and their own stirring win against the All Blacks. The Springboks wanted it more. You could see that from the effort that every player put in. Nothing was left on the field! Having read the book ‘Legacy’ I remember the point that the All Blacks never look at the scoreboard because they feel if they have a good game plan, their processes are good and each player if playing to their best, then the scoreboard looks after itself. I think this certainly applied to the Springboks. They played beyond themselves. Great game and great for South Africa.

    1. Hi Bill, thanks for your comments. Yes, this is a key part of the work we do as sport and performance psychologists – to teach our clients to trust the process and therefore take less notice of outcomes and results. I must admit I am yet to read ‘Legacy’ but I will get through it over Christmas so thank’s for the reminder. G

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