Rugby Union Psychology

Sport 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

The Most Recent Rugby World Cup was full of Rugby Union Psychology

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 in Japan in 2019 – where rugby union psychology was everywhere!

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 that all have several majors competitions nothing comes close to the RWC 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. The nine William Web Ellis Trophies have only been won by four countries in total. In fact eight of these nine have been taken home by just three nations – South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

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.

The Pool Stage of a Rugby World Cup

As a handful of countries dominate the sport the initial stages of the competition are a little strange. Powerhouse countries often beat ‘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 last 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.

Semi-Final One

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 The Haka.

England started their mind games well before the opening whistle in their semi-final against New Zealand. Rugby Union Psychology was in the air.

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. However, 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. But I suspect that New Zealand was slightly distracted by England’s unorthodox Haka response. England won the match comfortably 19 – 7.

Semi-Final Two

In the other semi 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. This is especially true in the one on one work we do we coaches. Yet 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.

On the form of the two semi-finals England were clear favourites to take home the 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.

The Final – An Epic

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 too hard – I can hear you think? Oh yes, it is my friends.

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. The main aim of sporting competitions is to be as relaxed as possible.

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

The Law of Reverse Effect

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

“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. Over-eagerness negatively impacted by their skills.

A Relaxed South African Side

On the flip side a relaxed South Africa kept things simple. They also changed the tactics that they’d used in the previous six games of the tournament. Suddenly they stop kicking as much and ran the ball. The English game plan was in tatters who would have been expecting them to kick.

All of these factors contributing to an emphatic 32 – 12 win. A result 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.

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

Concluding Comments ~ Rugby Union Psychology

I will end this article by encouraging you to watch the press conference below with triumphant South African coach and captain. Psychological clues are everywhere. For example, just after winning the most sought after prize in world rugby they’re already planning for the Lions tours two years from now. Enjoy and as always use the space below to add your own thoughts and questions.

Rugby Union Psychology

Author of this post and leading rugby psychologist Gareth J. Mole is one of nine psychologists from Condor Performance.

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.

8 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 ..

    2. Hi Mick, sorry about the late reply – your comment was caught in spam. It’s a very interesting debate of tradition versus fairness. Allowing the All Blacks a mental edge over the opposition just before KO without their ability to “reply” is clearly not fair. Imagine if a boxer was allowed to watch footage of his/her best knock outs on the big screen just before the opening round but his/her opponent wasn’t (and had to watch the highlight reel of the person they’re about to fight). This is what I have always said to Kiwis – if you are as good as you think you are then you’ll be successful without the Haka. Let your rugby do all the talking. The Haka is not rugby.

  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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