By Ciaran O’Regan
UTILITY OF EXTREMES
There are very useful lessons to be learned from studying extremes in performance in the quest to improve your rugby playing or coaching.
If you want to learn about pure strength development, go talk to powerlifters. If you want to learn about pure speed development, go talk to sprinters. If you want to learn about endurance development, go talk to distance runners. Studying extremes can provide quite useful information that can then be cross-pollinated back into your own training or coaching domain. This is because if something works at the extremes, it works anywhere inside of the extremes once the pure principles are taken, and the methods you create that abide by these principles are scaled and adapted accordingly to your specific situation.
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” — Harrington Emerson
You do not need, for instance, to train with the exact methodologies of a powerlifter to get stronger for rugby. However, the principles of how strength is developed that have been discovered and refined by powerlifters operating at the edges of human performance as it relates to force production can be taken and used in the development of training methodologies suitable for rugby. The same can be said when studying sprinters to learn about speed development or distance runners for conditioning.
What about mindset though? What extreme scenarios can be studied here to benefit rugby preparation from a mental perspective?
WINNER AND A DEAD MAN
The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game is a book written by Sam Sheridan that I first read in 2014. It is a text overflowing with gems of wisdom from world-class coaches and athletes. My most re-read chapter in the book is called “Witness to the Execution” and is about Andre Ward and his career-long coach Virgil Hunter. Ward was a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in boxing and retired in 2017 as a 32–0 undefeated multiple time world champ in the professional ranks. It is also, in my opinion, not a controversial claim to say that he is one of the greatest pugilistic craftsmen to ever step into a boxing ring. Hunter was Ward’s coach for 24 years and took him from a 9-year-old beginner to 33-year-old pound for pound master.
What attracted me the most to this particular chapter, apart from my level of respect for this athlete-coach pairing due to their competence and accomplishments, was the extreme intensity of Hunter’s approach to boxing. This intensity is captured with no more obvious clarity than when in Sheridan’s book he said:
“If I tell you my intent is to kill you in the ring, I’ll get labeled all sorts of things. But that’s my intent, within the rules.” — Virgil Hunter
It turns out that one of the major influences on Hunter’s approach to pugilism was The Book of Five Rings written by legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi (1584–1645) was reported to have defeated more than 5-dozen men in duels with most of them having been to the death.
“That’s the one thing that intrigued me about The Book of Five Rings: there was no trophy. It was understood there was a winner and a dead man. Which makes my approach to training totally different if I’m going to die. It’s impossible for you to train the same way, I don’t care how much you practice… If you go into a sword fight for points, you’ll never obtain what I’m obtaining…” — Virgil Hunter
I somewhat jokingly like to refer to rugby as socially approved simulated tribal warfare. For the sake of an admittedly absurd thought experiment, what if we were to view a rugby game as if it had the same unforgiving consequences as actual warfare — just as Virgil viewed boxing?
Rugby is not a game of guarantees, it is a game of probabilities. Everything we do to prepare either has a more or less positive impact on the probability of victory in games. Might this entertainment of rugby as if it were played for keeps provide an extreme to learn from that may enhance the probability of victory? Let us imagine a hypothetical scenario to play this thought experiment out.
WINNERS AND DEAD FELLAS
You are waiting for the ball to be kicked off at the start of a rugby match. This isn’t any normal game, however. You see, in this match, there are no winners and losers; in this match, there are winners and dead fellas. This is because the players and coaches of the non-victorious team are going to be lined up and shot by a firing squad afterward.
Please take a moment and try and picture this scenario in terms of what would be going through your head. How would YOU approach this game from a mindset perspective?
What are you thinking about? What does your mind feel like at this moment just before kick off?
How would you approach your decision making in this game given that the lives of your teammates and backroom staff are on the line?
How would you have prepared for this game in terms of physical/psychological/ strategic/ tactical/ technical development in the weeks, months, years prior?
If you are a player, how do you think you would behave during the game in terms of:
Your commitment to winning collisions in an effective manner? Would you recklessly aim to cut lads in half with tackles, or would you simply do what needs to be done in any given scenario to maximize chances of winning?
Your discipline in order to minimize the probability of getting penalized or yellow or red carded which would give your team a serious disadvantage due to being down to 14 men?
Your awareness of your role in any given scenario?
Your communication with teammates and coaches both in terms of clarity and tone?
Your focus on personal ego stroking as opposed to overall victory?
Your work rate in getting up off the ground and around the pitch to be in position for your next offensive or defensive job?
Your emotional awareness and management of arousal levels? Where would you sit on a sliding scale of reckless barbarian berserker to a disciplined Spartan warrior?
The management of your mind, to get to, and stay at, the zone of optimal performance for the task at hand?
If you are a coach, how do you think you would behave in terms of:
Your communication with your colleagues and players in terms of clarity and tone?
Your communication with the referee and other officials?
Your decision making in terms of your personal ego versus the overall outcome objective?
Your emotional awareness and management of arousal levels? Where would you sit on a sliding scale of irrational drunken lout to Stoic military commander?
The management of your mind, to get to, and stay at, the zone of optimal performance for the task at hand?
This is obviously a ludicrous scenario to propose. However, I feel it has benefit because if you honestly reflect on the situation described and try your best to answer the questions I posed given the imaginary life or death stakes, it is quite likely that there is a gap between your responses to these questions and how you normally think about rugby preparation and performance. If so, then how, within reason of course, might you close this gap?
To me, the closing of this gap involves looking at mindset in two separate but interdependent components: Competition and Craft.
Let’s say that even in the circumstances of this firing squad rugby, you couldn’t quit everything and solely focus on the preparation for this game at the expense of everything else in your life. You could only physically train the same amount of sessions per week that you can currently attend. You also still need to live a “normal” life involving social events, going to school/university/work, spending time with family and friends, etc. This viewing of the extreme scenario through your current life situation is what I alluded to above when I said “…within reason…”
For simplicity sake, let’s define rugby craft as the 1) physical 2) psychological 3) strategic 4) tactical, and 5) technical factors that influence your ability to perform on the field of play. The order is important because firstly you need to be able to physically play rugby, then be in the right psychological head space to operate your meat vehicle in a way suitable to the demands of the strategic objective, then have the correct strategic objective to focus your tactical efforts, then have the correct tactics to focus your techniques, then finally have the right technical precision to facilitate a moment to moment impact on the game.
The 5 factors of rugby craft listed are the components of your performance that you can manipulate more or less efficiently and effectively depending on your Craft Mindset. They can offer some potentially useful insight on how to categorize and hone in on the various components of training sessions or games for the development of your craft. I describe each as follows:
Physical = Components of physical preparedness that you can manipulate to an extent such as body weight, strength, speed, conditioning, etc.
Psychological = Components of psychological preparedness that you can manipulate to an extent. One example might be the identification of your ideal training mindset in terms of the way you needs to approach certain types of physical training or video analysis in order to gain the most from it. What is your ideal emotional state and how do you get there? What does your mind need to feel like in order to squeeze every last drop of juice out of your preparations and how do you trigger this state? Musashi highlighted the importance of our preparations when he said:
“You can only fight the way you practice.”
Strategic = My personal bias is that of Rugby strategy being quite simple — impose maximal discomfort on our opponents whilst aiming at victory. This is because if an opposition team is under maximal discomfort, we are likely increasing the probability of them making errors of judgment and overall not being able to settle and get into their “flow” as a group. To dip back into the well of boxing wisdom, Sam “The Boston Bonecrusher” Langford (1883–1956) was one of the greatest fighters of his era (178W-29L-39D) and summed this simple strategy up beautifully simply when he said:
“Whatever the other man wants to do, don’t let him do it.”
Tactical = These are the specific tactics used to fulfill the strategy of imposing maximal discomfort on our opponents. One such example being the nuance of certain defensive scenarios with regards to our spacing in defensive alignment in particular circumstances. The selection and development of these tactics occur given the knowledge from four sources:
(1) Our capabilities
(2) Their capabilities
(3) The rules of the sport and biases/tendencies of the specific officials implementing those rules in a particular game.
(4) The specific environmental circumstances in a particular game such as the wind direction, the position of the sun, and the qualities of a playing surface, etc.
Technical = These are the specific details that allow precision of technique execution which facilitate the tactical objective so as to facilitate the overall strategic objective. To use the same defensive example, this may relate to how the Pillar-A-B identify and get into their positions whilst communicating their respective roles both verbally and physically (technical), so that we have our spacing and alignment correct (tactical), so that we can fulfill the defensive objective of putting their offense under as much discomfort as possible (strategic).
Another aspect of the psychological component of the Craft Mindset is to figure out what your ideal Competition mental state is and how to get this mental state on tap.
Given the proposed life or death consequences of firing squad rugby, what is your ideal Competition Mindset with regards to how you process information, regulate emotion, and ultimately make decisions? What does it feel like to be in your head when you are performing at the upper limits of your capabilities as a player or coach?
How do you get to this psychological state where you can best fulfill the strategic objective? What are your own personal triggers or anchors?
This is an ongoing process and will likely need continued reflection and introspection over time as you gain more and more experience. The payoff can be enormous, however, as you may no longer be leaving your ability to best implement the strategic objective to chance.
“If you wish to control others you must first control yourself.” — Musashi
No real game of rugby could be more intense than the thought experiment I described above in terms of the pressure to get one's mind right — a World Cup final doesn’t even hold a candle to it. Therefore if you use this hypothetical extreme as a point of perspective to learn from, circumstances encountered in actual games pale in comparison.
And how do we learn to master our minds like this? While I do not see one specific path to be suitable for each individual due to our unique differences, I do believe the starting point for a person to be simply paying honest attention to the workings of one's own mind.
“It may seem difficult at first, but all things are difficult at first.” — Musashi
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