Psychology treated like physical skills in new national plan

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Australia’s Super Rugby and representative teams will have more focus on sports psychology than ever before as part of a national plan to develop mental skills as much as physical skills.

Coaches from the Aussie Sevens, Wallaroos, Junior Wallabies and the four Super Rugby franchises underwent a national sports psychology workshop on Monday - the first step in the roll out of a wider strategy to improve that area of Australian rugby.

While teams do draw upon sports psychology, there has never been a national template from which they can draw.

Respected sports psychologist Rosie Stanimirovic, who has worked with AFL’s GWS Giants and NRL referee Matt Cecchin,was leading the day.

All of the teams will be part of the development of the psychology plan, which will be used to educate the next generation of coaches as well, but will implement it in their own way during the season.

Rugby AU high performance manager Ben Whitaker said mental skills were becoming a greater focus at all levels of the game.

"We've got basically an all day workshop which is all about applied performance psychology, which has come out of our national plan," he said.

"It's an area that we really want to investigate and make sure that we're understanding of it and delivering it at a level that positively impacts performance."

Tim Walsh will leave big boots for Rugby AU to fill. Photo: Rugby Australia MediaWhitaker said the organisation's vision was to make a mental 'curriculum' for rugby players and coaches at all stages of rugby development.

“I think what'll happen off this is we'll get a lot of thinking around how it gets delivered in team program but also having a look at what services could be provided from a central point of view that help everyone with performance,” he said.

No Australian rugby team has a full-time sports psychologist, though Super Rugby teams have brought in consultants at times but this has been relatively ad hoc.

The Waratahs brought in a leadership consultant in 2017 to work with some of the senior players amid a disappointing season and showed improvement in 2018, with a run to a Super Rugby semi-final.

Sports psychology has increasingly important in rugby and New Zealand has been at the forefront.

It has long been the backbone of the All Blacks' strategy with Gilbert Enoka spending 15 years as New Zealand's mental skills coach from 2000-15 before switching to a leadership manager role in 2016.

Enoka's influence on the All Blacks has been telling,focusing on a 'red head, blue head' approach, teaching players to move from a panicky red space to a calm blue space during matches.

He helped players establish strategies to stay calm - for Richie McCaw it was stamping his feet while Brad Thorn would throw water on himself and current All Blacks skipper Kieran Read simply stares the length of the field.

It was the switch in that focus that many believe lead to the All Blacks' dual World Cups in 2011 and 2015 after years of disappointing returns in the biggest event.

McCaw also took it upon himself to work individually with another therapist Ceri Evans, who Enoka brought in to help build resilience within the team, a strategy revealed in McCaw's recent documentary.

Whitaker said Rugby Australia would not be providing any personnel to teams but will recommend approaches in the mental space to gain a competitive edge.

“Possibly. It's one of the hardest ones, people grapple (with it) and I understand why - if you have a full-time sports psychologist a) it's costly and you need to find the right person,” he said. 

“To find one that can deliver across all the teams is probably unrealistic.

“There's already some engagement by Super teams with psychology, a formal psychology resource but I think we could enhance the system and we could build a framework for performance psychology nationally that's real simple to access and apply at state level.”

The Wallabies weren’t part of the meeting on Monday, currently on tour in Japan, but they have also utilised sports psychologists on occasion under coach Michael Cheika while the national coach often consults with experts in the field.

“I think they already draw on performance psychology, I know Michael has a strong understanding of it and has his own resources that he calls upon as well,” Whitaker said.

“This is probably looking ahead to say, 'How can players who enter that environment already be well-versed and serviced in that area that support them to perform at the highest level?'.”