By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – What is mental toughness? Try and define it, and you’ll probably come up with something along the lines of the ability to execute when facing obstacles or a resolve of steel when faced with high pressure situations.
ER surgeons, U.S. Special Forces, the New England Patriots’ players in Super Bowl LI quickly come to mind when thinking of people who display mental toughness.
Rugby fans probably point to the heroics of Jonny Wilkinson in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. With the Australia defense closing in and the weight of the team and a nation on his shoulders, the England fly-half scored a drop kick (above) with 20 seconds remaining in extra time to grab the Webb Ellis trophy.
The challenge facing most rugby coaches is how to help players become mentally tough so they are able to rise to the occasion when the challenges are the greatest. And just like working on skills or conditioning, working on improving a player’s mental toughness starts in training sessions.
Far too often ‘mental toughness’ is a word tossed around to describe the intangible. James Smith outlines this theory in the Rugby Strength Coach podcast ‘Mental Toughness is an Illusion.’ According to Smith, coaches often lack the knowledge to deconstruct mental aspects of the game and so mental toughness becomes what coaches use to determine a player doesn’t have ‘what it takes.’
This tendency must be avoided to help players become mentally tough and starts when coaches strive to evaluate each player’s needs on both a physical and mental level.
What is tough?
According to Smith, there are varying attributes of toughness – resilience, aggression, focus, tenacity, durability, persistence and so on. Rugby requires a high level of aggression, relentlessness, durability and focus under pressure. And it necessitates other attributes depending on position, variations of the game, or tactical play.
A strong back row forward might need more relentlessness, a fullback more focus under pressure, and a world-class hooker might shine in both. Sevens might ask for more resilience to go full tilt for 14 minutes of multiple matches in a day. Different teams, players, and positions call for different approaches.
Smith likens it to a bully on a schoolyard. If you’ve been bullied, but learned to develop a thick skin, you’re likely to be more resilient. But you may lack the necessary aggression to take a player one-on-one and score when the game is on the line. On the other hand, if you grew up learning how to dominate, you might have an eye for the try zone yet struggle coming back from a loss.
Toughness is also situational and those who excel are the best prepared for the tasks they will face. Take a Navy Seal for instance. No one’s going to argue that these guys aren’t mentally tough. Obviously, it takes some sort of mental strength to withstand the demands placed on these individuals.
Take that Seal and place them in the ER, the NBA Finals or on the Wall Street trading floor, however, and you might see something unexpected. A racing heart, beads of sweat, an anxiety to perform under pressure. That’s because they aren’t trained for excellence in these specific situations.
How do we teach it?
So in order to prepare our athletes, we must first determine the markers of competitive success. What does it take to win huge matches? Follow that with a training program relative to the qualities you’re trying to develop.
For example, anaerobic load isn’t going to do much for throw in or kicking accuracy. But adding ten sprints for every missed kick might.
Stimulate the process through conversation or video. Each player has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. Giving athletes a bird’s-eye view of themselves allows them to be more objective of their game play.
As coaches, we can facilitate learning by asking questions in pivotal moments – what were you thinking here? Why didn’t you attack the space in front of you?
This allows us to use game-like situations to assess success of intervention rather than develop the quality itself. Smith recommends facilitated understanding by discussing thought processes, then designing drills where success requires the desired outcome.
Putting it in Practice
To translate that concept to training- if your team can’t convert multiple phases to points, don’t train ‘mental toughness’ by making them sprint until they drop. Resilience is not the limiting factor. Rather, design drills that require execution and aggression under pressure. Play small-sided games with two minutes to score as much as possible or limit team attack to four phases to score from the 22.
If you tend to be a first half team, maybe you do need resilience and focus while tired. That’s when it’s proper to play live conditioning games. A 45-minutes conditioning session followed by a skills game, or even a quick 15 minutes of conditioning with 20 minutes of high-intensity games.
These types of sessions should be controlled, of course, as injury risk always goes up in relationship to fatigue. But short bursts while tired, non-contact skills or even multiple sessions in a day might work.
And second half teams? Well they need to figure out how to come out of the gate strong. This could take place off the field – goal setting for training, visualization or a video prep just before the session. Have players set a 10 minute visualization routine prior to kick off. Try things out, record results and see what works.
Start with the game plan. Are you a more defensive-minded team, where your focus is to launch hard, shut the opposition down, steal the ball and attack off turnovers? Or maybe you just play it patient on defense and starve them of the ball on attack. Are you going to kick out of your own half? Or run with ball-in-hand from your own goal line?
Then you take individuals and discuss how they fit in that picture. Challenge them to think about how they did or did not achieve the desired outcome. Follow up with well-designed sessions, allow them to succeed, and repeat the process.
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C. She is currently training with Harlequins in England.