In 2007, the All-Blacks were set to win their first Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987. They led France 13 to 3 at half time in the quarter final. In the second half, it went a little pear shaped for them and they lost 20 18 in the process. Star player Anton Oliver likened the feeling afterwards to a death in the family. The expectation was so great, the result so damaging and hurtful. The players had choked due to the fear of failure – a crippling form of anxiety and performance stress brought on by huge expectation, despite having done some work to prevent this.
When the French took the lead, commentators suggested the All-Blacks just needed to get up the field and take a penalty to win it. They got up the field and created an opportunity but went for the try instead. Poor decision making and inability to stay calm and rational under pressure cost them the game and their chance to fulfill their countrymen’s expectations.
Have Leinster just gone and done similar?
In the 2023 Heineken Champions Cup, Leinster started like a steam train and were fast out of the blocks with two tries in the first six minutes. They took like what looked to be an unassailable lead for most of the first half, leading 17 - 0 after only twelve minutes.
However, slowly but surely, La Rochelle worked their way into the game and scored what would prove to be a massive try before the break when operating with 14 men against Leinster’s 15, after a yellow card and sin-bin to their scrum half. As a result, La Rochelle trailed Leinster by 23 - 14 at half time.
Bit by bit, La Rochelle managed to slowly play their way into the game through the second half and exerted huge pressure on Leinster, forcing numerous mistakes on their exits. It allowed them to play most of the second half in Leinster’s half in a game where Leinster succumbed to the pressure of a home final in Dublin with about 90% Leinster support. La Rochelle then quietened the Leinster crowd with a converted try in the 72nd minute to take the lead. It was all hands on deck for the last 8 minutes for both sides as the coveted title was on the line.
A major turning point in the game came the final two minutes as Leinster were camped on the La Rochelle line, when only a point behind! Leinster’s Michael Ala'alatoa left his feet at the ruck, failed to wrap his intended tackle target and was red-carded for a dangerous hit as Leinster had a perfect opportunity to score what would have been the game-winning score in front of an expectant and frenzied home support.
We have seen where huge expectations - often exaggerated by local media - have a major negative impact on performance in other sports too. The English soccer team failed to meet expectations at numerous championships – most notably the 2014 world cup as the media frenzy set huge hysteria and expectations around them before they finished bottom of their group. Leinster wearing the favourites tag and having to deal with a significant emotional build up within their home city could not have been helpful for the Leinster players.
All Black sport psychologist Gilbert Enoka suggests that the brain delivers three types of response when challenged in a stressful environment – instinct, emotional and thought response. The body always does what the mind tells it to do and he felt that this was the root of the problem. The problem wasn’t one of fitness or physical skill-set.
Emotional and instinctive decisions can be somewhat erratic and often incorrect ones as had proved on previous occasions. He needed needed his players to steer towards decisions that are thought induced and made by clear and rational minds that aren’t overwhelmed by the stress and pressure of the occasion. For that to happen he needed the All-Blacks to be calm under pressure.
In 2011 the All-Blacks looked to further address the negative impact of expectation by building skills in the players to alleviate anxiety and performance stress under pressure. They brought in extra psychological support to help players manage their minds and decision making when under pressure.
Gazing Performance System’s work with high end business organisations such as Xerox, UPS and Avis in handling pressure and improving performance. Gazing Performance began working with players by helping them understand match day nerves. They developed skills in players to help them control attention, alleviate anxiety in pressure situations enabling players to transition into a state of mind where they were clear, positive and on task.
With the help of Gazing Performance Systems, they described the All-Blacks to be H.O.T when under pressure in tight games.
Other unhelpful characteristics of having a “Red Head” might be
They required the players to have a “Blue Head” – one of calmness that can maintain clarity of consciousness, situational awareness, accurate analysis and have the ability to make good decisions under pressure.
Typically, a “Blue Head” would have the following characteristics.
Such a state of consciousness allows you to see the bigger picture, remain on task, and attend to relevant stimuli. Put simply, it allows the players to process the information at hand and make correct decisions consistently, but particularly in pressure situations. Specifically, they are enabled to have the ability to think clearly under pressure to make optimal decisions in following situations. Can they see a positive overload to left or right (5v4 or 4v3 situation)? Is there a gap off the side of the ruck? Is the maul dominant enough to make yards? Is there a kick chase on? Should we take penalty or scrum? Tap kick penalty or go for the line-out? What type of line-out? Contest the ruck or not? Such decisions are made on a constant basis in rugby and such decisions often influence the result. Therefore having the ability to take the optimal option can be the deciding factor between winning and losing.
In this regard, some players need to be more psyched down than psyched up for a performance so that they can maintain appropriate clarity of consciousness for optimal decision making. Without realising, the natural charge of the environment of competitive sport (stadium, fans & noise) can put players in the H.O.T zone where they are unable to manage their thoughts. Those in that negative zone tend to go with an instinctive or emotional response as opposed to a rational thought induced response which very often is the wrong decision.
James Kerr in his book about the All-Blacks “Legacy” allays that former All-Black out half Andrew Mehrtens likens it to “striking the balance between being lucid and being motivated. There comes a point where you become too hyped up and you lose your lucidity and ability to read a situation and make a good decision.”
For example, with only minutes remaining in a match where your team are expected to win, your team are in an attacking position on the pitch in possession of the ball but losing by two points. Your thought process might be, “crap, we have to win this game, we are in trouble here”, as opposed to a strategic rational thought oriented response. This type of thought can keep you calm, allow you to see the big picture and make optimal decisions to help the team create a score to win.
In such a contact / collision sport such as rugby, the best players and teams must play on the edge of the rules. However, numerous athletes struggle to stay on the right side of that edge in intense pressure situations. Their “controlled aggression” can become no longer 'controlled' - often due to frustration and their minds being flustered due to inability to cope with the pressure. When this happens, athlete’s often overcook their aggression levels (H.O.T.), lose their thought clarity resulting in erratic performance or behaviour leaving them open to ill-discipline that may have further implications for the team or performance.
Is this what happened to Michael Ala'alatoa as Leinster attacked the La Rochelle line in the dying minutes of the Heineken Cup Final in Dublin 2023? With Leinster camped on the La Rochelle line, did the red mist came over Michael Ala'alatoa. With two minutes remaining, he left his feet, in an un-disciplined manner, needlessly diving at a ruck head first, resulting in the La Rochelle player leaving the play concussed. Ala'alatoa received a red card and Leinster scoring opportunity turned into a penalty to La Rochelle, which enabled them to see out the game through the remaining 90 seconds as Leinster tasted another bitter final defeat!
All-Black sport psychologist, Enoka told Real Estate Business Magazine that it is crazy the way some people think, “because if you want to build up strength, you go to the gym three times a week and work on your core strength. It just seems that if you want to develop your ability to concentrate and focus and be flexible in what you do from a mental perspective, wouldn’t you apply the same approach?”
Prior to the 2011 world cup, Enoka, with Gazing Performance built layers of pressure allowing the player’s minds to adapt and acclimatize to the pressure. Accordingly, All-Black brains adjusted and developed clarity with regard to accuracy, automaticity of execution and situational awareness in a similar way to which a Math’s teacher might build layered schema in his students. When they were finished, players felt in control of their minds and were ready to execute their skills with appropriate tactical awareness.
Mental strategies were first put in place to firstly calm the mind. Ex All-Black captain Richie McCaw in his book described how they were helped to maintain such calm in his book 'The Real McCaw'. Like meditation, he described how he they were helped to reconnect during breaks in play at opportune times. “Breathing slowly and deliberately…..shift your attention to something external – the ground, or your feet or the ball at hand or the grandstand………use deep breaths and key words to get out of your own head, get yourself ‘back in the present’, regain your situational awareness”. These techniques help the body and mind to centre, relax and maintain appropriate thought activation.
Other mental strategies or what sport psychologists might call “attentional focus cues” or “triggers” were implemented by Enoka and Gazing Performance also. These cues gave players a map of what they should be doing generally in different scenarios.
It enabled the All-Blacks to navigate their way through a game while enabling activation of appropriate thought processes and clarity of mind and purpose. While we don’t fully know the actual cues implemented for 2011, Anton Oliver – an All Black at the world cup in 2007 gave some insight into what may have been involved in James Kerr’ book “Legacy“. Remembering the “cues” from 2007, he said “I can still remember them……….TQB, top quality ball. OTG, over the gainline. KBA, keep ball alive. LQB, lightening quick ball. You get those four things going, we’re fine………that gave us the template to figure out the game”. Would Leinster have benefited from such a skill-set in the last couple of losing finals?
It is quite interesting that in Ronan O’Gara’s thirst for development as a coach, he went to New Zealand and spent a few years as assistant coach to Scott Robertson at Richie McCaw’s old Christchurch club, Crusaders. It appears that he learned a lot about how they empower players to deal with pressure down there and it is notable that he has led La Rochelle to three European cup finals in a row, winning the last two – something the club never achieved previously. Man of the match Greg Aldritt mentioned after the game that it was the players that took ownership in the dressing room at half time. It is likely that this is a strategic ploy on O'Gara's part to empower his players to take ownership of problem solving for themselves so that when push comes to shove in the dying moments, that they have both the resilience desire and problem solving skills to execute under pressure.
In the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final with the All-Blacks in the lead at 8-7 against the same opposition as 2007 (France), the All-Blacks now had the tools to win. The book “Legacy” describes how “Richie McCaw breathes, holds his wrist, stamps his feet – reconnecting with himself, returning to the moment and managing the decision making process to see out the game, all maintaining appropriate clarity as the clock counts down slowly. They are in control of their own minds. The whistle goes. They are finally champions.
Was the opposite true of Leinster in the European Cup Final in Dublin 2023?
It was interesting to hear ex Leinster and Irish international rugby player Jamie Heaslip speak after Leinster's most recent loss to La Rochelle. He mentioned Leinster’s lack of leadership in the second half, stating the fact that international stalwarts such as Jack Conan, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong missed most of the second half while Jonny Sexton’s ability to manage a game was also a huge loss during the last 20 minutes. He also mentioned Leinster’s lack of regular exposure to such intensely heated battles through their domination of the league section of the URC.
It is also noteworthy that they also failed against Munster the previous weekend in the semi final of that URC competition as Munster scored a last minute drop-goal to win through to the final. In fact Munster went on to win that final against the Stormers with another late score to win the URC competition outright in 2023. Perhaps, Leinster Rugby can take some learning from others in implementing such processes so that they too can again fulfill their undoubted potential at the highest level of the club game.
It is a game of small margins, and controlling the six inches upstairs when under pressure, matters.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport