After the Canada Rugby World Cup Qualification games a couple of years ago, if we were to hear the results of the RWC would be the USA losing 22-10 to Ireland, 67-5 to Australia and 27-10 Italy, with a 13-6 win over Russia, most would agree that they would have accepted those score lines willingly and considered the RWC a reasonable success. I am not saying results in the lead up, but at the Cup itself. All that said, we know we could have been better, so how do we progress?
Physically, the USA matches up versus most sides at the RWC in terms of size, strength and speed. I think a lot of the difference was in the mentality and the preparation of each individual. I think the players surprised themselves (and us as fans) with their performance against Ireland.
The greatest barriers are barriers that we impose on ourselves, sometimes unknowingly. There was a time when the four-minute mile seemed impossible, but as soon as Roger Bannister broke the barrier, it was overcome shortly after by a whole host of others. The physical makeup of these runners didn’t change, they changed their belief in what was possible. I think we can say that if our belief about the limits of what is possible change, then those limits themselves change.
I think those players showed a glimpse of what is possible in this RWC, and in RWCs prior. I believe that with some minor changes in our thoughts and our approach we can see some drastically different results.
Most coaches may disagree about the physical attributes necessary for success as players and as a team, but there is almost universal agreement on the mental attributes needed for success. Commitment to do the work is a prerequisite for success, but unless players master the art of self control and focus, they will fall drastically short of their goals. There are techniques players can be taught to accomplish this.
Are we searching for the magical athlete to take us over the edge? Should we spend more time focusing on developing the committed players we have fully?
Look at a couple of examples of really class performers for the USA in the recent past, Chris Osentowski and Mike Petri. Both performed well in the RWC, both played specialist positions, Osentowski was a tighthead prop and Petri a scrumhalf. What were the common denominators? I would say it was the individual attention and study that each did with their coaches, Osentowski with Bill LeClerc, who at the time was the USA scrum doctor, and Petri with Mike Tolkin, the USA defense coach.
Petri and Tolkin spent endless hours in the Xavier gym focusing on the skills, tactics, physical and mental makeup of a class scrumhalf. Osentowski and LeClerc were the ultimate scrum nerds, phoning each other almost daily to speak about set ups, engagements, controlling the looshead, anchoring the scrum and the mental makeup required of an effective tighthead. It was this type of one-on-one work wchich helped these players excel.
I would classify Petri and Osentowski as athletic, but certainly not elite athletes in the classical sense of having some kind of off-the-charts physical gifts that make you go “WOW”. To me, they had something much more important. They had ingredients that tilt the balance in sports: desire, determination, attitude, heart and self motivation. They also had top-class people who went the extra mile in aiding their development. What if ALL of our players in this RWC were given that level of attention, love and coaching? I think we can, and should, do more to aid in the development of our players as complete players and people. We tend to really work during assemblies but not enough is done between assemblies.
Assume we have 150 people on the radar screen for high performace development 50 High School aged, 50 college aged, and 50 older than college? Is it out of the realm of possibility to have weekly or bi-weekly skype calls, or gotomeeting.com sessions with each player to discuss their development and what is going on in their lives? Can we look at the whole player technically, tactically, physiologically, psychologically and at their general life outside of rugby? Can we guide them into work groups in their area so they can work on skills outside of training? Can we give them ideas on skill drills outside of training to work on? Can we work with their club coaches and help them to develop these HP players in the way we want them developed? Can we teach them the art of mental skills training?
You get the picture. I don’t think this is asking too much. The personal touch matters and it isn’t happening nearly enough. Showing genuine concern for players will do more for their performance than anything else, but it must be genuine. They can read through the BS. You must trust them. They will then trust you.
In this way, we can find out who is committed and who isn’t. We can’t win with the uncommitted, so we focus on who is committed and keep replenishing the pool with the committed.
Players need to know where they stand and what it will take to get to where they want to be. This is the main cause of anxiety amongst players. They can deal with reality. It is the uncertainty that drives them bananas and affects them mentally. Frequent communication will alleviate much of that anxiety.
Elite players need guidance from elite coaches in time management and goal setting. They need to know what they want to accomplish every day and at every training session. A periodic call can help this along. Videotaping sessions can make feedback on what is being done more precise. Technical issues can be addressed. This helps players learn to self evaluate and thinking players is what we are after. Each player has specific skill issues and each player has an individual mental makeup that needs to be addressed and developed.
Committing as an administration to our most dedicated players will allow us to aid elite players’ development in the physical and mental skills necessary to press on. These are the differentiators. Once we identify the talented and committed we can strive to help them attain the following basic mental skills:
- Relaxed Focus- which doesn’t mean that the focus itself is relaxed in the sense of lacking intensity, it means that the mind is cleared of irrelevant thoughts and the body is cleared of irrelevant tensions. The focus is centered only on what is important at the moment for executing the skill to perfection. The body is relaxed but ready. The mind is calm but focused. Outside thoughts and unwanted tension are absent. “Pressure comes when you don’t know what you are doing” Chuck Noll (4 time Super Bowl winning coach)
- Without going into heavy detail we need to help players deal with outside pressures and the demands and expectations of others. We need to teach effective goal setting in terms of process, performance, and behavioral goals that are within their control. We need to help players fine tune and use the powerful tools of mental imagery. We need to improve players’ relaxation and time management skills. We need to look at the whole person and monitor them frequently with genuine concern for their personal and rugby well being.
This is just a small guide of things that can be done to improve. We can’t change the past. We can look to the future. We can identify our prospects. We can nurture them. Continuous follow up can be done by or DOR, national team head coach, HP department, national team assistant coaches, age grade national team coaches at HSAA, U-20, College AA, club coaches of the various players. Resources must be made available to players in their regions so they can excel.
If in January of 2008 after the RWC and college bowl games, I hypothesize that if we took our pick of any 80 NCAA athletes (you can dream here on who they’d have been) that we wanted and said that was going to be the RWC pool of players for 2011 and we treated them exactly the same as the current pool of 30 were treated over that almost 4 year period, we’d be lucky if 30 of these class athletes were still playing rugby in 2011. If they were, it would be a miracle if they had any appreciable level of skill. They almost certainly wouldn’t have had the results of our current crop of players as we wouldn’t have developed them as individually as players and as a team. I say this because there is little money and even less support. Never mind that they all would have been brand new to the game while being neglected for the most part outside of assemblies.
We actually have the talent. We just need to focus on the individual. We need to take the responsibility that we have as a union to develop our elite players seriously. Done right and with organization and effort, we can press for some excellent results.
It takes real dedication to develop world class skills and mentality. It is tough in the USA because we are spread out, but it can be done and must be done if we want to get to the level we want.
There is no excuse to get this wrong again.