Mindfulness in rugby

Phil Jackson is perhaps attributed to popularizing the use of mindfulness in modern day elite sport with the Chicago Bulls and later the LA Lakers, not to mention the NZ All Blacks who have had what they called the “witch doctor” in the team for over 30 years.

As Gardner and Moore put it: “optimal performance requires directing attentional resources toward task-relevant, in-the-moment external contingencies and not toward self-judgment, threat scanning, and future-orientated cognitive activities”.

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In stressful game situations players’ minds can be busy with internal thoughts and discussions, which can be distracting and divert them from a task, let alone the external noise on top of that. When down a few points their minds can start to question if they can do something and these thoughts then fill their heads – they become mind full. That is, their minds become overwhelmed with emotions, internal and external stimuli that cloud their judgement and actions. Being mindful in this situation is about letting those thoughts pass, accepting them and redirecting focus onto the present moment. The act of mindfully breathing in unison not only enables the above factors, but also affords the captain, and leaders time to construct their assessment on what needs to happen next, tactically and psychologically. The team becomes bonded as a unit, they can feel stronger and connected which supports trust, faith and belief in one another. This then allows them to become fully focused on the task at hand.

Coming out of a huddle becomes easier if they’re focused on the kick off as opposed to how many points they’re down and the anxiety associated with this. For example, the No5 focuses only on jumping to receive the kick off cleanly, the No1 focuses on lifting No5, No5 then shifts to focus on carrying the ball to contact, No1 and No2 then focus on securing the ball in the ruck, No9 focuses on passing to No10, who’s focus is to kick to exit. If the whole team is synchronized and fully focused on one task, suddenly the “clean exit” comes together smoothly and becomes simplified.

Sport is 90% mental and 10% physical. While it’s clear that mindfulness is a beneficial tool in sports performance enhancement, it does take practice. As a coach at an amateur level, effective education is crucial in ensuring players fully grasp the concept (buy in) and are not just performing some good diaphragmatic breathing.