Brian Ashton: Want a winning team? It's all in the mindset

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

The mindset matters. History and experience tell us that when all other things are equal in the pressurised cauldron of elite sport, those with the ability to think clearly, stay on-process in the face of distraction and exert some control over the way decisions are made at important moments are the ones most likely to succeed.

These are the gifts that separate the world-class player from – for want of a better word – the "ordinary" international. So how is it that in rugby, less time is spent working on the mental side of the game than on any other area of high-level performance?

It seems to me that there is an absence of logic here. Specialists in mental skills tend to be called upon as a last resort when things are going badly wrong, as opposed to going well. Surely, it should be the other way round. Instead of starting from the negative base of playing catch-up in addressing serious problems, it seems more sensible to spend time maximising players' mindset potential when there are positive aspects of performance that require consolidation and development. Clive Woodward used to say that the clever coach learnt more from winning than he did from losing, and he was right.

I should point out that the mental part of the training equation cannot stand alone, isolated from the rest of the week's programme. That would be nothing more than an exercise in box-ticking, and I've never been much interested in ticking boxes. Full value can be derived only from a properly integrated approach in which the physical and technical preparation goes hand in hand with the mindset work.

In the practical sense, this means putting players in uncomfortable situations in training by introducing diversions and distractions of the kind they might encounter in a game and forcing them to react. I admit that, like many coaches, I once saw the "clean hands" training session – that is to say, the session with no mistakes – as the ultimate end in itself. Then I had one of those "hang on a minute" moments and thought: "What is the use of error-free training when there are no games without errors?" I decided that the "clean hands" theory was delusional, a cop-out. Training should be challenging, not reassuring.

All this sprang to mind when, with the weather turning grim, I found myself watching the magnificent South Africa-England cricket Test in Cape Town. It was utterly absorbing – there were enough twists and turns to send the participants' mental cogs into overdrive for hours at a time – and what really struck me was the mental strength of Paul Collingwood.

I did a little research and found that in three of his most recent innings, he batted for a total of 12 hours 56 minutes, facing 532 balls and scoring 140 runs. Those figures bear testimony to the power of the top sportsman's mind, for every one of those 532 deliveries had the potential to turn the match decisively towards the opposition. In cricket, remember, the batsman has no second chance.

Rugby is different, to the extent that a player can make 10 mistakes and still walk away with the man-of-the-match award if other things go right. Defining moments occur whenever someone is directly involved in the action, which can happen at any time, unforeseen and entirely without warning. If most players understand the generalised, big-picture stuff – let's make a good start, let's not do anything daft just before half-time, and so on – they are more vulnerable when there is a split-second decision to be made. That's when rugby gets closer to cricket and players find themselves in Paul Collingwood territory. But even then, they have it easier. Just recently, Collingwood's split-seconds have been multiplied by 532.

These days, I do some work on tactical awareness with the England and Wales Cricket Board and the directors of cricket at the first-class counties, and I sometimes wonder if most cricketers are tougher than most rugby players when it comes to mental application. In rugby, there are frequent opportunities for redemption; in cricket, such opportunities are few and far between.

When I was involved in setting up the Rugby Football Union's national academy, mental skills was a subject to be taken seriously. We ran a daily session on this and it became one of the hallmarks of the system. A coach learns a good deal about a player when, instead of ambling through some routine semi-opposed stuff, he suddenly takes the outside-half off the field and says to the tight-head prop or the blind-side flanker: "Right, there are three minutes to go, you have a line-out in your own 22, your key decision-maker is off the field and you need a try from somewhere. What are you going to do about it?" If his mindset is all it should be, he'll come up with an answer.

Fran made sure I cottoned on

I don't suppose I was ever renowned as a scrummaging coach, but I know enough about the set piece to understand this much: anyone who imagines a team can win a match when their pack spends almost the entire match in rapid retreat, as the Wasps forwards did at Leicester last Saturday, must be stark raving mad. The scrum is not everything in a game of rugby, but it has never been anything less than a point of great physical and psychological significance.

During my playing days as a scrum-half, I spent a good deal of time putting the ball into a front row boasting a certain Fran Cotton – and believe me, he was not one to be amused at the thought of a prop forward's hard work going to waste. Whenever I looked the formidable Fran in the eye, I was instantly reminded of two great rugby truths: that the timing and delivery of my feed had to be spot on, and that the possession delivered back to me had to be used correctly. Or else.

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