Brian Ashton: We must condition creative instincts, not unthinking reflexes

Tackling The Issues
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One of the joys of being self-employed is having the freedom to sample life's rich variety.

My only set routine these days is a two-hour morning walk with the dog, always along the beach near my home in Lytham St Annes – a place with its own sense of time and space, and the perfect location to think and reflect. Once I leave this world of dreams, it is back to the unpredictable world of work, in all its many shapes and forms.

Stimulating projects have been coming thick and fast just recently. A couple of weeks back I returned to Stonyhurst College, where I once taught, to deliver a lecture on the relationship between international sport and politics. This was something of a departure, and my research gave me a fascinating insight into how, even in the age of the ancient Olympics all those centuries ago, political considerations had a significant effect on the games people played. That influence has only grown stronger down the years, to the extent that it is now a fundamental part of sport, be it amateur or professional.

On the subject of what you might call outside influences on sport, I have also spent time recently discussing the roles of conditioning coaches and sports psychologists. I have written before about the model that drives performance at the highest level – the technical, tactical, physical, mental and lifestyle skills that play an essential part in the make-up of a complete athlete – and argued that failure to pay full attention to any one of these elements will almost certainly undermine an individual's ability to realise his or her potential. So I was intrigued to listen to specialist conditioners from the English Institute of Sport as they put forward their ideas and philosophies.

Each was involved with sport at international/Olympic level, from swimming through bob-skeleton to netball, and we found ourselves dissecting how a coach makes a difference, for better or worse, at the high-performance end of the spectrum. The phrase "functional training" was at the forefront of the debate, and if that sounds a bit of a mouthful, it refers to an integrated approach to athlete development that is more beneficial than treating each skill area as a separate entity and coaching it in isolation.

It seems to me that out of this springs a clear message for conditioning coaches working in rugby. Not so long ago Simon Shaw, one of the most skilful and intelligent locks of his generation as well as one of the biggest, said there was a real danger of future Premiership players – and, by logical extension, future England players – becoming mere "gym monkeys" and losing some of their rugby instincts as a consequence. I have no doubt that this is the case. How can it be otherwise when conditioning sessions are conducted in an environment wholly alien to that in which contests take place?

Some of the physical attributes developed in a gym are not necessarily transferable, or even relevant, to performance on the rugby field. The urgent message, therefore, is that conditioning work must be carefully linked to the demands of the game. A base level of conditioning underpins all that a player does, but if the scientific dimension is not in tune with the artistic one, it is difficult to produce people who can handle rugby in its totality – a totality that involves dynamism and flexibility as well as the ability to survive and thrive in collision areas. As Muhammad Ali famously said, champions are not made in the gym, but in the mind.

This leads me to a third illuminating experience, a meeting with those who probably wield the most influence over young English rugby talent: the Premiership academy managers. My role involved running practical sessions designed to illustrate some of the points made by Matt Thoombs, the England Under-21 sports psychology coach.

Those involved agreed on a number of things: that the mental side of the game takes on greater importance as the standard of rugby advances; that these skills are the least understood, addressed and practised at academy level; and that this has to be corrected if we are to develop players able to remain focused under extreme pressure, retain discipline in the face of provocation, stay energised, make sound decisions and show leadership in difficult situations. By not taking this aspect of rugby more seriously, they acknowledged, the game in this country is missing a very large trick.

I can only hope words become action, because we will be doing our best young players a disservice if they do not. There is an assumption, all too common in England, that because a player is physically tough, he must be mentally strong too. This is a non-sequitur of the most damaging kind. It is possible to watch, in any televised game on a Saturday, "tough" professionals display rank indiscipline, make incorrect decisions and show complete failures of leadership during the dark moments that arise in any competitive contest. We have some distance to go in developing players able to respond positively to all the puzzles and demands rugby throws up.

England should win, but Robinson's team owe him a favour

Those most accomplished in meeting the demands described above, in theory at least, will be on parade once again this weekend as the Six Nations returns after a short break. England are in the driving seat – rightly so, after winning three consecutive championship matches for the first time since the Grand Slam year of 2003 – and they will be looking to impose an icy grip on the tournament in tomorrow's Calcutta Cup game.

Yet Scotland will travel in a spirit of hope mixed with desperation, a dangerous combination if everything ignites. Their coach, Andy Robinson, seems to be relishing the prospect of a return to Twickenham – I can't imagine why – and I'd be surprised if there isn't a "do this just for me" element to his team talk. When you balance Andy's pre-Six Nations record, which was excellent, against the poor response of the team over the last couple of matches, his players really do owe him one. Big time.

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