Picture: DAVID ROGERS / GETTY IMAGES
Picture: DAVID ROGERS / GETTY IMAGES

England entered the World Cup final as overwhelming favourites. Not in the minds of the Springboks, but in the minds of most people in the world, even former winners of rugby’s highest accolade. 

“Well, at the risk of sounding like an arrogant @EnglandRugby fan. Nothing I am seeing would worry England. Very predictable,” tweeted 2003 England World Cup winner Lewis Moody when the Boks scraped past Wales in the semifinal.

His words were important, because he had won the trophy before. A few days later, when he retweeted an interview he had done, the seriousness of the mental state of sports players entering big games hit home. He had told journalist Chris Devine of Omnisport: “You’re fighting a battle in your own brain until you cross that white line.”

In his preview to the final, Jack de Menezes, deputy sports editor for The Guardian, wrote: “What is fear? A feeling caused by many things, that can produce many results. An emotion that can stem from a person, an occasion or an unpleasant memory. But it can only occur in one place, a place that it consumes completely, and that is within the mind.”

A little further down the article, he continued: “It is why [Eddie] Jones has told his players to go out and play Saturday’s World Cup final with ‘no fear’. The England head coach said ‘fear’ eight times on Thursday after announcing his side to face the Springboks, a team who can easily put the fear of God into any human being, and it was left in little doubt the message that the 59-year-old has been drumming into his team this week.”

In an American Psychological Association article, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner introduced the world to the famous white bear experiment. The premise was simple: try not to think about white bears, and do what you will, you will think of white bears.

As the 1863 quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky that inspired his work says: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Had Jones and his England team invoked the big green bear? When viewers around the world saw Dan Cole reverse faster than a taxi approaching a roadblock it would be hard to argue otherwise. Because England really are a great team. They are a very powerful team that dismantled the poster boys of demigod hype a week before facing SA. Heck, they even went so far as to stand in an arrow formation before the mighty haka precisely to get into the heads of the New Zealand players. Perhaps this was their punishment?

Clinton Gahwiler, a sports psychologist who has run the psychology practice at the Sports Science Institute of SA since 1995, says it would be impossible for an outsider to know what was going on in the minds of the England team. However, to be fair, when Maro Itoje refused to have the silver medal placed around his neck, his state of mind was rather obvious.

There are always a huge number of factors which play a role on any given day, and thankfully it is impossible for us to know, let alone control, them all. That’s partly why sport exists and why it is such a great thing.
Clinton Gahwiler

“I think we all have a tendency to make somewhat simplistic assumptions on what a specific sporting result can be attributed to. In reality, there are always a huge number of factors which play a role on any given day, and thankfully it is impossible for us to know, let alone control, them all. That’s partly why sport exists and why it is such a great thing,” Gahwiler told Business Day.

“So, did the teams’ ability to handle pressure on the day ultimately make the difference? I don’t know. Sporting excellence is about planning, and patiently implementing, and practising to implement, the plan over time.

“The World Cup final pitted two outstanding, thinking coaches against each other, who undoubtedly both left very little to chance in their preparations.”

Gahwiler dismissed another common misconception, often repeated on sports pages around the world. “Another common simplistic deduction is that the one team wanted it more than the other. Well, obviously every player on the field wanted to win very badly, and has quite possibly thought about it since they were kids.”

How did the Springboks rise to the occasion?

“I do, however, believe that one of the more important factors might have been that the Springboks did an excellent job of harnessing the emotion that comes from knowing what that game could mean for the country. And, unlike sports that rely on fine-motor skills, rugby is the kind of game in which that level of emotion can be channelled very powerfully.”

In his post-win media conference, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus spoke about this emotion. He also said he had worked to instil a sense of perspective in his players and had explained that pressure in SA is not having a job, or having a family member murdered. He said they worked as a team on understanding that rugby doesn’t create pressure, but instead was an opportunity and privilege — an opportunity to make a nation proud and hopeful.

One could argue for weeks whether this was just an important sense of perspective, or whether it was a very smart tactic to help the Boks manage their pressure better than the English. Tries by both wings vs loose passes into touch: the one team was the headlight and the other team was the deer.

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and Tendai Mtawarira during an emotional rendition of the SA national anthem. Picture: DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IMAGES
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and Tendai Mtawarira during an emotional rendition of the SA national anthem. Picture: DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IMAGES

During the tournament, and after the group games, Erasmus was quoted as saying: “I personally experienced 1999 when I was a player and again in 2011 when I coached and we lost two important play-off games. Back then I thought it was because of the mental side that we lost. It wasn’t the physical side that lost us those games.

“It’s very important to be able to deal with the pressure. You have to look at how you handle pressure. What is pressure? And how can you transfer the pressure from your team onto the opposition. There are obviously a lot of things that play a role.”

A few years ago, Forbes ran a feature on why successful people don’t crumble under pressure. The article quoted Martin Turner, a lecturer at Staffordshire University in the School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise. He is also well-known for writing the book What Business Can Learn from Sport Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance

Turner told Forbes at the time that extraordinary athletes have the ability to perform well under pressure. Two people, he said, with similar skills and preparation can perform very differently on the day.

His theory is that when entering a stressful situation, fear triggers a physiological response and a person enters two possible states: a challenge state, where they are able to respond positively, or a threat state, where their ability to focus and make decisions is hindered.

The mind has a massive impact in controlling stress and handling pressure. Your mind gives you your perspective of reality, and in sport you need this perspective to be realistic.
Louise de Jager

“How the body reacts under pressure is dictated by the mind,” Turner was quoted as saying in the article, which elaborates: “Entering into a stressful situation with a positive mental approach leads to a challenge state. But if you approach a tough situation with negativity, you’re more likely to enter into a threat state.”

Louise de Jager, owner of BMT Sports Consulting, which works with athletes to improve their athletic and sports performance, and herself a former athlete, having represented SA at a national level in hockey, gymnastics and track and field athletics, says: “If you can align mind and body, you will certainly improve performance. The mind has a massive effect on the body, which in turn has a massive effect on performance.”

She says your thought process and positive or negative thinking habits have a “big effect on your state ... in other words your mood and emotion. So, the first impact of the mind is on your thoughts, on your behaviour or actions”.

“Often, what happens to athletes is that they get into a state of overthinking, in that they are critical of themselves, and they are analysing their thoughts all the time. You want to be in a state of flow where, yes, your mind has control, but your mind is calm. Overthinking has a detrimental effect on performance.

“The mind has a massive impact in controlling stress and handling pressure. Your mind gives you your perspective of reality, and in sport you need this perspective to be realistic. If there is fear and anxiety, you do need a realistic perspective. This all means that your state of mind can have a massive impact on your general attitude and general reaction to your context, which will impact your performance.”

Gahwiler says sports psychology optimises the mental aspects of sport. “You know yourself, your coach knows your sport, and the psychologist has information on optimising the mental aspects of the game. The challenge is to put these three sources of information together in a way that is practically useful when you go out to compete,” he says.

Gahwiler pointed Business Day to a mental coping checklist he created on his website called Performing Mind.

“The aim of the Performing Mind coping checklist is to summarise those ‘boxes to be ticked’, in order to feel that you have genuinely done all you can with regards to a specific difficulty.”

The types of things Gahwiler says athletes need to be able to cope with are disappointment, injury, pre-competition nerves, criticism, slumps, not getting a fair chance, success, returning from injury, coping with perfectionism and negative thinking.

On negative thinking, Gahwiler writes: “Thinking patterns become habits in the same way that physical mannerisms do … some of our habits serve us well, while others hold us back and create unnecessary stress. Just as our existing habits were learnt at some point in the past, so too we can develop new thinking habits.”

De Jager says even people who are amateurs, mildly competitive or are just trying to get the best out of their own training need to master their minds.

The way we are able to do this, she says, is by setting very clear goals, followed by drawing up a progress report in order to maintain a sense of perspective of the bigger picture. Use your mind positively, she says, to try to create a state of positivity that will lead to resilience and confidence.

Your strongest muscle is your noggin

In a study called “From mental power to muscle power — gaining strength by using the mind”, conducted by researchers from the department of biomedical engineering at The Lerner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, the researchers set out to determine mental training-induced strength gains (without performing physical exercises) in the little finger abductor as well as in the elbow flexor muscles.

Thirty healthy volunteers took part for 12 weeks, one group performing “mental contractions” of little finger abduction, another doing mental contractions of elbow flexion, a third doing no exercise, and a group of people actually doing physical exercises related to the movements.

What would appear obvious is that the physically trained group enjoyed the biggest strength gains (more than 50%). However, the mental training groups enjoyed significant gains too, of 13.5% for elbow flexion and 35% for finger abduction strength.

The authors concluded that “the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength”.

Ditch the curl rack and flex the grey matter.