Lifting the lid on mental skills

Lifting the lid on mental skills

A few weeks ago, we published a story about our Mental Skills Coach Kylie Wilson and the importance of mental training at the Blues.

Today we dive a little deeper in to Kylie’s role and gain some insight in to how the team trains their minds for optimal performance on and off the field.

As with a number of Blues coaches, Kylie doesn’t work in silo; she collaborates with the coaching team to integrate mental practice across all departments.

“When the players have a gym session, they’re not just working their muscles. They’re also working their minds, their habits and using all the practices from Mental Skills training to optimise focus and push through barriers/limiting internal factors.”

So, for the purposes of this story, let’s take a player who wants to improve his ability to back himself in certain skills and execution.

Our player has picked up some doubts and fears along the route of his rugby career – whenever he takes a kick at goal, he’s scared the ball will sail wide of the uprights.

First thing Kylie will do when meeting with the player is try to understand the issue in its entirety – when did the player first experience the fear, what was the player’s environment at the time (e.g., coach-athlete relationship, status in the team, family/home factors), what are aspects of the player’s previous experience and personality that contributed to the issue. Kylie, who is a strengths based coach, would then ask the player to recall a time when he’s backed himself and been confident in execution of the skill. She’ll ask the player to describe in detail the internal and external experience so that they both have a clear picture.

Sometimes loss of confidence is a result of poor physical preparation, or a slight injury that’s been bothering the player in the week leading up to the game. Sometimes it’s family difficulties, or an emotional strain. It could be any number of reasons and depending on the answer, Kylie might bring in respective coaches or trainers to work with the player in building more helpful and robust habits, which in turn will increase confidence in the skill.

The comparison between success and failure, as well as the exploration of associated events and circumstances, would help the player gain clarity over what was driving the loss of confidence and together, Kylie and the player would develop a strategy to close those gaps.

These strategies can include Imagery, which is where the player imagines the scenario where a skill is successfully executed. He’d imagine the moment that the skill might not be ‘perfect’ and how he would want to be in those moments to promote an optimal response. Team leaders, for instance, might imagine their communications during critical moments on the field. The player might picture a calm, composed kick for goal.

Once the scenario is created, the player would then write their own imagery script, record themselves speaking it and put it on repeat so that it’s firmly placed in his mind.  This enables players to feel more instinctive in those moments, rather than having to consciously process what they should say and how they should say it.

Another strategy could be Anchoring, where a physical action or key word is anchored to a mind state. The player would use a memory of the state they were in when a skill was successfully executed. Feelings, actions and thoughts would be collected and then tied to a particular movement or word. This could be rubbing his hands together, taking his mouthguard out, gritting teeth – anything that’s meaningful to the player.

There are plenty of strategies available, all designed to create positive associations.

“Basically what we’re trying to do is fire neural pathways that are helpful and to create an association,” said Kylie. “With imagery, I like the players to record their own voices so that they own it and don’t need me.  The aim of anyone working in the coaching space is to create independent, self-reliant athletes, so anything we can do to give them autonomy over their processes is positive.”

Another key focus for the team is stress management, especially important in the high-pressure rugby environment.

A lot of people who have seen Richie McCaw’s new film have recognised the impact that Ceri Evans, a forensic psychiatrist, had on the All Blacks’ game preparation.

Like Ceri, Kylie uses principles of neuropsychology to educate players about what causes helpful or unhelpful mind states and how these impact our ability to perform, especially under pressure.

“In all our work, we are trying to promote helpful ways of operating that allow players to be their best selves in all situations, and hold onto this during those key moments on (and off) the field,” explained Kylie. “Players develop tools to recognise the unhelpful state and adapt and promote more helpful processes.”

Kylie uses these tools amongst others to help players and coaches achieve their personal goals and those of the organisation. Her focus coming in each day is to connect with as many people as possible and to grow rapport with, and understanding of, the team.

Some players choose to regularly meet with Kylie, while others are given a nudge from coaches or other staff. For some players, any misconceptions around Mental Skills needs to be broken down before they are comfortable opening up and engaging in the work.

But the impact on the team is palpable. 2016 Team Captain and MVP winner, James Parsons, acknowledged Kylie’s work during his Awards Dinner speech. We spoke to him about the team’s experience working with a Mental Skills Coach.

“There’s no golden ticket when it comes to mental skills training,” said James. “It’s different for every individual and it’s all about learning your strengths and weaknesses. It takes time and preparation, but once you get the ball rolling the benefits are endless.”

“The work Kylie has done with the team has enabled us to understand our strengths and weaknesses in the game and better execute under pressure.”

“The more work we did during the season with mental skills training, especially with moving from unhelpful to helpful mind states and remaining calm, the more you could see an improvement not only in our game but also at training.”

Everybody is unique, each athlete brings a plethora of past experiences, strengths and weaknesses to the table. Kylie’s job is to help the players identify their strengths and weaknesses and work them to their advantage on the field. Training the mind is just as important as training the body, after all the mind controls it all, so if we’re below par mentally we will not be able to access the wonderful physical/technical/tactical skills we are naturally blessed with.

“The mind’s a very powerful thing,” said Kylie. “Especially when you know how to use it.”