Wednesday 16 January 2019

Good habits crucial when pressure is on

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, and that's when instinct kicks in

Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt with his players during squad training
Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt with his players during squad training

Fergus Connolly

A number of years ago I was asked to give a talk in Boston to a group of medical and fitness professionals. In that presentation I explained for the first time the methodology I use for sport-specific fitness and skill ratios. In other words, as a comparison, the outcome of a game in soccer is arguably 20 per cent determined by the fitness of the two teams, and 80 per cent determined by the skills of players.

In NFL, it is the inverse. Rugby too. Having been the only person to work full-time across all those codes I saw it at first hand. Yet the impact of the presentation shocked me. Stuart McGill, a world-leading expert in injury and performance, said that in 27 years on the road it was the first time he had seen that theory presented. The ratios involved are a little complex and detailed but you get the point: rugby, like NFL, is a game where the influence of skill and fitness are finely balanced. So overcook the fitness and skill is the victim; overdo the skills work and the opposition will batter you to a point where you can't compete physically.

Preparing a team to compete at the World Cup is a minefield. It's a complex planning operation, starting close enough to the end of one campaign and then ramping up halfway through the next cycle. It means managing everything from team culture to fitness, and hoping it works on the day.

This is a worrying time for Ireland fans because they have just watched their team come second best in the physical stakes two weeks running. But like the iceberg effect, the punters don't know what's beneath the waterline. This is especially true in warm-up games. To the coach, performance - and avoiding serious injury - is the primary goal, and not always the score.

So, against Wales the first day, selections aside of course, you may have seen a fit and fresh Ireland meet a fit but slightly stale Wales. Two weeks ago may have been the reverse. I wouldn't be concerned. Freshness can be managed in a few days. Knowing the players and coaches on both sides, they knew exactly what they were doing and looking for. While we simply saw games, for Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt these were really 'training' games with both coaches having clear ideas of what they wanted to see.

In professional sport, we always think in two basic concepts: fitness and freshness. Fitness we can all agree on. In simple terms it's how long and hard you can run and hit. It's how strong or fit you are. But freshness is much more subtle. In layman's terms, it's a measure of the energy available to you on any given day.

It's also the key factor in the need to control 'peaking.' You can be the fittest man in the world, but if you don't correctly time your recovery and rest you can be caught flat-footed or feel and look heavy-legged. While it is highly scientific, this is also part of the art of coaching, which is harder to measure. Get it wrong and you've over-trained. Get it right and the players look explosive and fast and light on their feet.

The goal of all coaches, in any sport, is to time their team to be both the fittest and freshest on the days that matter. The problem is that we're all individuals of different shapes and sizes, and need to be managed differently.

Not long ago, peaking was seen as a dark art. Today it's much more scientific and better understood. Nonetheless, just because you understand something doesn't necessarily mean it's any easier to achieve it. At this stage, when teams are fit and healthy, all coaches will be doing is peaking for the games. In other words, there will not be hard training done from now on. Most teams will focus on three things: learning; short, intense sessions; and recovery. The learning and teaching aspect of professional sport is much more important now than ever before. Some coaches will expect you to know your direct opponents' habits in intimate detail. I know some who even expect you to know the habits of his replacements' replacements also! Short, intense sessions will be sufficient to both keep the players' fitness up for a short period and keep them fresh.

Recovery is key of course, as much as to fill time and keep guys occupied but also to 'ease out the kinks' and keep players loose. Anyone who's been in team settings will appreciate this, but the critical factor here is the chemistry of the personalities in the squads.

In my experience, one good comedian or joker in the squad is worth any number of recovery sessions. In my time I've been around guys like Andy Powell, the former Wales number eight, and Donncha O'Callaghan, and one well-timed line from one of those can have a group of grown men crying on the floor laughing. Laughter and fun not only release good recovery chemicals to the brain, but they help you relax, they build good team spirit and break up the distractions of the challenges ahead. Most importantly for a team sport though, they keep everyone humble - the best jokers never seem to respect seniority!

There is another key factor at play here. International rugby is unique. It isn't like domestic rugby, soccer or the NFL, which have long seasons. This is ruthless, and intense, working on the basis of short tournaments and campaigns. In these cases, just like short military operations, the personality of the coach is the most critical thing. Cohesiveness and simplicity of message is critical.

Mike Tyson's quote that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face is thrown around a lot. But if you listen to the whole interview and duck the humour, his point was that after a boxer/player gets hit, or is under pressure, they revert to their basic instincts - to habit.

This is what coaches like Stuart Lancaster, Gatland, Schmidt and Les Kiss have been working on for months. They've been drilling the players in order to develop instinctive habits for when the pressure arrives. This is when games are won or lost. Strength, power and physicality will only get you an invite to the dance. Skill, freshness and, especially, habit will determine how well you can move on the night.

Having been there first hand, one aspect of rugby I've always found interesting is the emphasis brought by different coaches. Warren, for example, puts great store on fitness and strength. He has a belief that the fitter team will be there in the last 15 minutes of a game. Hence going to training camps in Dubai and Switzerland. He also knows that building that in a certain way can help mental resilience.

Joe takes a different approach. He doesn't ignore fitness - far from it - but he emphasises skills and technique in a different manner. Stuart Lancaster on the other hand is between the two, but he has also got an exceptional team of sports scientists behind him, many with backgrounds from the dominant British Cycling group. He has started with developing culture and teamwork. So when you see coaches express emotion at cutting the squad, don't be sceptical. They are sincere.

And while you may not realise it, the greatest issue that coaches will face is managing the players on the fringe. For example, the injured player who is 'almost' there. This is where you see leadership. I used to joke with Jim Harbaugh in the 49ers that this was why he got paid more than me - to make that big call.

This is not completely a black art, but at the end of the day don't fool yourself: there will be coaches in a dark room thinking about taking a chance on players. I've seen it. There is no sure guarantee. In fact, the only proven route to prediction is previous performance - did the player recover fast previously? Hope and luck don't count in that sphere. Fasten your seatbelts.

Fergus Connolly has worked extensively as a performance manager and consultant in professional football, rugby union and league, American football, and GAA. He currently works with the San Francisco 49ers

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