Joe Schmidt and his team did a wonderful job on the emotional management of the Ireland team on Saturday last. With so much on the line and in such a cauldron of intensity and pressure they played angry and cool – a potent combination.
Rugby is a funny old sport for many reasons. Such as the fact that a 6ft 11in second row can play alongside a 5ft 9in who is 8 stone lighter, that you move forward by passing backward and that you beat seven shades of **** out of one another and shake hands with and cheer the opposition afterwards.
The physical and mental challenge particularly at the top level is daunting and I remember meeting many Americans on rugby tours, who can’t believe we play this game without padding and helmets like American Football. To be up for the challenge, to be able to give the sort of effort for this period of time requires a teeth gritting intensity of emotion that has to be raised and then maintained for the full game. Different players get there in different ways, some use anger, some fear and some pure will.
To meet some of the challenges of “putting your body on the line” requires getting into a state of mind that ignores pain as required and which ignores what you are putting your body through. Two 16 stone centres run into one another at speed, there is a 32 stone collision magnified by the momentum, there is effectively a car crash, inertia, g-force and falling to the ground without the ability to use your arms (one pair is protecting the ball and the other pair is making the tackle). When they get up after the first tackle all they have to do is do it another 20 times, while running 7-10 miles in 1000 directions at 10 different speeds while staying aware of every attempt by the opposition to invent a way around them.
So this requires emotional regulation. Fast thinking (as per nobel winner Dr Daniel_Kahneman) of the sort required to react fast and make decisions in milliseconds is generally emotional in nature and it is also supported by good habits learned over years. Slow thinking – meaning thinking with the linear process-driven side of your head about the game and staying cool to make the right tactical decisions is different. Too much emotion can cause this part of your brain (with plans-logic-control) to be hard to access as your amygdala ( the part of your brain which has a primary role in the processing decision-making and emotional reactions) goes too much into fight or flight mode and your thinking and some of your habit based learning suffers or shuts down. Too much pressure to perform also shuts it down – interestingly a psychologist once told me we are most vulnerable to this as teenagers right around the time of the leaving cert (!).
It is well known by cognitive psychologists that too much pressure causes the player to use the same pathways to perform a skill that he or she used while learning the skill – like learning to drive versus experienced driving which is almost automatic. This is illustrated in sport by a study that showed that soccer players in the World Cup taking penalty kicks in the shootout to decide a game’s outcome are twice as likely to miss if they are kicking “not to lose” rather than kicking to win their game. Same goal, situation and ball but just a pressure difference.
Look at the pivotal role of the coach and/or leader in all of this. Trying to get the players ready to function with the punishment and intensity yet trying to keep them thinking so they play cute but also to their maximum physical capacity. Sometimes it’s a matter of taking pressure off. Joe Schmidt the Ireland coach has shown the skills to do this alongside the leaders in the team. Think of the narrow window through which he must motivate and engage his team. Enough intensity but not too much. Enough pressure to perform but no too much. Last Saturday was a masterclass.
Organisational and business teams who understand and use emotion rather than ignoring it – benefit from it hugely through increased performance and better outcomes in almost every area. Motivating and generating the most enthusiasm you can while keeping pressure off your team so they feel the freedom to try things, to innovate and be agile while keeping an eye on the strategy and tactics is a big challenge but necessary to be competitive in the 21st century organisation. Schmidt’s Ireland team demonstrated a level of tuned motivation and performance that was made possible by emotional understanding and control.
In rugby the famous warm-ups before matches with banging of heads etc are becoming less common – one such a man from Munster once told me about was of a French team they were playing in a club game who brought a cockerel into the dressing room before the match. During the warm-up in the dressing room my friend’s team could hear all sorts of shouting and bellowing en Francais reverberating through the thin walls. The French team ran out first and as my friend’s team passed the door to their dressing room as they followed them out, they looked in to see blood and feathers all over the place and no cockerel. “After seeing that” he said “we let them have the ball”
Aidan Higgins BE MBA of ADEO Consulting is a Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and Teamwork specialist working with Leaders and Teams in Ireland and the UK. He has over 25 years experience working in various capacities with individuals, teams and organisations of all sizes.