RUGBY SEVENS TEAM TRAIN UNDER PRESSURE
Get used to performing when there’s something at stake to become more comfortable in high-pressure situations
One of the eternal truths about the Olympics is that it is not always outstanding performances that win medals. Often the medals are actually lost by those who wilt under the pressure and are claimed instead by those who can survive it. To the GB rugby sevens team, resilience would be a powerful tool.
Katie Warriner, a sports psychologist who worked with the team, had learned about resilience from her boss, James Bell, national lead psychologist for the England Rugby Football Union who had also worked for the England and Wales Cricket Board. His philosophy: that the brain responds to reward and punishment very differently, and that if you want to help an athlete to be more resilient, they have to learn to deal with threat or “punishment conditioned stimuli”.
“If you want to perform at a very high level under pressure, our evidence suggests you have to train in environments which are very challenging with lots of threat,” Bell says. “Athletes need to experience what pressure feels like and that can be achieved through exposure to negative consequences. Your brain processes this as punishment.” Bell would not make every training session about punishment – the idea is not to break anyone – but his theory is that is if athletes regularly train under pressure, with a genuine fear of failure, then they get used to surviving and performing in such an environment. They practise resilience.
With the sevens team, Warriner tapped into some of Bell’s principles. There were natural punishment-type consequences: competition was tough and the 27 men were going to have to be reduced to 12. Also, in a preOlympics session, Warriner handed around some cut-out headlines from negative newspaper stories. The question was then put to the players: what do you think? Why do you think you shouldn’t win a medal in Rio? The players started with the acknowledgement that their preparation had not been ideal – they had just ten weeks to prepare as a group, while other teams had been together a year or more – but then it turned as the players began to reject the reasons against them and started to promote those in their favour. Because of the circumstances, the pressure to perform was not from the outside but from within, and that meant they could do something about it.
Warriner explains, “The squad and the management came together to define their ‘gold-medal attitude’. They focused on what they could control, on making the most of each opportunity and staying calm under pressure. It became a powerful source of resilience.”
In the tournament, GB held their nerve against arguably better prepared and more talented teams – including the favourites New Zealand – and found themselves locked at 0-0 as the final whistle of their quarter-final against Argentina approached.
The slightest defensive error is generally punished in sevens, and when forward James Davies was yellow-carded, GB had to hold out one man down. The game ended and, in the huddle before suddendeath extra time, they took stock and tried to turn the situation to their advantage. They talked about resilience, keeping calm, trusting each other and playing the clock until Davies got back on. Here they faced the most intense pressure, a true Olympic test, yet they survived until Davies returned. Then they won a scrum, launched an attack and scored the match-winning try.
They would then defeat South Africa and go on to a date in the final with Fiji, where they were beaten. Yet that wasn’t a gold medal lost – a medal of any sort was a resilient, unforeseen triumph.