Get used to per­form­ing when there’s some­thing at stake to be­come more com­fort­able in high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tions

Men's Fitness - - Features -

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.

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