It’s weird... my try was exactly how I’d pictured it
ANTHONY WATSON had already seen his Wales score — thanks to his mind coach
By the time Anthony Watson stretched out to score in the left corner at the Principality Stadium last Saturday, he had already played the moment over several times in his head.
As part of his visualisation work, Watson had pre-recorded a commentary of the scenario, listening to it regularly in the build-up to his first England start for two years. When the ball landed in his hands from Alex Dombrandt’s miss pass, he already knew what he was going to do next.
Watson (below) has been working with Don Macpherson, the mind coach who has also helped Formula One drivers and Premier League footballers. He reached out before the trip to Cardiff and went through a high-definition, mental rehearsal.
‘I record special MP3s and the input of the visualisation comes from Anthony, ’ Macpherson told Sportsmail.
‘If it’s not Anthony, it might be the F1 driver I’m working with this weekend who tells me how he sees a good lap of Bahrain.
‘ Painting pictures in deep colour of the Bahrain track, changing into second gear, the bite of his tyres on a particular turn, the scream of the engine…
‘It’s not something where you float away and daydream. you need to use the correct parts of the brain. For visualisation to be most effective, you need to dumb down the voice in your head that people call the monkey mind. The left hemisphere of the brain. ‘Anthony will have a 20-minute recording. The first part will be me relaxing the conscious mind, and once everything’s calmed down it’s now, “you’re at the Principality Stadium, playing on the wing for England”. ‘Then I feed back his interpretation of how he’s going to score a try, beat defenders or collect every high kick.’ Macpherson is quick to point out this is not voodoo work. ‘There’s nothing new about visualisation,’ added Macpherson. ‘ In recent years, we’ve discovered ancient caves in France where the cavemen would draw pictures of success on the walls before they went out to kill a wildebeest.
‘There’s plenty of science now that we knew nothing about years ago. The neuroscience shows which cells are responsible for the physical action. If you were to put Anthony in an MRI scanner while he’s listening to the MP3, the rugby brain cells would be lit up.
‘If you visualise various try-scoring opportunities, then when that opportunity comes, your body will react far quicker.
‘you won’t be questioning, “Do I step inside?” It will be instinctive. More than anything, it boosts your confidence. Anthony will go on to the pitch feeling everything that can be done has been done. It leaves you feeling ready.’
For Watson, it was the perfect return to the England No 11 jersey. Having been signed by Steve Borthwick at Leicester Tigers last year, he worked his way back into the starting XV to offer a blend of experience, attacking spark and aerial prowess.
He spent the week fine-tuning the basics of the new gameplan but also scheduled visualisation slots in his programme.
‘I was pretty nervous before the game, it felt like a long journey back and it almost felt like a first cap,’ said Watson, who made his England debut in 2014. ‘I don’t judge my quality of games by tries but to be able to score in the corner was nice and something I had spent a lot of the week visualising. That is how I try to calm myself down before games. It is weird how it happened exactly how I had pictured it. On the left wing, finishing with the ball in my right hand in that kind of style.
‘My work with Don calms me. It is probably three, four or five sessions from Wednesday to Saturday. Most of the time it’s scheduled. It starts off with what it would look like from a bird’seye view and then what it would feel like for me.
‘He worked with Ayrton Senna in some capacity and Senna was always one corner ahead in his mind. That resonated with me — trying to be one step ahead, trying to see a break before there is a break.’
Watson, 29, returned to the international fold with perfect clarity. He was ready to chase kicks at full speed from his own half and finish the strike plays down the opposite end of the pitch. ‘It’s easy to throw yourself in completely, because you know what’s expected of you that week, exactly what the gameplan is and how you implement that from your position group,’ said Watson.
‘Steve is very good at breaking it down from what the backs need to do this week to give us the best chance of winning — what do the centres need to do, the wingers need to do, what does Max Malins need to do differently to Anthony and so on.
‘That’s really helpful as players to be able to grab hold of it, so we can take ownership and we know exactly what we need to do.
‘In terms of going week to week, that’s the way it should be, anyway. I experienced it with Steve at Leicester, he’s very much like that regardless.
‘As much as it is a cliche, there’s massive value in it because if you look too far ahead then the thing right in front of you… either you lose concentration and it goes completely, or it becomes lacklustre. Steve is not in the business of running lacklustre programmes.’
Now the focus has switched from Wales to France. England have settled into the process of moving from week to week, adding layers as they go. It will be the toughest test yet of the Borthwick era but a surprise victory would provide validation for the coach’s methods.
It is still a work in progress, but at least Watson has a clear vision of where he wants to go.