Stop. Breathe in, breathe out… Mindfulness hitting the New Zealand rugby scene

By Anna Van Dissen

Stop. Breathe in, breathe out… This simple technique seems to have taken the country by storm this season. Much like Gatorade and Weetbix, if the All Blacks are endorsing it, it’s gotta be good, right? Good enough for the New Zealand Warriors to start doing it anyway, and I’ve seen Club Rugby teams, young rep teams and even schoolboy teams adopt what seems to be a new huddle procedure throughout 2018. Phil Jackson[1] is perhaps attributed to popularising the use of mindfulness in modern day elite sport with the Chicago Bulls and later the LA Lakers. Although things are always picked up slightly later in New Zealand, it appears we’ve wholeheartedly jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon as well.

But, not all of us are lucky enough to have Phil Jackson on board and most rugby players in NZ won’t have a Sports Psychologist readily available to them either. Thus, at an amateur level, teachings of such practices often fall to the physio. As physios, we can incorporate mindfulness into our treatment on the daily. A 2018 review[2] found mindfulness interventions to be effective in enhancing elite athletes’ sports performance, and another recent review[3] deemed mindfulness practice a beneficial approach to improve performance outcomes in sport. So, while the performance enhancement benefits of Gatorade may be debatable, mindfulness on the other hand can be backed up by some cold hard evidence, dating back to 1996 where mindfulness meditation enhanced competitive shooting performance [4].

But what’s the rationale behind it? Do players really know what they’re trying to achieve by contracting and relaxing their diaphragm whilst standing silently in a circle? Or is this mindfulness movement more like Kombucha – trendy and new, but at the end of the day, no one really likes it or knows why they’re drinking it in the first place?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not quite as simple as NZ Warriors coach Stephen Kearney describes it as “In life, whenever you take a deep breath you slow things down, so I believe that the thinking is there” [5]. So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty:

As Gardner and Moore put it: “optimal performance requires directing attentional resources toward task-relevant, in-the-moment external contingencies and not toward self-judgment, threat scanning, and future-orientated cognitive activities” [6]. So, how does this relate to rugby? In stressful game situations players’ minds can be busy with internal thoughts and discussions, which can be distracting and divert them from a task, let alone the external noise on top of that. When down a few points their minds can start to question if they can do something and these thoughts then fill their heads – they become mind full. That is, their minds become overwhelmed with emotions, internal and external stimuli that cloud their judgement and actions. Being mindful in this situation is about letting those thoughts pass, accepting them and redirecting focus onto the present moment. The act of mindfully breathing in unison not only enables the above factors, but also affords the captain, and leaders time to construct their assessment on what needs to happen next, tactically and psychologically. The team becomes bonded as a unit, they can feel stronger and connected which supports trust, faith and belief in one another. This then allows them to become fully focused on the task at hand.

Moving forward, coming out of a huddle becomes easier if they’re focused on the kick off as opposed to how many points they’re down and the anxiety associated with this. For example, Retallick focuses only on jumping to receive the kick off cleanly, Franks focuses on lifting Retallick, Retallick then shifts to focus on carrying the ball to contact, Franks and Reid then focus on securing the ball in the ruck, Smith focuses on passing to Barret, who’s focus is to kick to exit. If the whole team is synchronised and fully focused on one task, suddenly the “clean exit” comes together smoothly and becomes simplified.

As they say, sport is 90% mental and 10% physical. While it’s clear that mindfulness is a beneficial tool in sports performance enhancement, it does take practice. As a physio working at an amateur level, effective education is crucial in ensuring players fully grasp the concept and are not just performing some good diaphragmatic breathing. Whilst this may effectively fill the lungs and assist with the 10% physical aspect, it probably won’t do too much to aid the other 90%.

So, if you’re interested in learning a little more, give these “Finding Mastery” podcasts[7] a listen, where U.S. psychologist Dr Michael Gervais talks to high performers about their success and the role mindfulness plays. Or if you want to start giving it a go yourself, have a read about mindfulness and relaxation app“Pacifica”[8], or download this free app[9], used by Cricket Australia to improve players’ wellbeing and performance during training and competition.

Hutt Old Boys Marist (HOBM) RFC Premier team huddle and re-focus. Photo Courtesy of Robbie Walters.

 

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Anna Van Dissen is undertaking her Sports Physiotherapy post graduate studies at the School of Physiotherapy, University of Otago, New Zealand. She works as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist at TBI Health in Wellington, and works with Hutt Old Boys Marist RFC throughout the winter season. Email: anna.vandissen@tbihealth.co.nz

Competing Interests

None to declare

References

  1. Calm Classroom (2014). Phil Jackson and Oprah on Meditation. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zpo04Xqz1w[cited 2018 Sep 28].
  2. Carraça B, Serpa S, Palmi J, Rosado, A. Enhance sport performance of elite athletes: The mindfulness-based interventions Cuadernos De Psicología Del Deporte. 2018 [cited 2018 Sep 28];18(2):79-109. Available from: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.otago.ac.nz/docview/2053261741?accountid=14700
  3. Bühlmayer L, Birrer, D, Röthlin P, et al. Effects of Mindfulness Practice on Performance-Relevant Parameters and Performance Outcomes in Sports: A Meta-Analytical Review.Sports Med.2017 [cited 2018 Sep 28];47: 2309-2321. Available from: https://doi-org.ezproxy.otago.ac.nz/10.1007/s40279-017-0752-9
  4. Solberg E, Berglund K, Engen O, et al. The effect of meditation on shooting performance. Br J Sports Med. 1996 [cited 2018 Nov 23];30: 342-346.
  5. National Rugby League. RTS reveals All Blacks captain’s advice behind warriors huddle. Available at: https://www.nrl.com/news/2018/03/13/roger-tuivasa-sheck-reveals-all-blacks-captain-kieran-reads-advice-behind-warriors-huddle/ [cited 2018 Sep 28].
  6. Gardner, FL, Moore, ZE. Clinical sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006
  7. Finding Mastery: Conversations with Michael Gervais. Available at: https://art19.com/shows/finding-mastery [cited 2018 Sep 28].
  8. Poon SK. Pacifica: stressed or worried? An app to help yourself (Mobile App User Guide). Br J Sports Med. 2016 [cited 2018 Nov 23];50: 191-192.
  9. Smiling Mind. Download the Smiling Mind free guided meditation app today. Available at: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app [cited 2018 Sep 28].

 

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