Help players cope with match day pressure

Michael Cheika team talk. He will also be speaking to players personally before the start of the game

Many rugby players under-perform on match days because they are too nervous. However, you can coach them to use coping strategies to harness their energy, reduce tension and overcome fears of poor performance.

Managing pressure for players

“Choking” is a common term to describe a decline in a player’s or team’s performance due to the pressure of competition.

One of the key roles you have as rugby coach is managing the pressures on the players, giving them a lift or push when they need it. You need to balance anxiety and arousal so your players perform at their best.

Arousal – get the right drive

Performance can be said to be a function of skill levels multiplied by arousal. This is known as “Drive theory”.

Arousal is how alert the player is in terms of his physical and mental state. So, nervous feelings can be good. On the other hand, an over-aroused player can make mistakes.

In rugby, a hooker needs to be calm when he is throwing in the ball, but explosive at scrum and ruck time. In fact, all players need to have calming strategies in place when they are about to perform a skill, such as kicking a goal, starting a backline move or throwing in the ball.

Pre-match coping strategy

Because different players feel the stress of the big game in different ways, you need to have a range of strategies available. This way, when faced with what is perceived to be a controllable stress, your players will have a plan to deal with it.

You can help develop coping plans in advance. Let’s say one of your players is abused by an opponent. His plan may be simply to walk away or use the abuse to fire himself up to play harder.

However, when a player is worried about a less controllable stress, such as a lingering injury or a poor bout of form, he might need a more emotionally-based coping strategy.

Here you can offer support or help them distract themselves from the worries.

How to help rugby players cope with pre match nerves

Be empathetic not sympathetic

You can look after the stresses a rugby player faces by showing an understanding of their “pain”. By sharing their feelings, the nervous player can start to know that they are not the only person in that state.

This is not sympathy, which is being sorry for someone. Sympathy can easily patronise the player, making them feel worse about the situation. You want to show empathy instead.

For example:

  • Player: “Coach, I’m worried about today’s game. I’m sure I’m going to fluff my kicks.”
  • Sympathetic coach: “I know how you feel, but when I was worried I thought about all the good games I had when I kicked well and it worked for me.”
  • Empathetic coach: “Is this worst you have felt? What is the root of the worry? When did you start feeling worried? What can I do to help?”

In the sympathetic reply, the player is being related to you and probably will not see how to use this rugby coaching advice. In the empathy example, the rugby coach is helping the player find a solution and offering help.

If they then ask for advice, your response can guide them to positive thoughts.


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