Why Emotional Intelligence (Not Just Size) Makes Better Rugby Players

Why Emotional Intelligence (Not Just Size) Makes Better Rugby Players

Dan Donnelly is a strength and conditioning coach and rugby expert, having competed and coached within professional ranks for over 10 years.

He has a masters degree in sports science and is an accredited strength and conditioning coach.
Here, Dan explores what makes a good rugby player, from both physical and mental aspects.
Rugby is often perceived as a game of extreme physicality, where size, strength, power and speed are seen as essential ingredients. We have all heard the following:
‘You’re a big lad. Fancy playing rugby?’. Or, you’re fast, fancy playing on the wing?’
Basic Newtonian Physics will corroborate the fact that size is important in collisions, as is the ability to cover more ground in less time. However, what if your opposite number has the same physical characteristics as you? Or is as fast as you? The pendulum then shifts to a realm that cannot be visualised or measured as easily: the player’s psyche.
This involves looking deeper at the game of rugby, away from the tangibles of size and strength.
An interesting point to establish is asking someone why they believe you have to be brave to play the game of rugby. Ask yourself quickly and I’m sure that immediately the brain visualises brutal collisions. This is obviously true, but the ability to win a collision is rarely based purely on physical qualities.
Desire is the decisive factor, as the great Richie McCaw sums this nicely by stating the following;
‘when the desire goes, the body and form aren’t far behind’.
The game of rugby is traditionally described as a game for all shapes and sizes. If this is the case, courage and boldness is multifaceted and can be seen in many situations that appear to be opaque to the naked eye. For instance, a number ten has to bravely take the ball to the line and put other people into space. This occurs at the same time that players who are several stone heavier are aiming to physically bully, and to put it bluntly, attempting to hurt the playmaker within the rules of the game. Extreme composure is needed from the number ten. You have to be brave to play that position, Despite the 10 not throwing his body into many rucks and mauls.
This brings us to the salient point which involves a basic overview of evolutionary and physiological responses of human and how this effects a players psyche during a game.
Composure can be difficult during the best of times. Rugby is a physical game which will elicit an extreme stress response. Stress is a primitive survival mechanism which is designed to protect us. Blood flows to the muscles away from digestive and immune system so the muscles can work to fight or fly!
Interestingly, blood also flows to the rear brain, the site of primitive programming which is reactive, instinctive and responsible for increasing aggression. While this could be perceived as desirable, blood is concomitantly directed away from the forebrain, the frontal lobe that is responsible for problem solving.
This represents a problem as Rugby is essentially a problem solving exercise. Too much rear brain activity will preclude the ability to do the following;
  1. Identify weaknesses in the opponents,

  2. Apply correct tactics when necessary,

  3. Identify mismatches,

  4. It will increase the susceptibility to become engaged in personal battles,

  5. Reduce players communicative skills and therefore reduce useful information that the playmakers receive,

  6. Increase risk of becoming disorganisation, as a result of the above point.

The term emotional intelligence is used frequently. In rugby terms it simply means having the desire and courage to win collisions, while having clarity of thought to identify and expose weaknesses in the opposition.
While the balance of strength, power and CV fitness is often discussed, the intangibles such as forebrain/rearbrain balance are often ignored. This is what Clive Woodward called TCUP; Thinking Clearly Under Pressure.
The Strength & Conditioning (S&C) and technical side can’t be separated any longer. The S&C approach should transgress the physical realm and begin to contribute ideas and strategies to hone this skill alongside the technical coach. After all, there is no point measuring well in the gym if the physical qualities aren’t being utilised efficiently on the pitch. The S&C coach must transcend the physical characteristics. More emphasis needs to be placed on this quality, especially for the adolescents.


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