Managing Stress Among Professional Rugby Union Players

September 16, 2006 (PRLEAP.COM) Sports News
Have you ever watched professional sport and thought that a player or indeed a team seems to be performing much poorer than they usually would? The athlete or the team could be experiencing detriments to their game caused by performance stress. A new study from the Carnegie Research Institute, Leeds Metropolitan University shows the stressors and strategies that professional rugby union players use in order to manage performance stress effectively.

Between Monday 8th October 2004 to Sunday 14th November eight full international professional rugby players (including a New Zealand All Black) completed daily diaries pertaining to their stress and coping experiences during professional rugby (competitive and training). During the 28-day diary study the club played in four competitive matches including the first two pool matches of the Heineken Cup and two Celtic League matches.

“We found certain stressors were much more salient, as the players reported 24 different stressors, but the three most reported stressors injury, mental error and physical error stressors accounted for 44% of all stressors reported,” said co-author Dr. Adam Nicholls, a Research Fellow at the Carnegie Research Institute, Leeds Metropolitan University. The study, published in the September edition of The Sport Psychologist, was conducted with Dr. Nick Holt from the University of Alberta, Dr. Remco Polman and Dr. Jonny Bloomfield who are both with the University of Hull.

To cope with these stressors, the rugby players used a variety of coping strategies during training and matches such as increasing concentration on the task, blocking and increasing effort. The effectiveness of the coping strategies appeared to vary through the course of the study. Dr. Nicholls said, “The players reported using over 35 different coping strategies with varying levels of repetition and effectiveness. The coping strategies that were used the most frequently were not necessarily the most effective strategies, suggesting that coping efficiency could be improved.”

A key observation was that there were instances where the players failed to deploy a coping strategy with the stressors they experienced. Unsurprisingly the players found this very ineffective, but it was still something they continued to do. “This illustrates the need for rugby players to be taught a plethora of coping strategies so that they will always have something that they can do to cope, which is better than not attempting to cope, which is similar to giving up,” said Dr. Nicholls.

Regardless of level, rugby players need to be taught and then practice strategies for coping with performance stress. Dr. Nicholls said “Within professional sport there has been an emphasis on technique, fitness and tactics, and the mental side is often neglected. This is somewhat surprising because at the highest level having a mental edge can mean the difference between winning and losing matches. Similar to both technique and fitness, mental skills have to be practiced in order for them to work in high pressure situations. If you look at the best athletes in the world from different sports –people like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Brian O’Driscoll- they are renowned for being mentally tough. They can cope really well with stress, and even seem perform better when it matters.”

For more information on this study contact:
Dr. Adam Nicholls
Research Fellow
Carnegie Research Institute
Leeds Metropolitan University
+ 44 (0) 7946 260 566