Developing a mental ‘kitbag’ in amateur sport.

No one wears the same boots.

Two dislocated knee-caps, several concussions, some broken bones, and a torn ear later, my twelve year amateur rugby playing days were over. An admirable inning, I thought. But, after all that physical damage, I was done.

Further justification came when I considered how much free time I’d now have. Several nights a week taken up by training and then entire weekends consumed by travel, playing, and socialising. The match was only eighty minutes, but the nature of rugby — an essence of its greatness — means you want to spend more time with your teammates, and even the opposition, after the game — sometimes that’s the best bit!

Ultimately, these were demands I couldn’t keep up. No big deal though; I’d still play casual sport, keep fit, enjoy the social side, I just wouldn’t subject myself to the physical demands of a brutal game. Sounds like a good deal.

So far, I have only mentioned the physical and practical demands of sport, but one element is missing; the mental side of the game. During my playing time, it was never discussed. I believe this is because coaches, players, and parents mostly just didn’t understand its importance. At its worst, though, it was considered the ‘soft stuff’. In rugby, you knocked people around, had a beer, then went home. If you didn’t like it, you ‘manned up’. One of the worst phrases in sports.

I stress again that I think people who perpetuated this attitude often weren’t aware of what they were doing, but reflecting on these environments (and it was environments because this occurred in every single team I was part of), what fascinates me though is that there was an awareness of the role some emotions can play.

For example, loud music would be played in the changing rooms to ‘pump us up’, and there would regularly be talk of being underdogs in an attempt to alleviate pressure. Even more so, coaches would talk about “respecting the jersey”. But it was limited, it was often — although not always — aimed at increasing anger and aggression; not creating feelings of joy or fun, and worst of all, it was always, always, always done at a team, not individual level.

It’s the universalism of the approach that has stimulated my subsequent thinking and eventually inspired me to generate my own ‘mental kitbag’.

It was about five minutes before kick-off and the team were all sat around the changing rooms. The manager, or coach, or captain was talking. I can’t remember who, because I wasn’t listening. I knew it was going to be the same old stuff:

“Come on boys, we need big hits early”

“We have to smash ‘em”

“Let ’em know who we are!”

I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to run around and have fun with my mates. But to entertain the idea that this aggressive game could be seen as fun was sacrilege, not least because if a player went on to make a mistake (which was inevitable — no one plays the perfect game), then the only explanation for that mistake was that the player wasn’t taking the game seriously enough. In other words, mistakes are made when players don’t blindingly subscribe to this one-size-fits-all mindset. Instead of re-visiting the mental preparation, it was expected the player simply doubled-down on it.

Instead, I switched off from listening to these teams talks, dreading the idea that once they’re over, we’d all stand up in a circle, grab each other’s jerseys, and shout “one, two, three, squeeze!

I still have absolutely no idea why we did that.

To distract me, I looked down at my own boots and unintentionally came up with the idea of a mental kitbag.

I read “Adidas Predators for Rugby” down the inside seam of one boot. Circling the floor of the changing rooms , I noticed no one else had the same boots. No one else had the same gum guard either, nor did they have the same water bottle, or the same protective headgear. Even the jerseys we worse were different sizes and had individual numbers on the back. During the warm-up, we did similar exercises, but we all had time to do our own thing. Half-backs kicking, hookers throwing, wingers catching high-balls.

In short, we all brought our own kit bag to the match that helped us physically prepare.

Yet, we’d all just been subjected to ten minutes of identical mental preparation. We were all expected to be in the same mind-set. Angry. Aggressive. Stone-cold serious.

Now imagine the coach bringing along twenty-three identical pairs of boots, all the same size, and expecting everyone in the squad to not only wear them, but play their best in them.

That was, essentially, what was happening with mental preparation. We were all wearing the same boots.

Instead, imagine bringing your own mental kit bag to a game, or indeed any event that requires individual mental preparation.

The idea of a ‘kitbag’ works for several reasons. First and foremost, because it is individual. I could fill it with tactics of mental preparation that worked for me.

Sir Clive Woodward, the former England rugby union coach, talks about TCUP: Thinking Correctly Under Pressure, a particularly favourite tactics of mine. Coincidentally, a tea-cup is a quirky English object which can easily be visualised in a kit bag. So that’s exactly what I do. When packing my mental kit bag, I place an imaginary tea-cup in there, reminding me to Think Correctly Under Pressure.

A further advantage of a kit bag is that you can take things out and put new things in. You are not held hostage by inappropriate tactics that might not work in particular contexts. If, for example, I find TCUP suddenly stops being effective, I simply won’t pack it in my kit bag again. Or, I will leave it out for one situation. Consider the physical equivalent. It is common for players to have several pairs of boots to use dependent on the quality of grass they are playing on. Some bring thermal tops to wear if its cold. When it gets to summer, these aren’t thrown away, they’re just put to one side, only to be included in the kit when its once again appropriate.

Another great thing about the kit bag is that it can be carried around on your back; you can take it everywhere and its easy to manage. Finally, you can zip it up and leave it. If, after the event you have prepared for, you just want to completely switch off, that’s fine. Just zip up the bag, put in on your bedroom floor, and revisit it before your next big thing that needs mental preparation.

What I was left with was a more useful approach to dealing with other situations that need a change in mindset. I can carry my kit bag around, fill it with what I like, replace things that aren’t appropriate, and draw on useful ‘tools’ as and when I need. In addition to that, I fully — and finally — understood why giving up the sport I loved gave me more happiness than playing the game.

I don’t believe this experience is unique to me, or even the sport of rugby union. While sport psychology at the elite level involves some of the best minds in the world, the way in which it is dealt with at the amateur level is terrible. Again, I believe this is largely because stakeholders simply don’t understand its important.

Writing mostly on US politics from across the pond. Occasionally detour into sports/sport performance, and UK politics/culture.

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