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5 tips to win the Six Nations: A sports psychologist's guide

5 tips to win the Six Nations: A sports psychologist’s guide

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

This weekend will mark the beginning of the 2020 Six Nations tournament, which promises to be especially exciting. With so many new faces in squads and coaching personnel, this year’s tournament seems more unpredictable than ever. However, England is the team to beat, having finished second at the World Cup a mere three months ago. Wales, last year’s winners of the Six Nations, with a Grand Slam nonetheless, offer strong opposition, as no doubt will both Ireland and France.

But while England’s overall performance at the World Cup remains impressive, it’s hard to forget their disappointing loss to the Springboks at the final. So, can England, as head coach Eddie Jones hopes, “be the greatest team the game has ever known”?

We think the key to overcoming the issues that hindered them three months ago lies in sport psychology. But what psychological attributes will determine whether England are successful in their pursuit of victory? We have taken a look at the latest psychological research in rugby to try and figure this out…

1. Control of emotions

In order to win the Six Nations, the England rugby team will need to control their emotionsbefore each of their games so that they don’t have a negative impact on their performance. Recent research, which compared elite and non-elite rugby players demonstrated how having the ability to control anxieties leads to differing performance outcomes.

Athletes at the top of their sport are often able to frame the anxiety they experience in a positive way, such that they see it as being something that enhances their performance. They will have also practiced techniques that they can use to stop the debilitating effects of anxiety, for example they may recall past successes, as well as using positive self-talk.

2. High levels of motivation

As the Six Nations comprises a high number of games played across a relatively short period of time, players are at an increased risk of burnout. However, rugby players can decrease this risk by ensuring they have high levels of intrinsic motivation. When rugby players don’t know what their motivation is for competing, they are at an increased risk of burnout. Therefore, if the England rugby team want maintain their status as “the team to beat”, they need to believe that they can win and be motivated by the satisfaction and enjoyment that winning brings.

3. High levels of resilience

England’s rugby players will need to show high levels of resilience if they are to win the Six Nations, as recent research, which explored the characteristics of the 2003 England rugby union World Cup winning team, demonstrated just how important this attribute is. It is likely that during a tournament that consists of many games, the English players will experience a setback, but having high levels of resilience can allow the best players to overcome this.

The England rugby team want to create an environment in which setbacks are dealt with collectively and seen as an opportunity to learn. As described by Jonny Wilkinson, they allow players to ‘file away the knowledge’, such that they know exactly what to do if they encounter a similar situation again.

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4. Use of home advantage

The Six Nations consists of matches that are played in stadiums across each of the countries involved. However, as each team plays five games, three teams will have larger home advantage as they get to play three of their matches at home, whilst the others only play two home matches. This year, Wales, Ireland and France have the home advantage.

Recent research has proved the importance of home advantage, such that an analysis of the 120 Six Nations games played between 2000 and 2007 found there to be a significant home advantage in 61% of matches. Home advantage may occur for a number of different reason but perhaps the most obvious is that when playing at home, the players have the majority of the crowd on their side. This not only motivates them to put in more effort but can also pressure the referee into giving more decisions in their favour.

5. Optimal preparation

The final way in which the England Rugby team can increase their chances of winning the Six Nations is by preparing well before each game. Research has suggested that listening to music before a game is a positive way for players to prepare, as it offers a form of personal isolation that allows them to focus and control their energy, putting themselves in best possible frame of mind to compete well.

Final thoughts

After a successful run at the World Cup last year, the England team will be looking to add some silverware to their trophy cabinet. To ensure they perform to their potential, controlling their emotions, dealing with setbacks and preparing thoroughly before each game looks certain to be key.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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