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The game in the brain


This article appeared in SEN Inside Football's December Issue. Subscribe today!

It might be coincidence that the two clubs to get serious about improving their players’ minds in 2017 — Richmond and Adelaide — contested the AFL Grand Final.

But having noted the leaps both clubs took this year, there’s no prospect the rest of the competition will be taking that chance.

Given the interest the “mind training” programs of both clubs have generated in the aftermath, every rival will be scrambling to catch up. They have work to do.

Richmond and Adelaide invested substantially in building mind training exercises into their players’ weekly routines, and — in Richmond’s case — working from the top down in the football department to transform a psychologically unhealthy culture within and help players cope with the toxic commentary without.

Its success — with a largely no-name group of footballers — was stunning and produced the greatest prize in football, an unimaginable outcome just 12 months ago.

Of all the branches of the broad church of human psychological science, sports psychology has arguably been the toy department, and AFL clubs largely treated it that way. But that is changing, and fast.

Richmond and Adelaide realised not only that mental fitness was a missing link in high performance — and that it was possible to train for — but more, that it’s both necessary and healthy.

Attention to this area is long overdue, says Amon Woulfe, one half of the two-man team of “mind performance” trainers employed by the Crows for the first time this year.

“The old thing about the game being played 90 per cent above the shoulders has been around for a few decades but no one’s really known what to do about it,” said Woulfe.

“If they’ve felt something’s wrong, coaches have really just trained players harder on the track, or sent them to the psych — ‘mate, there’s something wrong with you, go get fixed.’

“But we talk about the mind in terms of performance not pathology. We’re not here to give you a syndrome and write you a script, this is about understanding how your mind works and giving you tools and skills to be able to pull some levers in your mind.

“So it’s this switch from being very body centric to understanding that the mind controls the body — it’s the operating system that runs the whole show.”

The change has involved busting some pervasive footy myths, many of them around toughness and effort.

In a game of football, as momentum ebbs and flows, players must be able to negotiate the mentally unhelpful places to which it takes them, to have strategies to regain lost concentration and flow.

They and their coaches are recognising the connection between mental and physical performance, between body language and energy output.

They are realising that a team finding itself in a mental black spot is not of weak character, or lacking fitness or professionalism, but is simply a victim of the dynamics of competition.

Negative momentum is a universal experience for athletes, part of the intrinsic nature of sport.

Woulfe says the training is much more than simply teaching players how to meditate, making the point that pretty much everyone is already doing that.

“Meditation is becoming a bit of a standard across society — in schools and sporting teams, corporate organisations — so we wouldn’t necessarily see that as a competitive advantage, more that something everybody needs to do to build a solid foundation,” he said.

“What we do is more on top of that, more building mind tools and mental skills that enable people to perform in high stakes, high pressure situations.”

At Richmond, the players’ mind training was led by Emma Murray, a former top netballer and specialist in mindfulness meditation who has long experience working with athletes.

She started helping a handful of players three years ago, gradually increasing her involvement to include star player Dustin Martin; this season the Tigers made her program compulsory for the entire list.

It involved attention-control exercises — mainly meditation combined with visualisation — and giving players mental devices in the form of mnemonics and body language tricks to help them during games to stay “in the moment”, to resist the feelings of anxiety and helplessness all footballers experience when games are getting away from them.

A premiership later, it’s little wonder the Tigers are so bullish about their program.

In 2014 Woulfe and business partner Derek Leddie, who run an enterprise called Collective Mind, made a pitch to NRL club South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“The question we asked them was how many hours do you spend in the gym?” Leddie said.

“Fifteen, they said. Then, how many hours do you spend out on the field practising your skills? They said X number. OK, how many hours do you spend training your mind? And the answer back then was zero.

“So maybe they needed to start doing something.”

Woulfe and Leddie introduced their mind training program and the rest is history.

The Rabbitohs went on to break a 43-year premiership drought that year.

Last season the pair took their program to the AFL for the first time, joining Adelaide.

The Crows climbed from fringe finals contender to the minor premiership, confounding most pre-season predictions.

They fell to Richmond on the MCG in the Grand Final, but a series of Adelaide players went on the record in praising the role of their mind training in their leap into contention.

Unlike old-style counselling from the sports psychologist, the new-age approach is based in science and technology. According to Woulfe the outcomes are measurable.

“We use a log of biofeedback technology that brings brain waves to life, or tracks sleep or respiration rates,” he said.

“There’s a bunch of biometric feedback we can get in real time from the body now.

“We do a range of mind profiling that we run across key performance areas of the mind so there’s heaps of data that we can get to actually see what’s going on in the mind and then train it from there.”

As Crows coach Don Pyke put it: “A lot of our time historically has been spent on the body and we think getting our players aware of the mind and the role that plays in their performance is really vital.

“The benefit of the program for me is that we get guys mentally improved and we see an actual performance improvement.

“We’re very mindful of the latest developments in the physical space, but with the mental (side) we’ve just unlocked the door.”

The bones of Richmond’s mind training program — which after its stunning premiership immediately becomes the competition benchmark — is outlined in the superb book Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond by journalist Konrad Marshall, who was embedded at Tigerland this year.

Marshall’s forensic, sometimes moving and often humorous account of the Tigers’ triumph may well be the most insightful football book yet written (all the more impressive when you consider it’s an authorised account).

The Tigers made a virtue of celebrating their successes, team and individual, partly as an antidote to the negativity that surrounds struggling teams and that has dogged the club for a generation.

But Marshall also details the extent to which the Tigers sought to strengthen the emotional connection between players and coaches, to make relationships more authentic and to build a campaign around this (I lost count in the book of how many times coach Damien Hardwick told players individually or collectively that he loved them. Also of how often he made them laugh. Neither ability has been a prerequisite for AFL coaches. Assistant coach Justin Leppitsch is a funny guy, too).

“Connection is the last untapped competitive advantage,” Ben Crowe, a professional mentor Richmond brought in to support its leaders, tells Marshall.

Crowe’s work with Cotchin and Hardwick in particular was often confronting.

“It is mentoring and guidance, but also self-examination and therapy,” writes Marshall. “Sometimes there are tears, but in shedding them they also shed worries and fears. It has an impact (on the group).”

Crowe adds: “It takes insane courage to be so vulnerable.”

Captain Trent Cotchin speaks candidly to Marshall of the demons that beset him in 2016 when the team was losing and the soul-searching he was forced to do in the face of external criticism of his leadership.

By the end of that season the captain found himself in a dark place, and close to breaking down — “my worst year of my life”.

“I needed a deeper level of finding myself, and finding the way forward,” Cotchin says.

Yellow & Black is a tale not only of the redemption of a football club, but also its two primary leaders, Cotchin and Hardwick.

It details how letting down their guards with their peers led to a profound culture shift inside the club.

By admitting their own imperfections, they gave tacit permission for the entire list to embrace and reveal their own vulnerabilities — which they did through various exercises — cementing bonds and creating a framework for the on-field renaissance.

This approach may seem similar to the industry standard, the peer feedback system to which Richmond had previously subscribed (mostly associated with the confronting Leading Teams model), but it clearly involved a whole lot more love.

It is this cultural shift, the much-referenced “connection”, to which Gale was referring in the quote at the top of this article.

He made the remark in an address to the players immediately after the Grand Final.

“We’ve unlocked something that other teams can’t compete against,” he said. “And we’ve got massive upside, massive upside.”

That remains to be seen.

An intriguing aspect of next season will be the degree to which the Tigers are able to resist the premiership hangover that saps so many young teams of their hunger (the Western Bulldogs being the most recent of many examples). It will take resilience.

Even though it may have lacked the same intense mentoring work at the top, the similarities in emphasis in Adelaide’s program are unmistakable.

Echoing the Tigers, Woulfe said footballers needed to let go of the idea of perfection and macho ideals around toughness.

“One thread here is how we deal with growth and progress, rather than holding ourselves to a model of idealised perfectionism,” he said.

“When someone fails we usually string them up and draw and quarter them for making a mistake, but if we don’t actually get comfortable with not being perfect we’re never going to grow, we’re not going to take the healthy risks needed to actually reach our potential.

“I was fascinated by Nick Riewoldt’s comments a few weeks ago when he was talking about how nervous he would get before games and how he almost got paralysed by it, yet his whole persona was built around being a tough guy.

“It’s not until players retire that we find out what’s been going on in their heads; while they’re actually playing they keep it to themselves and that’s their Achilles heel.

“If they keep it to themselves they’re not working on it; it’s not a working edge if you’re holding this within.

“It becomes a working edge as soon as we’ve identified it and we’re working with players to give them tools to reframe it.”

When it comes to on-field chemistry, Woulfe and Leddie are interested in the way that successful teams develop a kind of internal energy.

“We’ve learned through neuroscience a lot about the individual in terms of what’s happening between the ears and the connection to the body and breath, but there is a whole kind of collective energy within a team,” Leddie said.

“(Momentum) is something for science still to explore, there isn’t a lot of clean insight. So it comes down more to hypotheses rather than dealing with science supporting it, but it’s a fascinating space. It’s right on that cusp of what’s been proven and what’s yet to be proven.”

They stress the importance of players resisting negative thoughts in games by learning to feel comfortable “in the hard” — when the opposition has the run of the play.

“When you feel that swing against you — and you have 60,000 people against you as well — you need to have some pretty good tools to weather that,” Woulfe said.

“It often comes down to a resilience thing, being able to stay ‘in the hard’ and to be OK when everything’s not going your way, it’s not setting off a mental or emotional crisis within, and then to stay ready to fire back when you can.

“As humans we’ve all got places we go in our minds that are not helpful and we’re never going to fully stop going there, but if players have the skills to get out of there quickly and back into high performance, then that’s a competitive advantage.”

Leddie thinks of negative momentum as “a virus that spreads through an entire group that can virtually collapse the operating system of the entire team”.

“Then it’s no longer a conversation about how you get yourself out individually, it’s how do we get ourselves out collectively, while in full flight on a football field where you don’t have time to sit around and talk things out.”

Clearly Adelaide was unable to resist the Richmond momentum as the Tigers broke the game open in the third quarter of the Grand Final. Did the Collective Mind team learn much from that?

“Lots!” Leddie said. “That was a tough day after being the best team all season.

“But it was year one for us, and credit to Richmond, they’ve had (mindfulness coach Emma Murray) working with some of them for three years now.

“We went from a mid-eight team never really threatening to minor premiers and the Grand Final, so I think we made massive strides.

“We’ve committed to lock this contract down for the next two seasons, to make the mind training a standard part of high performance at Adelaide alongside the physical training and tactical fields — that’s the vision.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Jo Mitchell, who has been working with the AFL Players Association to educate players about mental health, said the movement towards including mind training in professional football programs had grown out of the US.

“When the Seattle Seahawks took out the Super Bowl for the first time a few years back [2013], the core message that came through was ‘we took the mental side of the game really seriously this year’,” she said.

“They had people come in and really integrate it, because I think often clubs would just run an education program and tell the players here’s what’s good for you, off you go, but it needed a systemic, integrated approach.”

Mitchell points out that many of these ideas are not altogether new, but that science is increasingly supportive.

“It’s not to say these ideas around (positive psychology) haven’t been out there, but we’re just putting some concerted inquiry behind it now, and I think what you’re seeing as a consequence is a lot more understanding of what actually really matters,” she said.

“And from everything I’ve seen in the literature so far, it’s pretty clear that what matters are two things: it’s being clear about your values, what you stand for in the world, and then living those values.

“And the second thing is social connectedness, and the clubs that can create the healthy connected cultures are 100 per cent going to be the ones that thrive.

“From the outside I see that Sydney always seems to have been a club that put culture first and has done it really, really well.

“You see them consistently up there, winning or in the top eight, top four, and that is testament to the fact that they realised early on that this stuff does matter.”

Mitchell adds that Richmond’s emphasis on celebration in 2017 also helped to produce a positive environment.

“There will always be the player who doesn’t do well in the system regardless of how healthy the culture is, but for the majority of them I imagine Richmond was a much more pleasant club to be in,” she said.

“And that breeds loyalty and has people really wanting to do and be their best, to be there (and to resist big offers to go elsewhere).”

Leddie adds: “I heard Luke Walton, the LA Lakers coach, speak the other day and he reckons within seven to 10 years every club is going to have a deep program within.

“We’re sitting at this moment where science has our back, but football clubs still haven’t figured out how to programmatically build this into the framework of high performance.

“We have no doubt that this is not a fad — this is a trend — and with the amount of new insights coming out of neuroscience every month, the pool of wisdom is just getting bigger and bigger.

“And technology’s catching up to where every six or 12 months there’s a new measurement that we couldn’t measure before, so this space is absolutely not going to stop.”

Leddie is adamant that the Grand Final loss will be a powerful motivator for the Crows players, as it so often is for defeated teams (particularly those with a sense of injustice).

“It’s going to be burning really strongly,” Leddie said. “The Storm had it this season, the Golden State Warriors had it — they both tasted the bitterness of defeat.

“Philosophically speaking, great learnings come through loss. Our brain is hard-wired around looking for the negative, that’s what it does.

“Conversely, whenever we achieve something, and we think this is going to be the best thing that’s ever happened in our lives, it’s never as good as we expect because dopamine actually gets released more through the process of doing rather than achieving something.”

Dealing with the aftermath of success might be a worry for Richmond, but won’t be for the unfulfilled, loss-averse Adelaide.

“When we were working with the Rabbitohs and they won it, they fell off the cliff the next year because it’s then a different equation in the mind,” Leddie said.

“That falling off the cliff often happens — look at the Western Bulldogs.

“But we’re not going to have trouble around motivation this year with the Crows.”

There is a new language around the AFL: mind profiling, mindfulness, mind tools, dopamine, meditation, visualisation, mnemonics, connection, belief …

It’s the language of neuroscience: the game in the brain.

You’ll be hearing a lot more of it.

The January issue of SEN Inside Football is out now. It is jampacked with all your off-season footy yarns. Subscribe today!

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