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Fitness & Health

23rd Nov 2018

How rugby players use psychology to boost performance

Success in sport owes as much to psychology as it does the body. Gain a competitive edge with these tips from coach Pat Divilly

Alex Roberts

Success in sport owes as much to the mind as it does the body

To mark the culmination of the Quilter Autumn Internationals this weekend, sportswear brand Canterbury have teamed up with a number of fitness experts to provide you with a wide range of performance-boosting tips.

Gain a competitive edge with these psychology tips from coach Pat Divilly.

Step 1 – Visualisation and Box Breath Exercise

Why: Visualisation is a means of programming the sub-conscious mind to improve confidence ahead of a game (training or event) and mentally prepare to respond to different scenarios. The box breath exercise helps to relax the body and is a great way of calming a player who might be overwhelmed or anxious ahead of the game.


  • Find a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed for 10 minutes
  • Sit or lie down with your eyes closed
  • Take a 4-second breath in through your nose
  • Hold for 4 seconds
  • Follow with a 4-second exhale and 4-second hold. Repeat a couple of times

Following this, it’s time to mentally run through the scenario of the game. Visualising in this way will help to build confidence and remember past successes from training or matches. Repeat this process in the same undisturbed environment until you feel calm and energised.

Step 2 – Trigger

Why – ‘Trigger’ words can help you establish focus and concentration, which can lead to improved performance. Your trigger word can be a letter or word that inspires you or reminds you of how you feel/who you are when you are at your best.

Examples could be ‘warrior’, ‘resilient’, ‘immaculate’ or ‘champion’. The trigger word must mean something to you as a player and can act as a means of catching a potential downward spiral. So perhaps after missing a kick or dropping a ball you can look down and remind yourself of how you want to perform rather than focusing on what has gone wrong.


  • A ‘trigger’ word can be placed on a piece of tape on your boot or around your wrist for in-game motivation
  • Add your ‘trigger’ into your phone for a pre-match reminder or set a daily alarm to go off at a certain time, to constantly reinforce your message
  • The alarm should prompt a word or sentence of meaning that allows you to remind yourself of where you are trying to go and who you are trying to be.
  • Alternatively pick three traits you like about yourself as a player

Step 3 – Ice Baths

Why: Ice baths are great for physical recovery but can also be a means of ‘active meditation’. There are many times in a game when you might feel uncomfortable. This feeling can manifest itself in the form of negative thoughts when you try to avoid discomfort or run away from it.

Facing up to the discomfort by controlling your breathing and narrowing the focus rather than panicking, you can move forwards towards the result you want. The ice bath teaches us this.


  • Breathe deeply for 1-2 minutes before stepping into the ice bath. This will allow you to block out any distractions and really narrow your focus
  • Step into the ice and continue the deep breaths
  • Look to regulate your breathing even when the shock of stepping in the cold water hits. The body will react and want to run away, so this technique will enable you to show that you are comfortable in the uncomfortable through focus

If an ice bath is unavailable:

  • Start with a warm shower and place the attention on the breath, taking deep breaths in and out
  • Turn the shower temperature as cold as you can for 30-60 seconds
  • Look to continue the breathing pattern of controlled deep inhales and exhales as you embrace the cold! You may panic at first and move to panic breathing, experiencing shallow and fast breaths into the chest. Instead focus and regulate your breathing
  • You can finish your shower on hot or cold depending on how you are feeling

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