There is only one thing that would get the French singing ‘God Save the Queen’ and that’s Jonny Wilkinson. On May 31st Wilkinson finished his professional playing career in style with both the Toloun and Castress fans giving him a standing ovation and singing his national anthem. In sports something like this is unheard of however is a true reflection of the man who is seen as one of the greatest players to put on the number 10 shirt.
I have always admired his professional approach to the game and most significantly his ability to handle pressure. And once again Wilkinson demonstrated his ability to deal with such pressure as he kicked 4 penalties and one drop goal (on his right foot!) in Tolouns 18 – 10 victory over Castress in the Top 14 final crowning them the 2013 – 2014 champions.
But how does he do it? How does he keep so calm in high pressure situations when other professionals crumble… When other professional let emotions cloud their decision making… Although he has done this consistently throughout his career the best example of his ability to perform in such situations was his extra-time drop goal (again on his right foot) in the 2003 World Cup. Maybe its a natural talent he has? An innate ability to cope with pressure? Could he possibly simply block out the crowd and the nerves and just focus what he needs to do?
I think if you were to ask both him and Clive Woodward who worked with Wilkinson most famously throughout the winning World Cup campaign they would disagree. To be that good, especially when it comes to dealing with the pressure of kicking a winning World Cup drop goal you need more than just natural talent… much more.
I think it is often an injustice when we associate success at the highest level to merely natural talent and often we don’t fully appreciate the commitment and dedication that turns a talented person into a champion. Messi, Nadal, Farah, Bolt and of course Wilkinson are examples of those who have committed themselves fully from the transition of talented athlete to champion. One major factor in these athletes success is their ability to ‘Think Correctly Under Pressure’ or as Clive Woodward calls it ‘T-Cup’.
As a teacher of PE, Psychology and Sport Psychology there are many theories, models and beliefs that help us understand how athletes deal with pressure successfully in sporting situations. However when I heard Woodward’s T-Cup theory several years ago I was amazed with just how much sense it makes. What was unique about this concept was that it was penned by someone who has played and coached at the highest level and his experiences shows when you break his theory down. Even several years ago when I first heard about T-Cup one player sprang to mind… Wilkinson.
According to Woodward the first ingredient in creating a champion like Wilkinson is that you need to have TALENT. You have to have a talent to play your sport to the highest applicable standard. In the 2003 World Cup the 15 players that started in the final for England were all talented. The problem was however, so were the 15 Australians facing them. So what do you need on top of talent to become a champion. What extra ingredients does Wilkinson posses?
The first extra ingredient according to Woodward is TEACHABILITY. Just because you are talented does not mean you know everything. You have to be willing to learn, to unlearn and to re-learn. If a talented player thinks he knows everything he will never develop any further. Woodward describes this person as having a ‘rock’ between their ears when what you need is a ‘sponge’. There are many great examples of sponges; Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave, Jessica Ennis, Ben Ainslie are just a few who never stop learning. They push boundaries and constantly ask questions of themselves and indeed their coach’s. An essential factor to this is that if the athlete needs to be a sponge then so does the coach. Top coach’s work closely with their athletes to get the best out of them but they understand that no one knows an athlete more than the athlete themselves. Therefore the coach’s must be flexible sponges themselves and not ‘know it all’s’.
This sponge concept is almost an academic approach to being an athlete because you are constantly questioning and searching for the right answers (even when those answers are not particular what we want to hear as an athlete). When I think about my best students they have always been the ones who are sponges when it comes to learning. They learn with a smile on their face and learn purely for the sake of learning. They don’t know all the answers but definitely want to know them. They turn up to lesson with some new theory, fact or concept and stay behind at the end to ask further questions. They ask questions in lessons that stop you in your tracks and when I ask them questions their level of response reflects their attitude and understanding of the subject. It reflects who they are and where they want to go which is to the top of their game (whatever that may be). This approach is exactly the same as when I teach higher ability sports students or have worked as a football coach in the past. When I worked in the USA I had the privilege of coaching a Jamaican U19 striker. He was a sponge when it came to every aspect of the game. He soaked up information and was better for it. I also worked with a number of players who were on huge soccer scholarships who instead of sponges were rocks. They knew it all and did not show the passion that I saw in the sponges.
Wilkinson is certainly a sponge when it comes to learning the intricate details of his sport, particularly kicking. Woodward speaks highly of his ability to soak up information. You only have to listen to Wilkinson in interviews to know he clearly understands his sport inside and out which is certainly a reflection of his sponge like ability. When you watch Woodward’s team talks whenever Wilkinson is playing you can see the intensity in the eyes of the famous number 10. Wilkinson is clearly taking everything in when Woodward is talking. He respects that his own knowledge of the game must be on par with his ability as they will work hand in hand if indeed he wants to be the best. Wilkinson probably does not ever use the term ‘luck’, that is more of a rock way of thinking. He relies on his knowledge of the game and the different experiences he has gained in training, matches or simply situations he has visualised… Winning thinking… Sponge like thinking!
So a champion like Wilkinson is talented and teachable, but what about dealing with PRESSURE and how important is this to the professional game? I have always wondered what goes through Wilkinson’s head before he kicks a penalty or a conversion. I bet he blocks out the crowd and doesn’t feel the nerves…. Wrong. Wilkinson often says that when he is standing ready to kick he can actually see his shirt moving due to his heart beating and that its impossible to block the crowd out. When I heard Wilkinson say that he is nervous every time he kicks I could not believe it… so this guy is human after all!
He does not fight the nerves, instead he uses them to his advantage. His senses are of course heightened but if you think about it this is actually a good thing. From a human evolutionary perspective this nervous feeling was originally developed to keep us alert and help us defend ourselves from danger. So on the rugby pitch he actually uses this to focus in on what he needs to do. Instead of fighting it he uses it to his advantage, sometimes its actually good to be nervous (something e don’t teach our students and young athletes enough). He also has his secret weapon when it comes to kicking (Doris) which I will touch on at the end.
So this ability for Wilkinson to cope with pressure is essential to Woodward’s T-Cup theory of what makes a champion. How many talented players would have let the nerves of that World Cup winning drop goal opportunity get the better of them? How many sports stars have you seen buckle under the pressure, choke or get the so called ‘yips’? I still remember Roberto Baggio’s 1994 World Cup final miss against Brazil. As a 13 year who was currently playing football at the time I noticed a look I had seen in the eyes of a few players I had competed against in the past. That look of uncertainty and fear. The pressure on that occasion was too much for Baggio, yet for Wilkinson, he rarely seems to show his nerves no matter how he feels. He sets the bar when it comes to coping with pressure.
Woodward often uses the phrase ‘being comfortable with pressure’. The pressure is there no matter what, its not going away and therefore you have to deal with it. Essential to this then is practicing being in high pressure situations. It has always been common knowledge of Wilkinson’s rigorous training regime and attention to specific detail when he trains. He would set high pressure situations up, for example kicking from the corner flag, to help him prepare for matches. Wilkinson believes that if you can kick from an impossible angle or distance you are more prepared for a realistic angle and distance during games and in fact it becomes easier. So pressure is certainly something you can train yourself to cope with better and no one does it better than Wilkinson.
Finally Woodward believes having the right ATTITUDE is essential to being a champion and they are based on the following 10 behaviours:
1) Obsession (he says it is actually a good thing to be obsessive about the big and smaller details if you want to be better than the rest of the talented people you compete against)
2) Punctuality (definitely a major one for me as a teacher! Woodward believes that being on time says a lot about who you are as a person. In the 2003 World Cup no one was ever late to a meeting!)
3) Assume nothing (always be prepared for the unexpected)
4) Responsibility (take responsibility when you loose, if there is a problem with your game fix it don’t ignore it)
5) Enjoyment (of course this is essential for intrinsic motivation, an athlete should never forget why they started playing their sport in the first place)
6) Execution (be precise in what you do in a game, whether it is a pass, a kick, make it right)
7) Team (be part of a bigger team and not just an individual)
8) Trust (essential if you are to work as an effective team who believes in each other)
9) Collaboration (communicate and share ideas as 15 brains are better than just 1)
10) Beyond number 1 (you have to go above and beyond if you want to be better than the best).
From a sport psychology point of you there are some really interesting concepts that you can relate to both Wilkinson and the T-Cup theory. There is definitely a high sense of internal locus of control when I think about Wilkinson’s attitude towards rugby. Wilkinson clearly believes that he has control over what happens on the pitch and believes the outcome is in his hands. He will never blame external variable for his failure, it’s down to him and him alone.
“A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).” (Zimbardo, 1985)
You only have to listen to Arsene Wenger after his team looses and if its not the referees fault then it will be someone elses… certainly not his or his players though! When I think of blame I always think of attribution theory. When Wilkinson wins he will attribute this success to himself and the team for playing well (internal attribution). And when he looses he blames the same people as he did for winning, as they are in control and it is no one elses fault but their own (external attribution). This gives him a sense of control over what he does which I personally believe is essential for self-actualisation (becoming everything you are capable of becoming!).
Wilkinson is well known for using visualisation (mental imagery and rehersal) when he kicks. Remember I mentioned Doris earlier? Doris is an imaginary woman who sits 20 rows back in the stand behind the goal, holding a can of Coke. As Wilkinson prepares to kick, he visualises the flight of the ball ending up in Doris’s lap, knocking the drink out of her hands. “The idea was that, instead of aiming at the posts, you were aiming at something specific 30 yards back,” he has said in the past. Visualization in sport is a training technique that forms a part of the larger science of sports psychology. Visualisation is also known as mental imagery and rehearsal. It improves the quality of movement, increases the power of concentration and helps to reduce the pressures of competition on the athlete whilst at the same time improving their confidence. Wilkisnson is able to create this image of Doris and others and use it to his benefit. Although there is no substitute for skill, imagery has certainly benefited Wilkinson’s career.
It is clear that Wilkinson focuses on winning, as does Woodward. When the 2003 World Cup campaign started the whole squad and staff believed that they would win. Failure was not a word used or even thought of. You would not hear ‘but what if we loose the final?’ ever being said. Instead you would here ‘how amazing will it be when we win’, even when there earlier games did not always go to plan. The belief was there. When Baggio kicked that fateful penalty you could almost read his mind questioning himself ‘what if I miss?’. The thought process of Wilkinson when he kicks I can imagine would be a lot different. He will never focus on failure, only on success. McClelland developed the achievement motivation theory and considered the idea that an individual has needs including a need for achievement (the other two being the need for affiliation and power). Those who have a ‘need to achieve’ (N-Ach) are very different to those who have a ‘need to avoid failure’ (N-Af). Wilkinson definitely needs to achieve (also known as having high N-Ach) as he thrives on challenge. His kicking from the corner flag is a classic example of high N-Ach. He looks for challenges and puts pressure on himself, whilst at the same time focusing on achieving. Those who avoid challenges because they are too focused on failure do not often succeed in sport. Baggio is certainly not one of these people, you only have to look at his career to know this. But on that occasion when he missed his penalty he was not thinking like his usual N-Ach self but more like a NAf thinker. Wilkinson however consistently demonstrates the desire to achieve and this would certainly be reflected in his positive self-talk – ‘im going to score’, ‘were going to win’.
He has been a role model to so many and certainly a hero of mine. It’s a shame that sports has lost one of its greats but I am sure he is not finished with the game just yet. From a PE point of view he has inspired many youngsters to take up the game of rugby. From a sport psychology point of view he is a great example of what someone with motivation and belief can do. There are lots of theories and models that could sum up Wilkinson as a player and person. But for me T-Cup gives us a great insight into what it takes to be a champion and the type of person that in the final few seconds on extra time in a World Cup final be able to score the winning drop goal on their wrong foot! Wilko, you will be sorely missed from the game!
Im still very new to blogging so any thought or comments would be much appreciated!