Controlling the controllables – three big words for rugby and coaching success

Dave Hadfield

Winston Churchill was reputed to have given a very brief speech late in his life. I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but I read somewhere that he was asked as a very old man to give a speech at his old school. Apparently the old warrior stood up and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I shall be brief. I have only this to say - Never give up. Never ever, give up”. Then according to the report I read, he sat down.

I don’t know whether it ranks up there with his some of his famous speeches such as “we shall fight them on the beaches” and his “never in the field of human conflict has so much be owed by so many to so few” after the battle of Britain. But it is certainly pithy, it is definitely short and it must have been bloody memorable. While I’m on the subject of speeches, one of the jobs that coaches seem to get to do every Saturday is give some sort of a talk to the players before they play. I’m not sure whether we always need to do this – sometimes we might be better served giving our players the benefit of our silence! Perhaps I’ll address this issue in more depth in another article, but one piece of advice I can give you if you want to be a more effective speaker is to get on the internet and download a few speeches from the likes of Churchill and Martin Luther King and study how they use words to paint a picture and to capture the attention and imagination of their listeners. Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is, I believe a “must listen to” for all those who wish to improve their ability to use metaphor and allegory to get their point across, who want to ensure that they use variety in vocal tone, pitch and pacing. If you haven’t listed to this speech before, download it, shut your eyes and have a listen and ingest all 16 odd minutes of it. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Anyway, I wasn’t intending to write about speeches in this ramble, so I’ll get to what I do want to write about. If somebody asked me to give a speech as brief as Winston Churchill’s speech reported above and asked me to encapsulate what is the most important thing I have learned in my time working in coaching and mental skills, I would say simply this – CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES.

In these three words lie a huge amount of meaning, guidance and power. Just looking at the three words, it might seem a bit simplistic, but when you look inside and delve around a bit, this trio of words has a huge amount of pertinence to life and to rugby. Why does this statement hold so much power? Well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that it’s pointless worrying about the things in life over which we have no control. This concept is memorably described by American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Serenity Prayer, written in the 1930s, has famously become the prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous and is also known as the Alcoholics Prayer. Here is the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference

I’ll have a look at what some of these uncontrollables might be in a while, but first I want you to agree with me that worrying/festering/being angry/sad etc about anything over which we have no control is a complete and utter waste of time. I’ll agree that it’s very human to do so (in fact sometimes it’s incredibly difficult not to), but it is illogical, unhelpful and bound to take us off-target and make us unhappy if we do it too often or for too long. Of course I’m not saying here that if we lose a loved one or we suffer a disappointment around something that is important to us we’re not going to be sad. If we love something and we lose it, we hurt. That’s just the way life works. If you care deeply about something and it goes, then of course you’re going to be upset. What I want to do, however is to clearly differentiate between deep losses (the death of a family member, friend or even a beloved pet) and some of the other upsets that both we as coaches and our players encounter. For example, for players it might be not making the cut in a representative side, losing a big game or suffering an injury.

What are some of these things? Well an important one that springs immediately to mind is the past. By the past, I mean anything that has already happened. At this stage, you’re probably thinking “what the hell is this bloke on”? It all sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? Why bother to write about this stuff? The reason is that I believe understanding this concept deeply is one of the keys of successful and happy living. The past includes things that have happened a second ago, a minute ago, a day ago, a year ago or many years ago in our childhood.

Let’s look at some things that your players need to know about this concept. During the game there are things they can and can’t control:

When you see it written down like this, it seems to be so simple it is hardly worth writing down, but I believe is critical for players to understand this deeply. Let’s look at some of the ways that players can make errors by being concerned with the past or the future when they should be living in the present. Every time during a game a player becomes angry, frustrated or depressed (e.g. because of a referee’s decision, a mistake made, the actions of an opposing player or thoughts of what’s going to happen after the game) there is an intense internal focus. By internal focus I mean that there is a lot of thinking and emotion going on, which causes a considerable amount of cortical activity. This intense activity inside the brain means that a player will find it very difficult to attend to things in the external environment which he needs to be attending to in order to pick up cues, make decisions and execute his skills. A human being can only attend to (or concentrate on) so much at one time – if our senses are overloaded, then we effectively “blow a mental foofoo valve” and make errors. The point is that a referee’s decision, once made, is in the past, a mistake made is also in the past, the actions of an opposing player once committed are in the past and thoughts of what’s going to happen after the game are in the future. Equally if a player is waiting to catch a high ball and is thinking (or visualising) what he’s going to do after he’s caught it will likely lead to the ball being dropped. It’s an incredibly common mental error – you just needed to watch this year’s Super 14 to see that!

All of these things are to do with what’s happening during a game, but it is equally important that players and coaches learn to “control the controllables” outside of game time also. Many years ago at a conference in United States I picked up a little model which I have found extremely useful ever since when it comes to dealing with issues and worries. The model is shown below.

 

IMPORTANT

Controllable

 

IMPORTANT

Able to be influenced

 

IMPORTANT

Uncontrollable


NOT IMPORTANT

Controllable

 

NOT IMPORTANT

Uncontrollable

 

It works like this. For any worry, problem or issue that you have, place it in one of the five boxes above. First make a decision as to whether the issue or problem is important or not important and then decide how much control you have over solving or moving forward with the issue. Having done that, then decide how much of the problem or issue can be moved to the left (i.e. exactly what can be done to resolve the situation). For example, let’s say an ambitious player is worried about whether or not he will be selected for the representative team. Theoretically you could say that this is important and uncontrollable; based on the principle that nobody else can control another human being’s mind. It is after all the greatest human freedom – the freedom to think whatever we want (hence why we should encourage players to “let go” referees’ decisions and mistakes immediately – as we have the freedom to think about them and to deal with them however we choose). However it is certainly possible to influence the representative selectors. If they are like every selector I have come across, they will be hugely influenced by a player who:
  • Performs consistently at a high-level
  • Trains with purpose, intensity and focus
  • Is self-aware and self analytical
  • Displays self-reliance and leadership
  • Is mentally tough
  • Displays leadership qualities

Of course all of the six qualities listed above are all controllable by the player. And that is the real point here. If the player concentrates on doing all he can be the best he can, if he works hard and “works smart”, then he can do no more and the outcomes (i.e. being selected for the representative side) will look after themselves. If he does miss out on selection, and he is worried about that, the needs to look at what he can do to influence the situation. The answer will include finding out from the selectors what he needs to do to get selected, going away and improving in those areas, and working as hard as he can and hopefully he will eventually make it. Of course he can also influence where he plays and it may be there is another province where he may be selected immediately and he may choose to move and play there.

I hope you season is going well (or has gone well - if you have finished your coaching by the time you readthis) and I trust you are feeling satisfied at the great job you have done or are continuing to do with the development of your players. Keep up the good work, keep learning and “control the controllables”.

Cheers
Dave