It’s mentally tough at the top as mind matters on the pitch

Hawick's players will need to show real steel to stay in the Premiership.
Hawick's players will need to show real steel to stay in the Premiership.

Hawick and Melrose couldn’t be further apart in what each aims to achieve as the BT Premiership nears the finish line – but there is one shared problem the two rivals must navigate if they are to reach their end-of-season goals.

Mental toughness and squad unity is not something that can be taught at the last minute. It is not something that can be picked up by players late in the season, nor is it something every player is naturally gifted with, or able to do.

In almost every sport, top-level performers are all similar in their levels of ability. They all have similar attributes like strength, skill, speed, stamina.

Yet, in every sport, some athletes and teams emerge as winners, while others never fully reach their full potential. The difference between those who reach the top levels of sport and winners of titles is not simply an ability to perform outstanding feats of strength, skill or speed, it is their ability to overcome the mental pressures of high stakes games and perform as one.

Players who can block out all the noise, all the pressure and embrace the magnitude of what the game means. Players who are mentally strong and united are those who often find themselves lifting titles and enjoying success.

As the Premiership season enters the home stretch, every point, every penalty, every try, every scrum, every small margin of the game could be the difference between titles or relegation.

For Hawick and Melrose, both clubs seasons could come down to a knock-on, a penalty, a try, a scrum or lineout, or a single point. Knowing the differences between a league title or relegation from the Premiership could come down to the finest of margins, both clubs try to foster mental toughness and a togetherness, so when it comes to a singular point between success and failure, they are prepared.

“I think after being physically able to compete at this level, having a mental toughness and team unity is something that really can be the difference in games with such fine margins,” said Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie.

“We have a lot of players at the club who are self -motivators, guys who will get up for games no matter what is on the line and will also train hard, even if we don’t have a game at the weekend. When you have guys like that, it helps in situations like we are in now, with us having already secured the number one seed in the play-offs but still having two league games to play.

“For some teams or players, they might take the foot off slightly; they might not give it the same level of effort because, no matter the outcome of the game, the league position doesn’t change. We, thankfully, don’t have players like that and, if players did think about easing off a bit, they know pretty quickly at training no one else is and they adjust.

“It is a mental thing to be able to keep pushing continually and we are pleased everyone at Melrose shares that one mental approach.

“But we have to make sure it always stays like that, as coaches we know we cannot just assume all players come with that mental approach, so we do things to help bring it along or cultivate it. It’s never easy but something that is very important.”

That sentiment is repeated by his counterpart at Hawick, assistant coach Darren Cunningham, who is fully aware of the importance of having players with a tough mental approach.

“You always know when the season gets to this point which players will do whatever it takes to prepare for big games, be at training when games are being postponed, and be able to block out all the pressure to put in a big performance,” said Cunningham.

“On the flip side, you also know which players can’t do that and, as coaches, you have to make adjustments accordingly. Being mentally tough is not something that is easily picked up but it’s important to make sure you try and foster it in training, after training and in games.

“I think everyone knows the difference between winning and losing in the Premiership often comes down to whoever makes the least errors when it matters or is able to punch in a score when it is needed the most.

“Having the physical abilities to be able to perform is not always the only factor when points are needing scored. Having a mental calmness, an ability to block out pressure and get the job done, more often than not, is the difference between success and failure.”

Mental toughness is not something that can be taught on a Tuesday or Thursday training session. Nor is it something that every player is gifted with having.

“But having players with a mental toughness set an example, players who demonstrate that ability to overcome all the noise to performance and lead from the front, brings teams together and can often be shared throughout a squad. Fostering that unity and togetherness is something Hawick and Melrose are acutely aware of.

“Having unity, a togetherness in the squad, is something we always try to promote and the players, I think, naturally are drawn to building it,” said Chrystie.

“Boys have breakfast together, they all meet on non-training days and we make sure we meet for lunches before game days, etc.

“We try to keep everyone together and I think that helps when we are on the pitch because boys trust one another, they have a willingness to follow each other and are able to feed off each others mentality.”

Cunningham added: “As coaches, we haven’t really had to make guys spend time together – they all naturally just want to, and, having boys who want to play together helps at points like this in the season, because we need guys working as one.

“You might not have the strongest side or the quickest side but, if you have one that is together and sharing a mentality of winning, working towards a shared goal, have the mental toughness to get it done when it matters, then that is sometimes all you need to win.”