Fear is a significant presence when you’re scaling Everest. But is it the same on a rugby pitch? This feature first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Rugby World.
Fear Factor: the role of anxiety and fear in rugby
HAVE YOU ever heard of alexithymia? Tim Woodman, a psychotherapist and sports psychology professor at Bangor University, has you covered. “It’s from the Greek – lex- is ‘words’, and –thymia is ‘feelings’. A- means a lack of. So it’s a lack of words for feelings. It’s a difficulty identifying and expressing emotions.”
Woodman had always wondered what drove mountaineers to take on long, arduous and ultimately dangerous expeditions like tackling Everest. He concluded that it wasn’t thrill-seeking, despite what some thought. What was it?
“I got to reading the biography of these people,” he explains. “The more I looked into it, the more I realised those who take part in expeditions tend to find the stress of a climb – potentially being caught in an avalanche, in a remote area, with a risk of death – somewhat less stressful than a traditional married relationship.
“That got me thinking that there must be an emotional component to that. The emotions that they feel in the mountains are clear, whereas the emotions they feel in a relationship for example are less clear. Or nebulous, vague or obtuse.
“They can identify what emotion they feel at the time they are on the mountain, which is fear. ‘Okay, I understand that feeling, there’s a reason to be fearful.’ In a traditional human relationship we are fearful without understanding why. Why am I scared of this person’s emotion? But they wouldn’t use the word fear in that context because it doesn’t fit the bill when you compare it to the mountain.
“It’s more an underpinning anxiety which is difficult to get a hold of. It is an underlying unease.”
Woodman settled on a model of alexithymic traits he felt he could hang his hat on: firstly, that such individuals struggle to regulate their emotions and actually head towards situations most people shy away from – extremes of anxiety and fear. Secondly, they struggle with a sense of agency: they feel like a pawn in life’s great game of chess.
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Being based in Wales, Woodman has inevitably been confronted with the question of what this means in the context of rugby. “Potentially rugby rewards someone who is alexithymic in that to not feel too much fear is a benefit,” he says. “Going in for a hard tackle, if you worry about getting your head knocked off that’s probably not a good thing. It’s best to go in hard and low, but if you hold back you’re more likely to get hurt, so I can see a benefit to that.
“With the social domain, it can also limit interactions between team-mates, especially if you’re out with injury or talking about what kind of play you like. Exchanging conversation on that sort of level is essential for effective teamwork. It’s potentially a double-edged sword.”
One man who can address the crossovers between rugby and extreme sports is Richard Parks. From December 2010, the former Wales flanker spent just over six months scaling the highest mountains on all seven continents and completing the Three Poles Challenge (reaching the North and South Poles and climbing to the summit of Everest).
In 2014 he completed a solo expedition to the South Pole. Parks has also spoken publicly of the “dark hole” he fell into when injury destroyed his rugby career.
He offers his view. “I guess in both of my careers – I say both because I feel like I’ve had two different lives – I can certainly think of people who had similar characteristics to (alexithymia). I don’t think that’s necessarily been my situation.”
Parks could express his emotions well. But he chose to keep them to himself at first.
“My experiences have changed my perspective on our emotional make-up. As a player I had always seen fear as a really negative thing and I’d always seen my insecurities and sporadic battle with anxiety – nothing clinical but the general anxiety about mistakes, dropping a ball, getting dropped – as a negative. In hindsight I had always lived as a bit of a roller-coaster of emotions, sometimes being aware of it, sometimes not having any management strategies, and most definitely not being able to talk about it.
“What I found in this chapter of my life, and it’s a product of the dark place I went to as I transitioned out of rugby through injury, is that my experiences in extreme environments, life and death situations, have actually challenged me to look at these characteristics as enablers; they are positive parts of my make-up.”
Parks talks eloquently about how thoughts of never returning home have powered him. Stepping over bodies and feeling the genuine chill of environments that can kill you has forced him to use his fear as a motivator. Suddenly, obsessing over ‘what-ifs’ means he is planning better; he is training ferociously. By Parks’s reckoning, despite how seriously he took his rugby, he is able to get 40-50% more out of his body now.
Woodman recently helped stage a study of a group of ‘super-elite’ athletes; serial gold medal winners, the best of the best. He suggests they share a near-psychotic drive to win at all costs – something he believes is an alexithymic trait. Parks contests any necessity to treat support networks as disposable in order to achieve lofty goals. He loves and needs to be part of a team.
The Welshman is also driven by literal concerns over life and death. He asks aloud if the Martin Johnsons and Brian O’Driscolls of this world make rugby feel like life and death in their heads, pushing them to greatness.
Ex-England cricketer Jeremy Snape runs Sporting Edge, a high-performance consultancy business. He also served as England’s psychologist for 18 months of Eddie Jones’s tenure. He says: “Fear is a natural preparation response to a ‘threat’. It happens in the gap between stimulus and response. Our brains were built 50,000 years ago and haven’t had an upgrade since, so we still get the same physiological response that cavemen had in fearing a sabre-toothed tiger.
“The modern threat is different. It’s to our self-esteem, pride or professional reputation, but the truth is our brain prefers safety and habit. So whenever we get something which we interpret as a threat, fear’s aim is to keep us safe. The difference for top performers in elite sport, the performing arts or military is that they feel the fear and move forward, not back.
“As an England cricketer I remember times my confidence was low and I was playing against some of the world’s best. Arms felt heavy, my mind was clouded and contaminated by what might happen if I fail. This is the problem: our mind races forward to consequences of failure. That affects our mind and body in the moment so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The problem with fear is that because we have such vivid imaginations, we can catastrophise the failures to be so out of proportion that the fear is worse than the actual failure itself! It can be debilitating, mentally and physically. Mentally tough people have the ability to switch their inner critic into something which fuels performance rather than prevents it.”
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There is one man who feels blessed he never had fear of confrontation. Former Namibia and Saracens enforcer Jacques Burger never hid from an on-field wreck.
“I was blessed,” Burger tells Rugby World. “I never had fear of contact or of getting injured. I loved getting stuck in. It was more mental than physical.”
Like Parks, Burger’s fear was of failure. He relished the battle, and played in a wild style that meant he was everywhere at all times. Then fear “would raise its ugly head” as he worried about letting mates down, not doing enough. There’s more.
“At a young age I struggled with depression; I struggled with fear and anxiety,” Burger explains. “I’ve had my fair share of personal battles but had to take on depression after going through that when I was younger. But rugby was how I expressed myself. Rugby helped.”
At Saracens, Burger was unburdened. Allowed to stop overthinking things and just play his way – “If you’re going to miss, miss big” – he thrived. He could talk about his issues too, and when he had potentially career-threatening injuries he realised his body could come through things. In an extreme example, he says that junkies show what a human body can go through and still cling on.
So he faced his fears and never stopped throwing himself at his on-field problems.
There were still nerves, obviously. Snape says that most champions he knows feel nerves are vital. The ideal mindset is one that recognises the importance of the game and sees the dangers of being hurt but is so dedicated to the next play that the athlete jumps in selflessly, he says.
Woodman sees the short-term benefits of alexithymia in rugby but wonders if, in the long term, injuries may pile up for alexithymic competitors. Snape merely notes that the focus of the ideal mindset makes it much more likely that a player will get their technique spot-on.
Who knows if things could have been different for Parks? He had an unhealthy relationship with fear and anxiety when he was younger, he repeats. He ran from it. Now he embraces it. We should all be more willing to address our fears and discuss them, he insists, regardless of whether we’re elite rugby players or not.
As Parks concludes: “Our relationship with fear has the power to define us.”