We hear about the yips in golf, but we explore whether throwers can suffer too
It was a flyer of an idea: do rugby hookers get the yips throwing in, like nervy golfers standing over makeable putts? But right away, former Canada hooker Ray Barkwill emails back to explain that he has just finished the thesis for his Masters in sports coaching at the University of Victoria, entitled, ‘Individual Performance Anxiety in High Performance Rugby Players’. He believes the yips are real.
So what drew him to the subject?
“To be honest, it was my experience working with a sports psychologist, leading up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the success I saw,” Barkwill explains. “Leading up to that, Kieran Crowley (former Canada head coach) brought in this Canadian sports psychologist who had worked with Steve Nash, the Canadian basketball player, and lots of top golfers.
“I experienced working with him and considered how I refined my thinking about processes and confidence, and how to get that. Because at that time for us in Canada, we were getting so close in all those games and not winning.
“Our confidence as a team went down so he brought in this sports psyche guy. We started applying it to our team but then I started asking them questions at lunch. Talking about throwing and set-ups in the scrum, and how do I improve on things from a mental side of it.
“When I finished my playing days, I knew I wanted to finish my Masters, as I pushed it off beforehand. So I said, ‘Well, what’s something I’m passionate about?’ I knew I was going to go into coaching and I know the mechanical part.
“I think I have (that down) from a throwing part, but the biggest part I grew in was – and I hate saying mental toughness – fortitude, how to handle the pressure. You know, when you come to a lineout, five minutes left in the game and you’re the substitute, it’s raining wet and you’ve got to throw a back ball to win. How do you keep your poise and your confidence up?”
So he began considering isolation anxiety. In rugby, that meant casting an eye over throwers and kickers, but he studied other sports where athletes had to work on a technique in isolation. He looked at darts, golf, foul shooting in basketball, for example.
When you talk about the ‘yips’, Barkwill says he can relate as a golfer, but another sporting example he brings up is that of Chuck Knoblauch: a professional baseball player who in the early Noughties had very public issues with throwing accurately to first base.
The thing about throwing at the top level is that no one has time to hold your hand or ensure you a nice easy call to get your eye in, if you’re struggling.
Barkwill recalls a game in Vannes in 2014, against Samoa, when he came off the bench in pouring rain. With just under ten minutes to go, he had to throw it to the back to set up the driving maul. It would lead to a score, and afterwards he reflected on all the study, the chats with coaches, the outcome planning for certain scenarios, that he had done before.
Perhaps there is an element of geeing yourself up for a life on the sideline, lobbing the ball in. But you also need to embrace that you will be called upon for a big play at some point. Barkwill talks about convincing himself that he is out of this world at throwing – he has to believe it, telling us: “If anyone asked me I’m the best. I tell everyone I’m world class at throwing, right, like I am the best. I’d take the Pepsi Challenge to anyone!”
Now apply that reasoning to the tale above, from Vannes. So many top hookers will have moments like that to reflect on. Because dealing with those plays in real time, and coming through is what makes the elite, well, elite. Talking to Harlequins hooker Joe Gray – who also works on throwing with youngsters at the club – he can recall one such play last season.
“We did this year at Irish away, where we were behind in the closing minute,” he says. “We get to the corner five metres out, and the lineout caller said, ‘Let’s do a movement to the front’. That is exactly what I wanted to hear but then we jog to the lineout and he cancelled out, to (throw to) the back. Which was actually marked. They went up and I had to throw it, double-top, as high as I could risk it. I thought it was overthrown.
“We managed to maul and we got it out to Marcus (Smith) who scored to win. But those pressure situations are what we train for. You do definitely slip into ‘I’d quite like a nice ball I know I’d like, to start’, but that’s not really what we get the option to do at our level. Especially when teams are researching lineouts and putting pressure on in certain scenarios.”
And just to hammer home that point, former Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best has similar feelings. As the retired hooker recalls: “On what Ray says, it wouldn’t be that I was trying to convince myself but outwardly trying to convince everyone.
“If we get to a game and I’m the captain and we have a penalty and I know the kicker’s missed a kick, I don’t really want to go to the corner because I have to throw the ball in, but if the kicker’s struggling then I have to take it on myself. It’s how you portray yourself.
“You’re not going to them, ‘We’ll go to the corner and hopefully win the lineout.’ You’re going, ‘We’re going to maul them over.’ So when you’re outwardly saying it, like Ray says, maybe you’re convincing yourself a bit. But when I get to that park, I’ve convinced myself because if I throw all these days (in training), I’ll throw well at the weekend.”
We are talking about some driven guys here. Students even. Gray knows where Barkwill is coming from because he spent a lot of time studying Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, looking for secrets in his approach to darts domination. He also loves the SAS’s saying, “Smooth is fast”, in relation to going through a building. In terms of throwing, Gray has always seen more success trying to throw smoothly than attempting to wang it as hard as he can.
Throwing was always his X-factor but at 16, Gray threw totally differently to the way he does now. At an England camp he was shown a video of Andy Titterrell at the lineout and asked to change his technique to reflect him more.
For an hour a day, for a year by Gray’s reckoning, the teenage him was thwacking a lamppost with his ball. After six weeks he felt totally lost, but at the behest of his late father, Paul, he stuck at it. Eventually it came out with a nice spiral, nose dipping as it came down from its peak. His dad even made a rudimentary ‘lollipop’ to throw at, made from dismantled back-garden goalposts and a rubber disc. There they would be, out in the pouring rain, chucking balls at the sticky-taped marvel held aloft.
Best recognises this too. With his scenario above, he explains that the “all these days” he’s talking about was the four days prior, when he would throw hundreds of balls. He knows he can do the action because he has lost count of how many times he’s done it.
Many of us will have heard the tale of the converted machine on the farm, that Best used to throw into when his newborn son (now 11) went to bed. But over the years he sought out more pressure for the skill. When Ulster got an upgraded training facility, he could throw more at Iain Henderson in the gym. At Ireland training at Carton House, a platform was erected that Henderson could stand on.
At first it was all about repetition, throw after throw. But then it turned into coach Simon Easterby running up and down the line with a lollipop (emulating as best he could the movements of someone like Maro Itoje, who was amongst the toughest opposition jumpers for Best to face, alongside a few Scots and Sergio Parisse).
As the former hooker says, “Just give me a target and I’m good enough to hit it most of the time,” so there would be a couple of call options for Best to try to emulate. Then at the last second Easterby would throw the lollipop up near where Henderson was expected to catch it.
Best may associate the yips more with golf than lineout throwing, but what he does acknowledge is how reputations can grow. How one missed lineout, whether it’s the thrower’s fault or not, can sit with you. It can affect the next action in a game. Confidence can go and you can lose sight of what you are good at.
But playing for the Barbarians, when he was struggling with a hangover, it dawned on him that a missed moment didn’t come with all the crippling pressure, that enjoying the game was an option too. And lo, when he relaxed, he saw how well the ball flies.
So how do you impart lessons to the next generation? For Barkwill, positivity and process are the key tenets when he trains with youngsters. He has worked hard with young college talent Isaac Bales, who was taken in the recent MLR draft, joining Rugby ATL. An incredibly coachable farm kid, Barkwill wants to see how he copes with another step up.
Gray credits renowned throwing coach Simon Hardy for introducing him to some “unbelievable drills” that he still uses today with Quins academy players. Like Best, he says you can throw all day with no pressure, but in practice even just a little bit of a shake-up can alter the atmosphere.
For example, Gray says, you can introduce the need to make ten throws in a row. Plenty of times he has seen young players get to eight or nine, capitulate, and have to start again. It’s the same throw as number one, which they all make, so it’s about getting to that stage where you treat them all the same.
Gray also talks about those who dwell on a throw. Those players who have seen a lineout fail, perhaps through no fault of their own, then let that hamper the next few throws. There’s another session you can use, as Gray explains: “You can do a throwing session where, as soon as they miss, the session is done for the rest of the day. And literally, they can hit four in a row, miss the fifth and you pack everything up. ‘Can I just do one more?’ No, session’s done. So then they’ve got to dwell on it, think about it and the next day they get to throw again.
“It creates some toughness in your brain. It’s a pressure situation that you create, it is the same throw that you always hit, but if you miss one there are consequences. Especially with some of the hookers I’ve worked with over the years – Rob Buchanan got very good at it – you’ll get to a point where you have to finish the session because they don’t miss!”
The repeated lines you hear looking at this is about nailing the mechanical, then honing the mental. Because there ain’t no getting away from it folks. Lineouts will be missed, for all sorts of reasons.
Either way, it’s likely you will get the blame. Reputations can form. But you’ve just got to keep slinging it in.
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