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Pre-match Jitters

Before the Match

It is 12:30. Three hours ahead in New Zealand it is 3:30, and counting down inexorably to a historical kick-off. Two celtic teams stand at the entrance to a sacred arena: a place in the rugby world cup semi-finals. Not since 1991 when Scotland beat Samoa was there such an opportunity. Scotland then lost to England. This could happen again, with one whole side of the knock-out draw filled with northern hemisphere teams.

So right about now the players will be entering their final preparations, and trying to get their minds into the best possible space. But what does this space look like? Is there really a ‘winning mentality’ that marks out a winner before a game has even begun.

I suspect that hindsight and the human bias to ignore statistics compel us to read history backwards as a story with a knowing author and a sensible plot.

Look at a man who spent a long life boozing and smoking but is still standing, and it is hard to remember the government warnings and sensible advice. The fact of the matter stands in front of you with a generous glass of whisky, a pack of Benson & Hedges and eighty years of history. He is a winner then, and the more rare he is, the more noticeable he is, and the more memorable an example he makes. So like a celebrating sports fan we can start out with the winners and trace backwards to find causes and purpose where maybe randomness and chance brought most of the mirth to the party.

Which leads not at all nicely back to pre-match psychology and the superstitious preparations of sporting soldiers to fortune. Does it help to visualize or build up a strict routine? In case, there is no doubt (o.k., there is acceptable doubt) that the murky mind is a tricky matter, and is susceptible to all sorts of issues that can stifle or stimulate a body. Its awareness of its own awareness is as much a curse as a blessing when it starts to second guess itself in moments of stress.

In virtually all of the bike races I attempted, I had a recurring problem before the start. I would suddenly get paranoid about racing for three hours with a full bladder and no chance of stopping. My mind amplified the worry, and hey presto! I would be stuck in the men’s room every five minutes for the half hour before the start, with glowing nerves and a second-checking tick making me check and recheck every visible variable- brake blocks, energy gels, water bottles, race number, brake blocks, energy gels…

So for even a small-scale effort the head can start to lose the run of itself, and plague the body with repeating unreasonable infatuations that resonate in a real physical way. Pressure counts. I was never alone in this pre-race routine. How do the pros deal with it, when the stakes are cut high and planted deep?

In the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a certain Usain Bolt made history by smashing world records and elevating himself to the pantheon of running greats. But one of the most marvellous aspects of his performances were his pre-race antics, and unbelievable coolness before the gun. How could he be so calm, in an Olympic final with the world watching and the fastest guys in it standing next to him? If you think about it…. ah, maybe there is the rub, not thinking. Maybe the best of the best have another super skill, and can turn off that overthinking brain before it gets in the way.

In the Art of Failure (, the human nature guru Michael Gladwell looked at the difference and significances of ‘choking’ and ‘panicking’. Panicking is where instinct takes over and a single immediate goal becomes all-important (get out get out!). Choking is when instinct is derailed and the higher-level learning mechanisms take over (Accompanied by voluble mental chatter). Both lead to failure.

Champions are marked by coolness under pressure. They neither panic or choke. In normal everyday situations we are not faced by these daemons. If we were we would have multiple nervous breakdowns every week. In sport, with everything to play for, and history to be made and the clock always counting down, it is an ever present foe, perhaps as big as the real, physical opponent.

There is just over 90 minutes left before the opening whistle. The Irish team have plenty of experience with pressure, from Heineken cup and Six Nations crunch games, and so have hopefully built up a resilience to the mental niggles that can upend confidence and cause the mind to lose faith in the body. As a team they have shown a little of the Bolt attitude in the off game snippets; cool, collected, and jocular. Their press conferences have nuggets of banter and wit. With their nicknames and jokes and the ball light-heartedness they can hopefully offset the tremendous pressures that exist in sport, especially at the higher levels, and especially in events where expectations are pitched up and a fever grips supporters and followers.

Every man, woman and child has been drafted in to swell the latest blarney army. Across the globe in every timezone, expats and gapyearers and happy travellers are looking up the kickoff time and setting their alarms. Thankfully for me Korea is only a few zones distant, and it will be an afternoon special.

Time to go, don’t want to be too late. I’m not the biggest rugby fan in the world- not because I don’t like the game, but because I never played it and don’t watch all of the games. It’s a fantastic sport, a balance between physical brawn and aggression and speed and skill. The rules are a little intricate but they allow for a controlled game with different styles.

Hopefully today, the Irish team will look like they did against Australia…. eager, together, and happy to be in the thick of it.

After the Match


Ouchery. Humbug and humbuggery. Over. Out. Shouldn’t read the media reports. Read them anyhow. Watched the ‘highlights’… lowlights more apt from the losing perspective. A solid first half but Wales’ defence stood firm and some crucial errors and slack tackling in the early part of the second sealed the deal. Two tries, one of them shamefully easy, put an end to the run, and the country will have to invest its interest and conversation elsewhere. A presidential election, continuing economic woes, the weather.

I was late. The bar was crowded with groups from most of the rugby-following countries, a motley crew in all sorts of colours. The game was streamed from the internet and kept freezing. When it froze people rang friends and yelled out developments. Ireland scored? It’s ten all? It’s ten all! But sadly the pop and fizz died away and the English guy who I had just met bought me a Guinness to help bring calm. And then a Jaegerbomb. And then there was some more beer and a burger and then England lost as well and France turned everything around and looked electric at times.

The English game never froze once. I left my new friend with his old friend to their consolations and headed off to find my own distractions. Nice sometimes to be able to disappear into a throng where few will know where you are from even if you tell them, if you could.

There is a Doppler effect with events like this. Slow to arrive and quick to leave. Beforehand, the build-up is intense and speculation rife. Afterwards there are curt reports, disappointed resignation and frustration that will hopefully slip away without a fanfare. Players give it their all and give it every day. Fans tune in to watch the games or highlights and are free to praise and blame. A good poker player will play with the same approach whether he is winning or losing. It is up to him or her to cope with the relevant excitement or dread that go with each. But it has to hurt… the joy of doing well is what they play for beneath it all, which they must take with pains of loss.

Did the Welsh team have a better collective mentality going into the game? Were they tempered with more stable determination? What was lacking? Was their game plan tighter?

The agony of analysis and still the suspicion that luck and chance were present and correct. This is sport.

Wales beat Ireland, who beat Australia , who beat South Africa, who beat Wales. Huh?

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