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A winning mentality

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George Riley George Riley | 14:51 UK time, Thursday, 17 May 2012

Rugby league may be known for its physicality and brutality, but Huddersfield are trying to gain another advantage over their rivals - by beating them with the power of the mind.

The game's unforgiving ferocity has been complemented this season by the Giants' psychological approach that has helped guide Nathan Brown's men towards the Super League summit.

In week one Huddersfield stunned Wigan at the DW. The pair are now joint top and the Yorkshiremen are confident of toppling the Challenge Cup holders again at the Galpharm this weekend.

There was one unfamiliar face in the away dressing room that day. Karl Morris is a leading sports psychologist known largely because of his work with golf professionals. He's worked with Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood to extinguish the mental fires that can burn the most talented of performers. He is now massaging the mental muscles of the Giants.

Keith Mason

Huddersfield Giant's Keith Mason believes his side have a chance of winning some silverware this year. Photo: Getty

This, the club believe, can turn an already strong side into champions.

I met forwards Keith Mason and David Fa'alogo this week. Mason has been at Huddersfield for six years, playing in Challenge Cup finals and play-offs but never winning anything. He says something has changed this year.

"The belief and camaraderie is better. We've been close the last two seasons but this feels different and we can win comfortably against good teams now."

I ask Mason what exactly is different, and why? "We have had psychologists come in and given everyone a 'trademark' to work towards. We all have our individual score we have to hit each week. We feel we have the physical side sorted so are now working on the mental side, the stuff you don't see. "

You'd not argue with the physical stuff. Built around brilliant half-back Danny Brough, their go-forward has been scintillating. The Giants also boast the meanest defence in the league, conceding on average 15 points per game. But it was the continued reference to "belief" from both players that struck me.

I ask Mason how they can beat Wigan again: "Belief. We must believe in our systems and stick to them." I ask Fa'alogo how they turn a formidable side into a championship-winning one: "Belief. Believe we can be champions, believe in our game-plans, believe and achieve."

The psychological stuff intrigues me but the players aren't keen to divulge specifics so I do a bit more digging. Morris visits the club every couple of months to see the players. This is optional, but I'm told more than half of the senior players sit down with him.

The process focuses on confidence. Morris asks the players about their own game and teaches them how to analyse their own performances. This sounds simple but how often do you hear a sportsman come off the field after a defeat and promise: "We'll forget about that straight away and go again tomorrow?" The key focus here is on making every performance stick in the memory.

One player tells me the sessions with Morris serve as a "positive reinforcement of where we are". He is basically teaching the players how to analyse their own games - good and bad - so they don't just bury it after the hooter - as tempting as that is when you lose.

Prop Eorl Crabtree, who has been at the club since his debut in 2001, later tells me that he has seen a huge difference. "If we lack confidence we can quickly find out why by looking back over our past notes with the psychologist and compare it to our team trademarks. It's something I'd never heard of before."

So what are these "trademarks"? Here, another man, Gerard Murphy, plays a part. Murphy labels himself a "leadership coach" and has worked with both the England rugby union and league teams. The process of "trademarks" sets the players individual goals, and overall team goals, calculated statistically based on performance analysis by one of the Giants' coaches.

Murphy's website asks the question that many rugby league fans have asked of Huddersfield's perceived under-achievers of recent Super League seasons: "Why do teams with extraordinary ambition and talent fail? Because they can't move beyond the 'individual'. Because they haven't harnessed the power of a collective goal."

What Huddersfield, and indeed other clubs, have begun to employ, is such a system to work individually to a team goal. The "trademarks" for the team cover three areas of performance. Each player is rated individually per performance out of five in each area, and the team totals are totted up for the post-match analysis session.

If they have met the targets set, then more often than not the Giants will have won the game. It is simple, it is statistical and, combined with the psychology, I find it fascinating.

And, if the Giants' fine start is anything to go by, it seems to work.


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting article George. I for one hope Huddersfield can pick up a trophy this season and prove the big four (Saints, Wigan, Leeds...Bradford on history, not current plight) is now a big seven (Giants with Warrington and Catalan). This would go some way to proving Super League is building real strength in depth.

    I do wonder what 'maverick' or 'off the cuff' players like Benji Marshall, Sean Long would think of this target setting business?

    The Huddersfield story, like Warrington also proves that it takes time and patience to build a competitive side; in any sport there are no quick fixes.

    Final point, Luke Robinson surely has to be called up to the England squad - and like Robbie Burrow - he is proof you don't have to be 6' 7" and 17st to play League at a high level. All this stuff about League's "identi-kit" players I heard on Radio 5 one morning is a load of codswallop.


  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting Blog George. Michael Farrell has been doing the same thing at Wigan since 2006 but gained alot of coverage in the Maguire era. Maguire crediting him with a big part of Wigans GF and Challenge Cup Success......

    Interesting to see Mason refer to beating big teams comfortably now!! Reality check in order methinks.

    This ties in with Wanes comments this week though that Hudds beat Wigan mentally rather than physically in the earlier game at the DW and I like the fact that Wane says that it can't happen EVER again.

    Hudds may have a mean defence but only a few points better than Wigan, who can boast a much more expansive attack this season. Can see a close game but hope Charnley has his kicking boots with him on friday.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good article George.
    Perhaps they should also consider some form of mass hypnosis of the local population to see if they can get some more fans to buy into it, the crowd figure for Sundays game was embarrassing and is the only valid reason that the semifinal with Warrington is being played at Salford!
    Looking forward to a good game on Friday.

  • Comment number 4.

    All very good, but they still haven't won anything yet. Wigan and Wire are still better sides imo with or without mind coaches.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good article George.

    I think the psychological side of sport has remained taboo for too long myself. Assuming physical ability and skill in the sport of choice, success can hinge so much on a person's state of mind in preparation for the contest, during the contest and in recovery and reflection afterwards. I would agree with the aim of encouraging the players to analyse their performance but only if that analysis is balanced and worked through appropriately. Some individuals are prone to putting themselves down or, alternatively, deluding themselves about their own abilities or performance and so self-analysis needs careful application.

    All good though. I just wonder if Brown will bring his sports psych team with him when he comes to Saints? Hope so! For the fans, never mind the players. Five GF losses on the bounce ruins the psyche!


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