It’s a mental game

It’s a mental game

There’s an old saying that sport is 10% physical and 90% mental. 

You’ll be forgiven for doubting the accuracy of this quote, especially considering the physical demands on elite level rugby players.

The Blues take the saying seriously and in 2015 introduced a new coach to the squad. Her name is Kylie Wilson and she’s the Blues’ Mental Skills Coach, helping players learn the tools to work well on the field. 

Kylie’s a dual edge sword, bringing a PhD in Sports Psychology and eight years of national rugby representation to her role at the Blues. It all started with representative netball in Whanganui, a sport that directed her into rugby.

“I got frustrated that I couldn’t smash into people, I was always pulled up for contact,” she laughed.

Rugby was the obvious alternative. She moved down to Otago for university, having a brief foray into year one Law – “I hated it” – before finding her calling in the Sports Science and Psychology double major.

During those four years of study, Kylie played for University Club and started coaching in her third year, a role that complimented her studies.

“As a psychologist and a coach, you’re party to privileged information and if you don’t handle that well you can ruin trusted relationships,” she said. “That was my biggest learning while coaching, how to create boundaries to build trust and respect.”

At the age of 22, with two years of coaching experience, a double degree in hand and a budding rugby career, Kylie moved north to Wales. Thanks to her father’s Welsh heritage, Kylie was able to play for the national side, earning 53 test caps over eight years.

She took up her PhD studies; working with the British Gymnastics team while researching to understand different motivational profiles amongst coaches and athletes, then examining the consequences of conflicting profiles.

A motivational profile is psychology speak for what drives an athlete or coach to perform. It could be winning, mastery of skill, or the simple pleasure of doing the sport. If the environment the coach is trying to create conflicts with the motivational profile of an athlete, you can see how problems can arise.

“Gymnastics is all about inches, millimetres and percentages, it’s a sport of minute changes making perfection. So it’s very intense.”

“The first day, I walked into the national training centre and there was a junior class at training – between 7 and 11 – with tears streaming down their face, as their coaches pushed down on their legs to force a split,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I could work in that environment when I saw that.”

She gradually became accustomed to this new sport and completed her doctoral thesis over six years, while working with the gymnasts. After defending her thesis, Kylie began lecturing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Sport and Exercise Psychology and Research Methods.

Then in 2010, she returned to New Zealand to take up a role with High Performance Sport New Zealand, working with NZ Netball and NZ Hockey. She worked with the Silver Ferns and their famed head coach Waimarama Taumaunu, before concentrating more on supporting the NZ Sailing Team prepare for Rio Olympics.

Her skill in the role speaks volumes given the success of this year’s Olympic team, returning from Rio with gold, two silvers and bronze. But Kylie quickly recognises the sailors’ own mental fortitude.

“Sailors are exceptional to work with. They’re highly engaged and normally come to me to tell me what they need,” she said. “They’re full-time, competing mainly overseas and leading their own campaign.”

When Kylie was appointed Mental Skills Coach for the Blues in late 2015, she was coming in to an organisation in transition; new coaches, training facilities and players meant 2016 was all about getting to know the team and gauging where the starting point lies. 

“The players needed to understand what the Blues stand for, who we are, what are our values and how the players connect to it all – that was a big piece of work at the beginning,” she said. 

“Players need something they can own and so our focus was on building the alignment between organisational values and how the team operates.”

Of course, a lot of this understanding and awareness starts at the top with the leadership group and filters down.

“These values have been role modelled by some excellent examples – the ability for the leadership group to drive standards within the team has shifted really well.”