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Developing the mental skills of NRL referees is a no-brainer

Emotional intelligence is the order of the day, it seems, for trainee referees. Colin Whelan/AAP Image

Developing the mental skills of NRL referees is a no-brainer

It was encouraging to read recently that promising young rugby league referees are being offered the opportunity and time to invest in the development of their mental skills prior to taking on the pressure of high-profile NRL games.

An athlete’s mindset has certainly been found to play an important role in influencing their athletic performance, taking its place among other important factors such as well-developed skills, measured tactics and physical preparedness.

Psychology is just as important as any of these factors. Referees, just as athletes, are frequently faced with situations that have the potential to impact negatively upon performance. They need to not only have confidence in their ability to manage their anxiety and stress and to perform well under pressure, but also to refocus effectively after they have made an error.

It’s common for sport and exercise psychologists to work with referees/umpires, just as they work with athletes, coaches and other officials, in order to assist them to overcome any cognitive, emotional, behavioural or practical obstacles to peak performance.

Those obstacles may relate to areas such as self-confidence, anxiety, concentration, and emotional control, among others.

The psychologist works with the individual to assist him or her to develop a strong awareness and understanding of such issues, as well as to develop appropriate psychological skills or strategies to implement with the aim of enhancing the individual’s overall performance levels.

A mental edge

The development of mental skills continues to be increasingly recognised as necessary for developing a winning edge and maximising sporting potential. You will often hear coaches and athletes in interviews talking about things such as their mental preparation and the importance of being focused.

Referee Tony De Las Haras during the round 19 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles on July 14. Robb Cox/AAP image

In sport and exercise psychology, we commonly discuss the key factors associated with peak performance, two of which are related to having the correct mental focus:

  1. being “absorbed in the present” and having no thoughts about past or future
  2. being mentally relaxed and having a high degree of concentration and emotional control.

It’s often said that if you don’t know what to focus on, chances are you will end up focusing on something else. You may have heard phrases such as “having selective attention” or “a high level of attentional focus”.

These refer to the ability of athletes to identify and direct their full attention to task-relevant stimuli throughout their performances, and to “gate out” irrelevant external and internal stimuli.

External stimuli are things outside of the individual’s control, such as the reaction of the crowd (e.g. booing, jeering) and the conduct of other competitors. Internal stimuli are things such as distracting body sensations, strong emotions and negative thoughts.

Almost every external event will trigger some type of mental or emotional shift in the athlete, and a corresponding change in the response of the body (e.g. increased muscle tension). Such changes can impact negatively upon technique or the individual’s ability to focus, which can ultimately influence performance.

It is for this reason that elite athletes spend a lot of time developing the mental skills specific to their sport. Many times such individuals proactively seek out professional assistance before they have experienced any of the aforementioned difficulties.

I believe this increasing trend is an acknowledgement of the value placed upon having sound psychological strategies in today’s fast-paced society, where it seems more and more demands are being made on a person’s emotional resources.

Emotional intelligence

It has been reported that emotional intelligence, which I consider to be an essential skill for all individuals to possess, is one of the key areas being developed with the up-and-coming officials referred to in the recent news.

Emotional intelligence relates to an individual’s ability to identify emotional states in both themselves and others, to change emotions and to use emotions to enhance performance.

This type of intelligence has been studied for many years by psychologists, resulting in an impressive body of research that suggests a person’s ability to perceive, identify and manage emotion provides the basis for the kinds of social and emotional competencies that are essential to many areas of life, not just in sport.

It is a construct that is trainable, that can be enhanced or developed over time, and has been found to be associated with adaptive psychological functioning.

Research has shown variations in emotions can impact upon sport performance; and that an emotional profile characterised by higher vigour, calmness and happiness, coupled with lower levels of anger, confusion, depression, fatigue and tension is associated with optimal performance.

In short, individuals who are better able to regulate their emotions will be better able to implement strategies to put themselves in the right mindset to improve their performance. Therefore, the emphasis upon the development of this construct is a good place to start.

Many psychological strategies taught to athletes to assist them in preparation of high-performance situations, such as the development of an optimal pre-performance mood and level of arousal, see athletes becoming more aware of their emotional state.

With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that research has shown athletes reporting frequent use of those psychological strategies also appear to show high levels of emotional intelligence.

We should applaud the fact young rugby league referees will be offered the chance to invest in the development of their mental skills ahead of a high-pressure life in the NRL.

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