James Haskell: Power of music puts me in mood for a battle
Once on tour, the pressure and nervous excitement will start to creep up on the Lions players, building to a crescendo before kick-off. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to look at how players prepare for games and deal with these emotions.
What is certain is that things have changed from when I first started playing some 10 years ago. When you sit on the back seat and look down the bus now, it’s a sea of headphones and iPads. Ten years ago there was perhaps one or two guys listening to music on the Wasps bus but most people just sat in silence.
I struggled in the early days with my match preparation to get any sort of consistency. Some days I would be buzzing and ready to play. Other days I would feel tired, nervous and anxious.
Talking to some of the more senior members of the rugby fraternity, preparing for a game consisted of reading the programme, going to the loo and jogging on the spot. Go back further and there was talk of having a swig of some sort of alcohol.
You are always keen to play, but sometimes mentally you can be off for no apparent reason. On the mornings of games I would sometimes eat a lot and feel sluggish. Other times I would eat a little and still feel under-prepared.
I tried all sorts of things; being really anal about my schedule; making sure I ate all the same food, went to bed early, having done some analysis of the opposition. Getting up for breakfast, or sleeping-in and eating only once. I say I tried these things, actually I copied what the senior players were doing.
Eion Reddan would always get changed and then read a fairly cerebral book until the warm-up. He would look totally calm and unfazed.
Another player, also Irish thought, ‘I’ll have some of that’. I watched him walk into the changing room, get changed, then reach into his bag where he pulled out a book: An idiot’s guide to Ireland!
It was only when I started seeing a sports psychologist, an awesome woman called Dr Jill Owen, that I really got to grips with how I controlled my nervousness and match preparation. She introduced me to the power of music and selected tracks that give you an emotional state shift.
We have all been in the car, when a tune comes on and no matter how sluggish or annoyed you are, you immediately start to feel positive and upbeat. So a tailored playlist of all the tracks that created this uplift in mood was something I immediately added to my pre-match repertoire.
I also determined to get consistency in everything I did - trying to go to bed around the same time - waking up and eating at the same time. This wasn’t set in stone, but it was a good starting point.
The problem is that things like mealtimes and sleep patterns are often out of your control. For example in Paris, if we had a 7pm kick-off you would think it would be a latish rise. Not at Stade Francais! We would be woken up at 7am for a muscular wake-up, which involved jogging round the pitch and doing various drills. Then we would have to spend the entire rest of the day altogether as a team.
This was mainly because the French and the Argentines wouldn’t eat properly! I didn’t believe it until we once stopped at a service station on the way to a match and I watched French players, picking-out what they thought was a suitable snack. The team doctor would follow them round, saying “non” or “oui”, mainly “non” as chocolate bars, cakes, fizzy drinks, slabs of cheese were shown to him!
Some players do quite weird things to get themselves in the right frame of mind. One player lay on the floor by his shower, on full blast, with his head on a pillow, listening to music for an hour or so. Jerry Collins would go and have a beer with his opposition player the evening before a match.
Another element I worked on was focusing on a few key points that I would write the day before a game. Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you try to think of everything you need to remember.
Set yourself mini-targets such as the number of turnovers, hard yards, tackles you were going to make. Listening to music wasn’t commonplace when I broke into the Wasps first team, so I took quite a bit of stick for having big earphones and always being buried in my note book.
I was told on a number of occasions to stop doing it! I put my notes on my iPod and bought smaller and smaller earphones. I still use this method today.