England Wales last Saturday night was a true exhibition of what Test rugby can be all about. Coaches and teams will rarely say that one single moment of a game decides a match and that it is rather the cumulative that decides it. But in some incidents they can, and in hindsight, on Saturday the decision in the dying minutes made by the English captain Chris Robshaw certainly seemed to.
England had looked to be in control for the majority of the game, but heroically the battered and bruised Welsh, bereft with injuries, toughed it out and fought tooth and nail. The World Cup Hosts England went into the final 10 minutes with a 7 point lead. The English throughout the game had let their discipline slide and man of the match Dan Biggar duly and accurately chipped away at England’s lead. A moment of magic and brilliance by Lloyd Williams saw Davies run in for a try to bring Wales level at 25-25. Another penalty at the 75th minute against England and Dan Biggar slotted a monstrous kick from the half-way, giving the visitors the 28-25 lead.
With minutes to go, a penalty was awarded to the hosts. Strangely, Chris Robshaw, rather than kick for 3 points to secure a draw, opted to go for the corner in the hope of scoring a try and the coveted win.
The gamble didn’t pay off and now they are in a worrying position for qualifying.
Take a step back
We all know what exhaustion does to our brains and bodies. Have you ever had the feeling that your brain is wading through muck trying to come up with the answer to a simple problem? After a particularly hard day have you found it hard to even decide what to have for dinner? Our brains are incredibly sophisticated and complex systems but like any process, things can go wrong when they are overloaded. When mental fatigue sets in we are more likely to make mistakes and to take chances that we might not otherwise take. When you have been overtaxed mentally, such as completing a particularly difficult task at work, your ability to process information and the consistency with which you make risky decisions changes for the worse .
Physical Vs Mental fatigue
But what happens when your job involves both mental and physical tasks? For most of us physical fatigue is not something we experience during the day. Athletes, on the other hand, have to contend with both mental and physical demands on them in the course of their work. Mistakes at the end of a big game are often blamed on fatigue and resulting poor decisions. But is this the case? Does physical fatigue have any effect on athletes’ mental abilities or decision making?
A surprising answer to the question of fatigue’s effect on decision making
There are some surprising answers to this question. A number of researchers have tried to find out by taking teams of athletes, making them fatigued and seeing what happens to their decision making abilities and to their performance. One group looked at water polo players. They made them progressively more fatigued to simulate what would happen in a game and then tested their decision making abilities, their technical performance and their accuracy in taking shots. By the end of the fatiguing task the players’ technical performance had got worse but their accuracy was unchanged. Very surprisingly their decision making abilities had actually improved ! Another study tested this in experienced and inexperienced soccer players. They found that the accuracy of decisions didn’t change when players were fatigued but the speed with which they made those decisions did increase . Another group found exactly the same improvement in decision making abilities in basketball players . These results seem to go against common sense. How can fatigue improve decision making abilities?
Some researchers reason that these highly skilled and highly trained athletes are actually bringing more resources to the table in situations of fatigue. As the exercise intensity increases they up their attention and self-monitoring skills in order to have the resources to meet the challenge . They theorise that it is only when an athlete’s body can no longer cope with the demands being put on them that their decision making abilities decline . One group of researchers found that when athletes were fatigued to their maximal capacity the speed with which they made decisions increased but the accuracy of those decisions decreased . But this was only on a task that was not sports-relevant and that was new to them. It seems that when a situation is familiar to an athlete, such as plays that have been practiced multiple times at training, and sports-relevant their decision making abilities improve with fatigue. When a situation is novel and not sports-relevant their decision making abilities get worse.
All of this seems to mean that highly trained athletes who have practiced game situations in training multiple times can overcome fatigue and maintain their ability to make accurate and speedy decisions even at the end of the game.
Stress – the possible cause
But if it’s not fatigue then what does cause those critical mistakes we often see? One possible cause is stress. Psychological stress is known to affect the ability to make good decisions . One group of researchers looked at what happened to basketball players in critical and stressful situations during a game. They found that the more critical it was to maintain possession of the ball the worse the quality of decision making became . In other words when more was riding on the outcome and when the players were consequently more stressed the worse they became at making good decisions.
In those dying minutes of the match on Saturday there was a lot riding on that decision to be made by Chris Robshaw. Both England and Wales were so close to victory and those last few minutes were critical. The English team had the added motivation and pressure from being hosts for the competition and desperately wanting to win. There are many, many factors that contributed to what the outcome was but perhaps in that game, as in others, the mental stress of the game affected Chris Robshaw’s decision even more than the physical fatigue he obviously experienced.
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