Rugby union is a dynamic collision team sport requiring the coordination of various team positions and roles, where players are frequently required to move seamlessly between offensive and defensive situations. The structural and strategic aspects of playing rugby place extensive demands on a rugby team’s resilience . Team resilience is defined as a “dynamic, psychosocial process, which protects a group of individuals from the potential negative effect of the stressors they collectively encounter. It comprises of processes whereby team members use their individual and collective resources to positively adapt when experiencing adversity” . This can be further divided into “robust resilience” and “rebound resilience” . Robust resilience consists of a protective quality demonstrated by a team maintaining their well-being and performance when under pressure. Whilst rebound resilience consists of a bounce back quality demonstrated when teams experience minor/temporary disruptions to their performance under pressure, quickly returning to normal performance. It is common for elite rugby teams to experience adversity: hostile home fans at away games, injuries to key players or it being necessary to score points in the last remaining moments of a match to win a final or avoid relegation. Consequently, it is essential for their sustained success that they are able to overcome challenges and maintain performance. Teams that thrive, rebound or positively adapt to adversity have a considerably lower likelihood of experiencing the detrimental effects of challenging situations . One of the most detrimental effects is choking under pressure [5.], which consists of the athletes failing “to perform to whatever level of skill and ability the person has at the time” . Individuals and teams that are able to withstand stressors have a greatly improved chance of experiencing higher levels of sustained success . For example, regularly performing well in their respective professional league to secure their rugby club’s future funding and revenue. Due to the professional nature of these athletes and coaching staffs’ jobs they rely solely on their income from this sport for their livelihood.
Collective qualities essential to team resilience
Collective qualities protect teams from the negative consequences associated with experiencing adversity and stressors, involving a number of psychosocial factors [3, 8] –
Defined roles and responsibilities: It is essential that all individuals within the team clearly understand exactly what is required and expected of them and their other teammates. All team members should also assume personal accountability and responsibility for the team’s outcomes.
Group goal commitment and alignment: It is important that all team members are strongly committed to the collective goals of the team and they prioritise the collective needs of the team over their own individual needs. Individuals’ aspirations should also be aligned with the team’s aspirations, so that they are mutually supportive and result in shared pride when goals are achieved.
Nurtured supportive and caring relationships: Individuals should feel valued and experience a sense of belonging within the team, which can be achieved via everyday sociability. For example coaches could encourage team opportunities to socialise outside of working hours, such as going out for team meals. Individuals’ opinions should be listened to and support/advice should be readily available. This could be aided through senior coaching staff having an ‘open door policy’ encouraging players to come and talk to the coaches in their offices about any issues they might have, e.g. to do with injuries or selection, whenever they feel they need to.
Further key underlying psychosocial processes have been identified in the 2003 world cup winning England rugby team  –
Leadership: Transformational leadership consists of building relationships between leaders and the other team members based on personal, emotional, and inspirational exchanges, aiming to envisage an environment in which team members can achieve their optimal potential. This helped the England team to be resistant against the collectively experienced setbacks via collective vision development and inspiring the players. This process also helps aid the construction of a facilitative collective climate . This necessitates that leader’s frequently reinforce the team’s strategic priorities. This process positively influences team members’ collective interpretations of adverse events, for example, Clive Woodward reminded the England team their aim was to become the best team in the world, not just in Europe after losing a Six Nations Championship . Similarly transformational leadership was important for the 2011 Rugby World Cup winning team New Zealand who after two negative incidents in the previous 2004 and 2007 World cups utilised several transformational leadership approaches i.e. the development of a leadership group and the transference of responsibility to the players . Another related process is shared team leadership where leadership responsibilities are distributed throughout the team . This helps team members positively adjust their efforts to fulfil team tasks in challenging situations and improves coordination when stressors are encountered through promoting implementation of roles and responsibilities for team members’ performance .
Opportunities for learning: Team learning processes underpin a team’s resilience i.e. the ability to file away knowledge following setbacks and apply this learning to future challenges. Team mental models are shared knowledge structures relevant to the team’s task environment . These influence the team’s resilience via utilising collective sense making during adverse situations , allowing team members to anticipate each other’s actions and to coordinate their behaviours under taxing circumstances . It is important for team members to organise their knowledge about how to act during challenging situations by identifying specific information from significant defeats, such as losing in the final of a competition, as improvement areas for their future preparations. So, positively using knowledge gained in adversity to improve performance in a specific area of the game in the future. For example if the team performed poorly in their line outs, they could designate more time in training to practising the skills related to this and consider inventing new line out calls and movement patterns, having understood what went wrong under pressure. Collective, positive evaluations of setbacks by all team members, accompanied by a desire to move forward to achieve team goals, breeds success. In the short term, for the above example, by improving their line out success percentage and in the long term by winning the Aviva Premiership , or another league/significant competition.
The influence of facilitative environmental factors
A facilitative environment consists of a balance between the challenge and support presented to individuals . Challenge involves having high expectations of the players, helping to instil accountability and responsibility. Support refers to the process of enabling teams to develop their collective qualities and helping to promote learning and the building of trust between teammates. Alongside this it is important to provide developmental feedback through the use of constructive criticism about specific techniques, or decision making processes, to enable the players to improve and develop their performance, which in turn will help improve their resilience individually and collectively. E.g. The scrum half and forwards may need to communicate better and be more focal in ensuring the forwards know whether to run lines up the open or blind side depending on the width of the opposition’s defensive alignment and where there is space and/or numerical advantages. Furthermore the players should be provided with motivational feedback by encouraging and informing them about what has been and is effective e.g. if the front row set at a low height with a good body angle in the last scrum. If athletes within a team environment are exposed to an environment where too much challenge is imposed and not enough support is provided this can create an unrelenting environment that is detrimental to the athletes’ well-being, potentially negatively impacting their mental health. Conversely, if athletes are exposed to an environment where too much support is provided and not enough challenge is present, this creates a comfortable environment that will not enhance their resilience or performance. If levels of challenge and support experienced are both low this creates a stagnant environment that offers no benefit to the overall team’s performance . Athletes need to be exposed to optimally high levels of both challenge and support to successfully create the optimal facilitative environment necessary to maximise the enhancement of the overall teams’ levels of resilience and subsequent performance.
Pressure inurement training (PIT): is an effective method for varying challenge and support experienced by the players through environmental manipulation to produce a stress-related response whilst aiming to retain functioning and performance under pressure , helping athletes manage stress in sport [16, 17, 18]. PIT involves progressively increasing the demands placed on the players via levels of challenge experienced and manipulating their environment by increasing the demand of the presented stressors by varying the type of pressure e.g. competitiveness, property, novelty, dimension or frequency. Also by increasing the significance of the players’ appraisals of the situation, via their perceived importance/beliefs about a situation and/or the consequences attached to it e.g. being selected, or not, for the team. The environment should be manipulated to increase the support provided where necessary to improve learning and also enhance the team’s collective qualities. It is pivotal coaches closely monitor how players respond to these manipulations psychologically e.g. their well-being and their performance. If the induced pressure exceeds the players available coping resources this leads to debilitative responses and negative outcomes, consequently the provision of motivational feedback should be increased and levels of presented challenge temporarily reduced. Conversely, if individuals exhibit more facilitative responses and positive outcomes, indicating they have successfully adapted to the current levels of pressure then increased developmental feedback and challenge should be imposed.
The importance of a challenge climate
In any situation individuals appraise how relevant and significant what is happening is to their own goals and correspondingly, the implications of what is personally at stake for them. For example, they may think about to what extent this situation affects them and how much do they care about the outcome of it. This is a continuous process called primary appraisal. Individuals can react negatively when evaluating a situation by evaluating the encounter as potentially harmful/threatening, or potentially leading to some form of loss. Alternatively they can react positively by evaluating the encounter as a challenge to be overcome. Next individuals evaluate their team’s perceived availability to cope with the harm, threat or challenge of the present situation. For example they might think about what they and their team mates can do about this situation and whether or not it will it be enough to effect the outcome in the desired way in accordance with the team’s goals. This is a continuous process called secondary appraisal .
A challenge climate occurs when members within a team positively evaluate and interpret pressure they encounter together with their own and each other’s resources . This is primarily predicted via the combination of the collective qualities of the team and the immersion of the members in a facilitative environment. All of the team members need to buy into this concept to create a challenge climate within the team via the way the members envisage and approach difficult tasks collectively in the future. Specifically this entails a shared conceptualisation of how team members will react to stressors and adversity. There are a number of processes that can be utilised to develop a challenge climate [21, 22]. These include influencing how the team members perceive the team performs as a whole under pressure. This is greatly affected by the language coaches and team members use to describe pressure-related events, e.g. an important upcoming cup final, or the behaviours they display when under pressure. This refers to whether individuals talk about pressure situations as challenges to be overcome and consequent opportunities to perform, which would help facilitate the creation of a challenge climate or, if they describe them as potential opportunities for failure, instead resulting in the pressure evoking fear through the creation of a threating climate, leading to the players experiencing negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Within professional rugby teams it is not only the coaches that can positively influence this but also the support staff e.g. physios and leaders within the team such as captains, vice-captains and other senior players within the club. All of these individuals have a vital role in creating and role-modelling this desired climate and culture within the team environment. This can be effectively achieved via the utilisation of appropriate developmental and motivational feedback to the players. Moreover, it is important that a club has an authentic vision based on their heritage and desired legacy that inspires the players to establish a collective identity, embodying the behavioural and culture norms of positively responding to pressure. This can be reinforced by stories of team members withstanding and thriving under pressure and consequently achieving success. For instance, when the England rugby team had a player red carded in the first 5 minutes of an international match but still won the game, despite having one player missing .
Two types of team resilience have been covered-robust and rebound, plus how it can be fostered collectively. Also discussed is: how to develop collective team success qualities, the role of leadership and how to create climates fostering team resilience. Other contexts where team resilience is essential include the: fire service, armed forces and many business environments.