"Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen," Winston Churchill reportedly said. Rugby is physical, but unlike in football, there's little complaining to the referee. A sports psychologist explains why.
If you've been following the Rugby World Cup on television this year, you may have noticed that while rugby union is incredibly demanding physically and may look very aggressive to the untrained eye, there is very little complaining by the players, be it to match officials or about injuries.
Also apparent is that the referee is in almost constant dialogue with the players, explaining decisions and making clear who is in charge. Leading referee Nigel Owens recently told a Scottish player off for diving, and one of his most memorable lines involved telling a precocious player that "this is rugby, not soccer." Speaking to sports psychologist Phil Johnson, it is clear the difference between the two sports is greater than a quick quip from a referee.
DW: You've analyzed players' behavior in terms of discipline and towards match officials in soccer and rugby. Why are there such different attitudes?
Phil Johnson: Rugby [which comes from England - the ed.] has traditionally been played in English grammar schools, so there was a particular culture of the sport based in higher academic education.
In many ways, it is a more complex game than football - there are 15 players, there are scrummages, high levels of contact. Because of the increased contact in rugby, there have to be clear rules about how players are tackled and how they can hold them in order not to endanger them.
There is a serious risk of injury, so the referee needs to be clear about how he guides the game and how he controls it. Because there is such high physicality, there is a natural respect for one another, because the players put their bodies on the line. This isn't really prevalent in professional football.
Unlike in soccer, the referee communicates a lot more. How does that affect the game?
The referees in rugby union are much clearer about their decision-making. They explain things clearly to both sides. For me, this is a role model for team sports and it contrasts with professional football, where there is no commentary available to TV viewers [by the ref]. For me, as a spectator and for a greater understanding of the game, this has a much greater sense of clarity.
Given that a referee is unlikely to change his mind, why do so many football players almost automatically complain? Can they gain anything by doing that in soccer?
In my research, I found that in the moments just before the referee makes his decision, he can be influenced, and when you watch Premier League [English] football, you'll see that players will take advantage of that opportunity. In football, there is more play-acting and creativity in the way players behave towards referees and seek to gain an advantage.
Do you think it has got worse?
Yes. Given the media coverage it has these days. I've likened it to gladiatorial combat…there is a certain amount of playing to the crowd, and that crowd is influential in helping that team's momentum.
Speaking to the referee to influence their decision also comes out of a sense of fairness, but I think it's developed into manipulation.
When players engage in undisciplined behavior, what happens to them psychologically?
Personal disappointment, embarrassment or humiliation - when these events are significant, it becomes physiologically held in the sympathetic nervous system. That blocks the brain's left and right communications from processing the information and solving the problem.
This triggers hyperarousal, avoidance techniques, intrusive thoughts - which are negative - and a desire to suppress unwanted emotions. These are all key characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder.
And how does that affect their game?
When players become highly emotive, they lose concentration and focus. They're no longer in the moment…they lose control, physically of the ball and they lose direction and shape in their play.
How do you, as a psychologist, tackle the problem?
I have to work with each individual player. I use a particular intervention which is using eye-positioning to access a part of the brain where a certain memory is held and is able to be observed under a live MRI scan.
I can then find the eye positions relating to the particular memory. I can then desensitize and release the trauma for the physical part of the body - the sympathetic nervous system - and release it into the parasympathetic nervous system.
As that happens, it's like a drawbridge comes down in the brain's connectivity and the left and right hemispheres reconnect that particular memory and create new neural pathways within the reprocessing.
More traditionally, psychologists look at high levels of arousal and how they can manage it through breathing and by talking through their feelings about an event.
Phil Johnson is a Football Association (FA) accredited clinical sports and exercise psychologist from Liverpool, UK. He has worked with English Premier League football and English premiership rugby teams. He currently works with the Monaco football team. He has played both football and rugby league.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.