One of Jeremy Snape’s abiding memories of Eddie Jones is seeing the England head coach pacing around at the back of a meeting room, spinning a cricket ball in his hand as he collected his thoughts before delivering a rapier comment.
“He can switch through to that level of intensity that keeps you on top of your game,” recalls the former England cricketer who worked as the team’s psychologist under Jones during the first 18 months of his tenure, which included the record-equalling run of 18 successive Test victories.
“He displays that classic T-shape of leadership. He can skim across all the different departments and cover off the insight from the medical team, the psychological elements, the technical or the tactical parts of the game, or the commercial side.
“But then, in a flash, he can drill down through those pillars of specific information into the microscopic detail in one area like a real specialist.”
Snape is in no doubt that it will be Jones’ ability to influence the psychological element of the squad’s preparations that will be key to his side’s defence of the Guinness Six Nations Championship, given the mental challenge that players face now their biosecure bubble is even more restrictive than it was in the autumn.
The restrictions are such that Joe Marler has already turned down the opportunity to play in the championship to remain with his family rather than enter the bubble environment for two months. Matteo Minozzi, the Wasps full-back, has also withdrawn from the Italy squad for similar reasons.
And while the players based in the Lensbury hotel in south west London this week recognise their privileged status to be able to play professional sport during the pandemic lockdown, what seems certain is that the battle for the Six Nations title will be as much a mental one as it will be physical or tactical.
It will be the team that copes with these extraordinary challenges – maintaining morale and keeping players motivated and focused despite the social restrictions, absence of family and the impact of no crowds at games, that will have the best chance of success.
Snape, who now runs a high-performance business and sports psychology consultancy called Sporting Edge and recently interviewed Jones for his ‘Inside the Mind of Champions’ podcast, believes the bubble will create extra psychological pressure on players, coaches and administrators.
“The normal weekly rhythm of training, preparation and meetings builds up to a crescendo for the Test and usually falls away as the players reconnect with families and get some downtime outside the team environment,” Snape said.
“This year’s tournament will have a different intensity due to the protocols and travel restrictions of bubble life and not being able to see their families. As we’ve seen with England cricket returning early from their South Africa tour, organisers need to consider the mental health of players as much as their performance if we are going to sustain high intensity input and high-quality output.”
Jones is acutely aware of the importance of psychology – he has asked for Dr Andrea Furst, the team’s current sports psychologist to remain in camp full-time to allow players to discuss any mental health issues during the next two months.
But the key to a successful strategy will be for other members of the support staff to also keep a watchful eye for signs that players may be struggling in the environment.
“I was fortunate to work with the team during Eddie’s first 18 months and he has an amazing ability to balance high challenge and high support with the players,” Snape added. “He knows when to turn up the intensity and when to crack a joke to break the tension. As with any boss the players are likely to show off their best side to him so Eddie will rely on his support team to stay close to the players and make sure they have everything they need to stay at their best.
“Often in elite sport, it’s the physios and massage therapists that are the first point of contact – it’s hard for players to knock on a door and initiate a conversation on their mental challenges but when they are prostrate, opening up about their physical aches and pains, the care and intimacy of the physio room can be a safe place to talk.
“As you get closer to players, you pick up on their regular tempo and energy level in camp and you also start to notice extremes beyond this.
“Some people withdraw and become insular yet others cover their low mood by constant chatter and nervous energy. Either way, we need to tune into people’s behaviours to get an early sense of how they might be thinking.
“One of the downsides of Joe Marler dropping out from the squad is the role he plays in lightening the mood. Both he and James Haskell could raise a smile in even the most brutal of gym sessions with a well-timed one-liner. It’s the highs and lows that galvanise teams and England will need characters to stand up both on and off the field to navigate this year’s campaign.”