France v USA - Rugby World Cup 2019: Pool C

Kirsten Peterson: The woman behind the USA's mindful approach to RWC 2019

Sport psychologist Kirsten Peterson spent time with the USA as they prepared for the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup in July.

Hopes of a famous USA victory might have been dashed by three late French tries last Wednesday but the resolve shown in Fukuoka will have cheered an interested spectator some 8,000km away.

Despite falling 12-3 behind early on, Gary Gold’s side recovered well and when AJ MacGinty struck a 64th-minute penalty through the uprights, Les Bleus’ lead was down to just three points.

It was the kind of resilience that both Gold and captain Blaine Scully had hoped to foster when they welcomed sport psychologist Kirsten Peterson into camp in July.

Peterson, who watched the France game from her home near Canberra in Australia, spent three weeks with the squad as the Eagles prepared for the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup.

Before she had even touched down in Colorado the American, who has worked with both the US Olympic Committee and Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), held several meetings with Gold and Scully in order to understand what the squad required.

“I think [that] was a testament to their willingness to really understand what was on offer, and then decide how it might work,” Peterson, a veteran of seven Olympic Games, said.

“What I was hearing from Gary was it was a young team, he wanted them to have some more tools in the toolbox around effective decision making. 

“Blaine Scully agreed, noting that while there were some experienced players, there were also a fair number of younger players they’re trying to bring along to give them the confidence to operate, say, if he was off the field. 

“And then Blaine, particularly, wanted some help in crafting some transition strategies around, ‘if we score or get scored on, how do we come together to reset and recalibrate?’”

Mindful approach to performance

As a result of these discussions Peterson pitched some ideas, one of which was using mindfulness as a tool for performance.

“As much as [mindfulness] is a spiritual practice for some, it’s also been proven to enhance concentration, clarity of thinking and this idea of equanimity or lessened reactivity in response to what is going on around you. 

“All of which I think are very useful with regard to decision making, so I did sell that as a possibility and it ended up becoming one of our major learning objectives. 

“Mindfulness, as they say, is simple but not easy – but the goal over time is to help these athletes to develop a smarter and more considered relationship with their thinking and their emotions that will pay off on the field.”

Peterson, who also travelled with the squad to Fiji prior to their Pacific Nations Cup meeting with Japan, tailored what she offered individual players based on the requirements of their position.

Having never worked with a rugby team before, and with little time to learn the sport, she felt she would have her work to cut out to get in and make an impact.

“They were wonderful. I was really bowled over by the reception I got,” Peterson said. 

“The guys were curious, they asked lots of questions and they were very open in sharing with me what was going on. 

“I also think the team’s culture, that championed learning and growth, really helped. What I kept hearing from the guys was like, ‘Woah, compared to some of the clubs that I’ve played on, I really enjoy playing on this team’. 

“In short, Gary created the culture that allowed me to come in, feel welcome and get to work.”

Scully for president

Peterson was also complimentary about captain Scully’s leadership skills, going so far as to light-heartedly predict that he would make a fitting future president of the USA.

“We just clicked and I felt like we were able to work very productively together.

“From what I could see, [Scully’s leadership style] was way more about bringing people up as opposed to just telling them what to do. Which I think is an awesome way to lead because you want your team-mates to be empowered to figure things out for themselves not because they’re getting told to do it.”

According to Peterson, while absent at USA Rugby, a more arcane approach to sport psychology does still exist.

She is keen to stress that the mental side of the game will never supersede physical preparation, but she does feel that the former is often relegated “to second-class status”.

“I get it, if the sport only has so much money they’re going to take the team doc, they’re going to take the physio because they have to keep players alive and moving,” Peterson explained. 

“But I think it is as important for athletes – coaches too – to develop the mental skills to thrive in extraordinary circumstances if we want to see sustained success. 

“What I mean by that is I think you can, and I’ve seen it, you can whip athletes into a frenzy, you can beat them down and get them to perform for short periods of time. 

“But to sustain excellence requires intentional mental-skill building and buy-in from everyone, including coaches and staff.”

Life as a woman in sport

Despite an increased openness and acceptance of mental health in recent years, Peterson tells the story of one coach she encountered at a workshop who asked her: “Can’t you just tell me where to put the crazy people so I can get on with doing my job?”

Such attitudes, coupled with the toxic masculinity of certain “testosterone-laced environments”, have ensured that Peterson has at times faced challenges working in high-performance sport.

Fortunately, both were absent from the USA Rugby facility in Colorado, and ultimately Peterson believes being a woman working in a male-dominated setting also comes with advantages.

“On the whole has my gender crippled my career? No. Has it given me advantages? Yes. 

“I think male athletes in particular can find a female a little bit easier to talk with.

“Not that men can’t be effective sport psychs, there are some great ones, but what we see in the counselling literature is that female counsellors on average tend to be perceived as less threatening and easier to talk to. 

“So I’ll take that every day of the week.”

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