Getting Your Game Right Through Mindfulness: With former Eagle's Team Psychologist Dr. Steve Durant

Dr Stephen Durant (goes by the name Steve) is a licensed clinical psychologist (wait for it) who also happens to be a rugby player! Dr. (Doc) Steve’s father played rugby, he’s played rugby nearly his whole life, his brothers and his sons also played rugby.  Doc played rugby for over 41 years and also won a National Championship with the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and his son in 2007.

Stephen Durant, Ed.D.  Team Psychologist USA Eagles (2011-2015). 

Stephen Durant, Ed.D.  Team Psychologist USA Eagles (2011-2015). 

Doc’s rugby playing days did not end because he got too old (he had planned to play until he was 70 like his father had), but because he literally lost his left eye in a rugby game at the age of 59. This 62 year old Bostonian like most of us is a rugger! Like most ruggers Doc has to stay in the mix, so aside from his involvement with his own club, Doc served as the official team psychologist for the USA Eagles leading up to and during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

We should mention that in addition to his work with the Eagles, Doc has worked with members of the Boston Bruins (NHL) and the Boston Red Sox as a sports psychologist. Doc is the co-director of the Sports Psychology Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is a successful clinician who has worked with kids, combat veterans and is also a well respected author (Whose Game Is It Anyways?: A Guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage). He may be a Harvard graduate, but in the end like most of us he is rugger and loves rugby! Taking about it, living it!

We were able to chat at length with this old Irish Catholic Bostonian, and it was a blast. You think a clinical psychologist with a Harvard pedigree…throw all those notions out the window.  Like we said he’s a Boston Irish Catholic rugby player.  This story will focus around the work Dr. Steve did with the Eagles but also how we all can improve our game, our performance through some simple mental activities, including mindfulness. 

Doc's book (available on Amazon.com)

Doc's book (available on Amazon.com)

Doc shared that his eye injury (he really lost one of his eyes) really helped him professionally.  He says that it really forced him to be more introspective. He “didn’t have the answers” and had to now listen and learn from others.  He said he had to re-configure his approach and mind, some of that was listening to classical music to help with his brain function and going to morning mass with the “old ladies”. He said that working on introspection and working to just be present and move forward helped him in understanding the needs of those whom he worked with.

Out of that personal work came the formal practice of focus, meditation, introspection and mindfulness. Doc said “before my injury if you talked to me about mindfulness or meditation I’d told you that was all hippy junk”.  Doc had already worked with athletes in doing sports psychology type work, but post injury he really got more interested and started to look at Frank Gardner and Zella Moore’s work on Mindfulness-Acceptance Commitment (MAC) approach. Gardner and Moore’s MAC approach can be described as a combination of mindfulness exercises and acceptance techniques tailored to boost the sports performance (M. Plemmons). Instead of trying to control thoughts and emotions , MAC seeks to promote non-judgmental, present moments awareness and acceptance of thoughts and situation. 

The last part is really what mindfulness is. A brief way to explain mindfulness is to be present. You don’t try to control or eliminate thoughts or feelings, but rather to acknowledge that they are there, and then refocus your attention to the present. Be in the moment! Jon Kabat-Zinn has written extensively on practical approaches and uses for mindfulness and being present.

As Doc began to implement some mindfulness he also began to apply it to those whom he worked with.  Doc had done work with the Boston Red Sox, and was part of (and is now) of the Red Sox Behavior Team.  Doc drew also from Herbert Benson’s work on Relaxation Responses. The Relaxation Response is pretty much what its called. It’s working the benefits of relaxations (so you can be in the flow vs having and battling butterflies). Relaxation Responses is when you can get your body to relax,  the brain, the muscles and the improve blood flow.  Relaxation Response is the “opposite” of the “flight or fight” response (M. Mitchel 2013).  Slowing down and relaxing lets to you think and act clearly.  Doc said the bottom up and /top to bottom nature of this approach was really interesting for sports.

Doc addressed with us the impact of the James Kerr's book Legacy, (which we’ve covered in a book review) and how the All Blacks operate had on his work.  “When threatened by performance or seeing ‘red’  how can you get into your blue brain” asks Doc?The concept is that one side of your brain the “Red” is the emotional, the impulsive side that has really the fight or flight side built into it.  The Red brain is the negative voice where you get overwhelmed, where your get heated, and your perception slows down. It  also expends a great deal of “nervous energy”.

The Blue Brain is the opposite! When you are in your blue head, or working off the blue brain you are able to be calm, you can be in control, you are able to remain aware and make better decisions.

“Can you assess your situation” Doc questions?  He says what you do from a performance standpoint matters more than what you think or feel. “That thinking and feeling is red brain and uses a lot of energy”.  When you are more mindful Doc explained,  we can get rid of the action and replace it with positive thoughts. We don’t feed it, and we sure down want to change it, as that is too much mental energy to try get a through out of your head or fight it.

Doc explained that the work of Gardner and Moore teaches athletes to be aware of what’s going on, and not judge.  Don’t fight it.  Work on what you need to focus on...the task!  Doc said “you can think to yourself ‘I’ve knocked on three passes now, and one could have been a try’. It has passed. The more you think the more energy you are spending and the more you are getting out of the game vs focus on the task. So you should say is ‘oaky now play defense, make the tackle, etc.’ vs worrying out the knock-on” explained an animated Doc.  The key with applying mindfulness and these red/blue brain principles in the game is to keep going.  Stay in the game. Get your focus back to what you need to do vs what you messed up on. “You missed a pk, don’t now start taking to yourself about ‘I missed that, we needed that’ but instead you missed the kick, okay what do I do now? ‘Mark my man, get in position’ etc.” a laughing Doc noted.

Doc explains “you need to do about eight weeks of meditation to build the blue brain, and impact the brain power. Building the brain also included better sleep, and to build in the end better performance”.

In James Kerr’s book Legacy, Kerr give examples of things some of the All Blacks do to help get them back or keep in blue brain. One example is that Richie McCaw focuses on this breaths, and holds his writs, and stamps is feet to get himself grounded and reconnected to the moment. Being present!  Some All Blacks will look up to the blue sky and focus on the color and see the blue and think back to getting into the blue brain.

Doc will admit that he wasn’t using this with rugby players at the start but more with baseball and hockey players.  Having been around rugby nearly his entire life (as we noted his father played, sons played, brothers, etc) Doc had a lot of associates in the rugby world.  Sean O’Leary (now with PRO Rugby Denver) and Bruce McLane (Head Coach of Iona College and formerly  NYAC)  who had coached one of his sons was involved with the new coaching team at USA Rugby following the 2011 Rugby World Cup. McLane suggested to then new head Coach Mike Tolkin to bring Doc on.

In 2011, Tolkin asked Doc to come to a camp and presented to the team and starters, and the feedback from the coaches was very positive and very open to using sports psychology.  So Doc was offered an opportunity to work with the Eagles, but it was not a paid position. There was a benefit to that as since he was not paid by the coach or the union he technically didn’t have to share or disclose anything with them that players didn’t want to.  He worked with the Eagles from 2011 (whenever they gathered)  all the way through the 2016 World Cup.

One of the things that Doc focused on was the mental aspect of the game. He feels the team grew in that area and will continue to grow.  To maintain the ball and to sustain a constant attack you don’t need just fitness (as the Eagles have that), you need what Doc called mental fitness. “It’s the ability to know what to do as a unit as time goes on, as the physical side starts to give you have to keep the mental edge. That’s what the All Blacks truly have” comments Doc. 

Doc said a large part of his work was around red brain/blue brain understanding with the players. He worked to help players understand the two, how they function and work to help them get into and stay in the blue brain. “If a player is in their red brain they are going to be selfish. I mean if they mess up they then keep beating themselves up, and that is a focus on you, vs the focus being on the job, the game, the team! You should be focus on what needs to be done, not yourself and issues” stated Doc.

When players are in red brain they loose focus on the moment, and aren’t in the present. They aren’t thinking or looking at what’s coming next, but are dwelling in the past on what’s already happened. “You can’t go back into the past to fix something, so stop thinking about it” exclaims Doc.  One of the tricks to help people shift back to the blue brain can be self talk or using some mindfulness work to get back to being present. What is happening now and what’s coming next?   

The self talk according to Doc needs to be in the third person, so it’s a bit separated from you, and sound more like a teammate cheering you on. It needs to be positive. If you talk to yourself it’s to easy to get negative. It’s all positive and it’s short and specific. So an example is of someone drops the ball instead of saying to yourself “come on, catch the ball! ” or “come on already!” its to be 3rd person positive. The ideal self talk is positive and short.  So something like,  “You got this John”.

“Talk is still talk. It’s not doing. You need to be present, what’s happening now and what’s coming next” emphasized Doc.  Thinking, talking, processing is it doing?  The need is to be present, too much energy and focus is wasted by thinking about what happened and it doesn’t matter when you have things still occurring at that moment.

One researched that Doc found was that if you wanted to get out of the red brain and get  into the Blue brain you can do physical movements to shifts that.  Remember our red brain is our more primitive brain at the brain stem, cerebellum and limbic area. However when threatened we threatened we tend to use our verbal brain when as athletes we should be relying on our nonverbal muscle memory in the right hemisphere.  The blue brain symbolically is our entire cortex but, especially our frontal lobes explained Doc. 

The research Doc spoke of was called Preventing Motor Skill Failure Throught Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Chocking Under Pressure (Beckmann, J. Gropel, P. & Ehrlenspiel, F). It looked at some soccer players taking penalty kicks with no pressure and then under pressure. There where two equal groups. The times that the kickers squeezed their left hand for 30 seconds with and without pressure (which is connected to muscle memory in the right hemishpere) those players did better  than the players  in the group that squeezed their right hand for 30 seconds. The ones with the left hand squeeze performed statistically better. 

The point is in addition to thinking your self to the blue brain, there are physical movements that can help put you in blue brain.  Doc said he had a Eagles  player whom he shared this with, but he didn’t want the player to squeeze his hand for 30 seconds and end up with a cramp, etc. So he had the player just pump his left hand when he wanted to get back into the blue brain, so the though and the physical movement helped. This is like Richie McCaw stopping his feed to get grounded again and focus on the game.

Doc said “Its not magic. Its just a hand squeeze. The brain can be improved with some mental work and with meditation. I won’t have players do something that isn’t going to work.  Mediation, mindfulness, the fist pump helps you become focused. It doesn’t make you a p#$$y doing that, it brings out your A game”.

Doc said he didn’t always call his work mindfulness or meditation as he had concerns that it could turn some players off, so he focused on things like red brain/blue brain and “focus sessions”.  In addition to his work around the red/blue brain (and the fist pumps), he also implemented focus sessions, body scans and gratitude exercises.

During the 2015 World Cup, each morning Doc would host a “focus session” in the hotel. It was open option for players, and some days he said he’ have a large group, and others just 1-2 guys.  Guys would come with their pillows and Doc would run them through some mental exercises which were really mindfulness meditations.

Some evenings, Doc would host sessions where he’d have the players do body scans. Now body scans are a form of meditation, but really just a review of every inch of your body without use of your sight or touch. When doing a body scan, some can lay flat on the floor, close their eyes and work on their breathing. Once relaxed you start to focus all your attention to a part of your body, usually start with the toes and work your way up to your head. Its about being present, not thinking about how the toe got hurt, or anything else but how does that feel at that time, is it in pain? Is it soar? Does it feel warm? Etc. You do that with each part of your body to help you understand what is going on with your body. In these sessions for the Eagles, Doc would be guiding them. 

The body scans are really an excellent tool for players. It allows you to really understand what’s going on with your body. It’s an MRI without sight but feeling. Is something soar, or is it a sharp pain, does it feel tight, does it feel warm, etc.? This allows you to really assess your body, and then be able to describe more clearly what is going on with your body to the training staff.

The last thing that Doc talked about doing with the boys during the Rugby World Cup was the gratitude sessions.  He’d again have the boys relax, close their eyes, and work on their breathing, once relaxed he’d start to ask them to think about the game today, who are all the people who’ve helped or supported them to get there. Coaches, parents, family, friends, and then thinking about each other and just not stressing on the big game, but to really think how fortunate they are to be able to do this, and to just be thankful for all the people who support them.

Now we’ve covered a great deal about what Doc has done and what his work with the team and that of a sports or performance psychologies is, we wanted to know what was the impact of his efforts. We were able to speak to several current and former Eagles to see their take on the use of mindfulness and the mental aspects of the game.

Lou Stanfill (left). "Doc" Steve Durant (right) RWC 2015

Lou Stanfill (left). "Doc" Steve Durant (right) RWC 2015

“Mindfulness is a massive part of Dr. Durant’s approach” said former Eagles forward Lou Stanfill.  Stanfill spoke about how having Doc around was an invaluable resource. The work around quite meditation and just discussions on mindful decision making was done by Doc, as no-one else had the expertise.  “Personally,  I gained clarity into my own vision as a rugby player on how to control my emotions and keep my brain ‘Blue’ in times of stress, both physical and mental” says Stanfill.  For Stanfill the one-on-one and group sessions had a great deal of detail and provided clarity for many of the players who without Doc’s work would be guessing how to become mentally stronger, or more in-tune.

Stanfill said for him mindfulness was being present in the moment and to actually acknowledge how/what one feels at that moment. Equally important Stanfill notes is the acceptance. “If you cannot accept what is evident as true, then you cannot mindfully move forward to overcome the given challenge or situation” explains Stanfill.

The application of mindfulness for Stanfill had to do with staying calm during moments of high stress, which is necessary if one wants to be  successful  during a moment of stress. On the field or in life stress can impact or alter decision making and for Stanfill that was important to understand and move past. Recalls Stanfill “Dr. Durant’s instruction unearthed in me the power to mindfully acknowledge the stress, accept the stress, all while staying calm and collected. The acceptance part is what I felt was the most important. Only as we accept whatever challenge or tribulation that lies before us, are we able to overcome and make that fortitude part of our character”.

During the Rugby World Cup a lot of Doc’s work was around preparing for the games with “focus sessions”.  For Stanfill these were extremely useful in helping train his mind to block out the peripheral, and the things that can challenge a player in their own head.  To overcome these mental challenges even if they are real was not the goal but for Stanfill are just intangibles.

The “Focus Sessions” were comprised around breathing. “The breath is same mechanism we will use to power our bodies as we played, and quiet our minds as we made decisions. Often, we get caught up in factors which have nothing to do with our immediate goals, yet redirect our focus to areas less important. His focus sessions helped to accept those factors while staying on the task at hand” an enlightened Stanfill shared.

Stanfill is very much a believer in the need to develop mental toughness and feels work with Mindfulness and the techniques to get a player in “Blue” Brain are vital in Rugby. Stanfill breaks it down like this “Mental toughness is a term that nearly every sport uses in some way. Some use it as a way to explain how to overcome obstacles, some use it as a way for athletes to pop back up after being knocked down, but it is present in most all sports. Rugby is a sport that combines speed, strength, power, intensity, skill, endurance, and decision making. With all these elements being demanded of the athlete, mental strength is a necessity to keep the athlete on top of the game. No matter the level or position, mental fortitude is must for any rugby athlete looking to get better.”

Stanfill noted that for most it will be hard to practice mental toughness without some help. Ideally one could work with some like Doc, or other mindfulness practices, but for Stanfill having a professional who can not just teach you the skill, but really help ask the right question to uncover what you don’t know and uncover the strength that lies within each person is priceless!

Niku Kruger, USA Eagles/ PRO Rugby Denver  

Niku Kruger, USA Eagles/
PRO Rugby Denver  

Another player who spoke highly of the work of Doc and how its impacted him is Eagles’ and PRO Rugby Denver scrum half Niku Kruger. Kruger has been a standout in the PRP as well as a collegian at Kutztown University. Kruger is originally from South Africa and had almost no international experience before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and attributed his work around mindfulness to have been key.

Kruger starts out by saying “In addition to being a great guy,  Doc helped me prepare myself to be able to preform at the highest level (RWC). Before the world cup I had only played 5 minutes of international rugby!” Kruger had many sessions with Doc to assist him with his nervousness about playing well and really helped him focus on his enjoyment for the game. So instead of being nervous to play, Doc helped him realize what he’d (Kruger) has overcome to get to where he was... playing in the RWC!  For Kruger this realization actually helped him get excited about being able to perform. 

During the RWC Kruger’s routine was to do two sessions as day with Doc. In the morning they would do a meditation session focused on being grateful (gratitude meditation) for everything in life including those who had helped him get to that point. They would also focus on certain parts of his game. Doc would coach Kruger through his thought process. He’d have Kruger visualize himself going through something over and over again perfectly in his head. The skills Kruger said they focused on were tackling, passing and kicking. 

In the evenings Kruger would work with Doc on relaxing and letting the mistakes of the day just go.  “He would use this idea of putting your thoughts into a cloud and letting them float away” shared Kruger.    Those really helped Kruger not just relax and reduce his stress, but also sleep better (which is an important part of performance).  Kruger noted that during the RWC and when with the team leading up to the RWC one is in an environment where as a player you are constantly thinking about your game, how to improve, how to become better, the work with Doc allowed him to relax, sleep and preform at the highest level.

Kruger recalled that after the long days of training one of things Doc would do was body scans.  As noted earlier the body scans allows an individual to focus on a part of the body that is in pain or taken a beating.  He also shared that they’d do “mental reps” of certain parts of their game. Developing the visualization ability.  “In my case” shared Kruger “we did a lot of reps of my kicking for points during a World Cup game”.  For Kruger it was also his chats with Doc about how he reacts when things don’t go a planned. Kruger who is very insightful shared that “the rugby the ball is unpredictable. It becomes easy for a player to react poorly to a situation and then end up making even more mistakes”.

For Kruger, these talks helped him develop words that could put him back into ‘Blue’ brain during a game or to calm down, and slow things down in his mind.  “My word was ‘pass’” says Kruger.  “In my position you pass a lot and you are the link between most players. When things started to go wrong I would go back to what I am very good at and that’s passing. I would say to myself ‘just pass’ and do what I am really comfortable with and the rest will come”.

Kruger reported that he still does this now. Each morning Kruger spends about 10 minutes to relax to think about what he’s grateful for and how he’s gotten here.  For him this helps him enjoy the game and also relieve some of the stress that comes from playing rugby full-time.

For the players we spoke to other than being an actual professional psychologies what helped was that Doc is also a fellow rugby player. There is a specific ability to understand the game and the players needs that helped Doc be effective with the boys. Being a fellow rugby player also made the boys more receptive to working with Doc.  The ability to understand the pressures of the game, the demands on the body and what the boys where playing for cemented Doc’s role with the team.

In the end Doc’s role with the team was voluntary and thus he had freedom in whom he reported to, and aside from confidentiality which he’s bound by,  his role was to help the players not report what the players felt to coaches or USA Rugby.  Doc said “in the end some of the guys were getting ready to wrap up some long careers, and some of what they needed was to just talk and process what life would be like after rugby. They’d spent so much of their life chasing this dream, and now it would be ending. I for the first time understood what that meant for a professional athlete and the stress that can come with ending such a big chapter this their lives”.

While not every club or team can afford or access a sports psychologist, we can understand the concepts of being present, of red brain/blue brain and the need to be able to focus. These are things that one can start to pick up on my practicing mindfulness, or even coaches can begin to teach and implement with players. The basics of not focusing on the past, and to be positive and to look at what’s coming next.  If you want to take yourself to the next level you can work on the mental aspects, and as Doc said just because you do it doesn't make you a p##%y. It really makes you smart and will make you more successfully. So if you are a youth player, college player, club player, PRO or international you can always improve your game. Look at Niku Kruger he’s now a professional with the Denver team, and he still spends 10min a day working on the mental game.  Doc’s provided us with some great research and books you can check out to learn the details.

We must thank Doc for his time. We’ve been working to connect since the Pacific Nations Cup this last summer and finally got to chat (and we personally learned so much). We also have to thank Niku Kruger for his time as he’s busy with Denver. Also thanks to Lou Stanfill who is now calling some of the PRO Rugby games (and doing a great job). How good an impactful is Doc? Well when we said we are working on a story with Doc Steve, these guys responded within hours asking how they can help. Let that be a credit to the man Doc is.  Hopefully the new coaching crew of the Eagles will give Doc the call again.
 

Beckmann, J., Gropel, P. & Ehrenspiel,F. (2012, September 3). Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Chocking Under Pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
Mitchell, Marilyn MD. Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response: Learning to counteract the physiological effects of stress.  Psychology Today, March 2013.
Plemmons, Mitch.  The MAC approach to sports performance enhancement. www.believeperform.com 2014