Rugby league: As tough in the mind as it is on the body

Walk down the street and you can pick out a rugby player a mile off.

You expect to see a strong, powerful man, with thighs the size of tree trunks and arms that could put through a brick wall. But rugby league is far from just being a physical sport, and whilst those attributes may be on show, what’s going on in a player’s mind is far more important.

Mental toughness is one of the most invaluable assets in sport, whatever the sport, and whilst rugby league may not be put in the same bracket as the likes of chess, poker, and cricket, the sport does carry very similar mental traits.

There’s a huge gulf in players who are mentally on top compared to players who are perhaps less so, who will never reach the heights of say Kevin Sinfield or Sean O’Loughlin who have won numerous titles.

They’re the epitome of mental steel, the same way the likes of Daniel Negreanu dominates poker, and Magnus Carlsen has fought his way to become the number one chess player on the planet.

Particularly like poker, in rugby you have to have the right attitude and channel aggressiveness fruitfully to be a true champion. And to do that, players need a number of things.


The most important skill in any sport, and in fact profession, is to be disciplined. It’s what separates men from boys, wheat from chaff. Dedicating your life to a sport and having the mental brain power to push your body to the limit is the single most important thing an athlete can do.

Sinfield, the 34-year-old who has six Super League titles and an MBE for services to the sport, has done exactly that and believes being dedicated to a sport will see you far.

“People who have the right attitude can persevere through tough times but if they’re disciplined and they work hard as well as having the right attitude, be it in rugby league or in any sport, they’ll go far.”

And the same applies with poker. Discipline is preparation. Preparation for when you go into battle.

Freddie Gasperian, a man who has winnings in the hundreds of thousands, said, “To master poker and make it profitable you must first master patience and discipline, as lack of either is a sure disaster regardless of all other talents…”

Solid preparation and dedication to a match-up not only puts a person in their best physical and mental shape, but it also breeds confidence. And having belief on the pitch will ensure you make the right decisions. 

Decision Making

When on the pitch, at the table, on the court, or wherever you’re playing, making the right decisions is key, and having the discipline to succeed in the first place certainly helps you do that.

On both the poker table and the rugby field, ensuring you kick on at the right time or attack in the right situation is essential.

Luca Pagano said in a blog for PokerStars, “It’s important to have a clear mental decision-making procedure so that each time you sit at a table you can control all necessary variables in order to cope at best with the many decisions you have to make.”

It’s a skill drilled in to young rugby players from day one, and is as vital on the pitch as it is when Pagano is playing for a $500,000 pot. It’s the difference between scoring a try and losing possession. It’s the difference between winning and losing.

Get The Marking Of Your Opponent

In whatever sport, there’s now more and more focus being put on opponents. It’s becoming less so about playing your own game, but tactically outclassing them or intimidating them. Some of the best sports teams and athletes in the world have used these tactics – although sometimes taking it too far.

Take Leeds United in the early 1970s, Mike Tyson, or the New Zealand Rugby League side, who perform a traditional war dance before every game. They all try to get the under the skin of an opponent. And it works, especially today when sport is as much about playing the man as it is the game.

Identifying weakness is perhaps the easiest way to do that. Knowing where an opponent is weak gives a team area for attack; an impetus, a target area where they will steal a prize pot or a try.

Mentally, decision making comes into play as does discipline. It all adds up to being able to strike at the right time. And you’d perhaps be surprised by how much they walk hand in hand.

Exercise and the right diet will help produce oxytocin which helps process sensory information, including social cues, which of course transfers onto the try line.

But of course we can’t not mention the haka. Routed in Maori traditions, the war dance is performed at the beginning of every game and even includes throat slitting gestures. To say it’s intimidating would be an understatement, and it’s as important as much for the opponent’s reaction as it is the haka itself.

A recent junior match between New Zealand and Australia perhaps showed this more than anything with referees having to break up the two teams by the end.

And all this is before a game is even played. The need to be mentally strong in rugby is phenomenal. It’s a trying sport, one where a player’s body may want to give way but sheer mental strength will see them through.

It’s what separates us mere mortals from the likes of Sinfield and O’Loughlin. But with a bit of time, dedication, and discovering a vast amount of talent in us, we can edge that little bit closer. We can head onto the rugby field with confidence, whether it be out at the DW Stadium or on a Sunday morning at the local playing fields.

That, or we can start working on our poker strategies.

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