How Rugby Changes Behaviour 

Reece was tackled to the ground and before he knew it several other boys were trying to wrestle the rugby ball from his grasp (teaching the law about not holding on to the ball when tackled is a work in progress!). In the end, he was left lying on the grass, alone. Until, that is, the smallest member of the group doubled-back and offered him a hand up, which he gratefully accepted, smiled and ran on to re-join the game.

The reason this all seemed so remarkable is that just two months prior to this, “Reece” (not his real name) had been suspended for fighting. In the opinion of School of Hard Knocks (SOHK) staff, part of the reason for his suspension at school was a lack of emotional control as well as the peer pressure to rise to any threat with violence. The change that everyone at SOHK could see in Reece was remarkable and he clearly had developed his ability to think through the consequences of his actions.

Sport in general is now acknowledged as an effective means of changing behaviour and developing life skills (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, & Deakin, 2005), but there is something unique that rugby brings as an intervention of this type. While I was completing my supervised experience for Sport Psychology, I was influenced by Chris Harwood’s “5Cs” model (more here: About The 5Cs – The 5Cs). This is a framework of five items beginning with C, which capture the psychological element of performance – Confidence, Control, Commitment, Communication and Concentration. There was also a 6th “C” - “Cohesion” which I’ve held on to, letting go of the “Concentration” as it applies less to our work at SOHK. I have always loved its simplicity and the fact for me it encompasses everything related to mental performance. When we talk about changing “behaviour” at School of Hard Knocks, we are specifically talking about improving one or more of the 5Cs.

It’s through this framework therefore, that I’d like to explain how we use rugby to change behaviour.

Control

While many of the pupils may receive support from various outlets to try and improve their behavioural control, it is rare that they have an actual opportunity to practice these skills actively, with other people in real time. Part of the reason SOHK uses rugby is as a means of providing controlled confrontation, so pupils can practice techniques to control their emotions. This takes place in a positive, supportive environment with adults that they form healthy working relationships with. This may be at odds with their home lives and our staff often work with the child to explicitly make the connection between what they’ve learned within the rugby and how this may transfer to their home and school life.

Confidence

Skill acquisition in sport has been linked with increased confidence, so generally as people master the technique of a particular skill, they become more confident at it. At SOHK, we see a change in people when they achieve something tangible, like learning and improving at rugby. While most people we work with would not be confident of trying rugby from the outset, it’s our experience that the majority are much more comfortable to throw, catch and run around. I think this fundamental element of rugby makes it more accessible than other sports, arguably even football, as novices are more skilled with their hands than their feet. Secondly, the physical element of rugby – particularly tackling can be quite scary for some people initially. The increase in confidence we see from mastering this element is then, understandably, even greater.

Commitment

We understand “commitment” as the level of effort put into something over time. At SOHK, we discuss that committing to the tackle means having a greater chance of success and being safer; versus being undecided or not fully committed and getting hurt. We then make this comparison to other areas of participants’ lives – school, work, family, education, career goals. We may gently challenge and question how committed participants are to the things they say they want and whether they are demonstrating this commitment within their actions.

Communication

Rugby demands the key component of most team sports: deliberate practice through which the communication between players, whether verbal or non-verbal, is enhanced and they begin to work as a team. Rugby is also a naturally fun game and enables our staff to build strong rapport and working relationships with people they are trying to help. One-to-one mentoring forms a large part of our work with school children and getting them to a point where they can communicate their feelings is significant. There is a saying that “all behaviour is a form of communication” and, for many children we work with who would be deemed as the stereotypical ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ kids, their disruptive behaviour is often a means of them communicating their needs to the adults around them. By building the rapport through rugby and close mentoring, we can help children more accurately describe their feelings, challenges and needs and get the support they need to thrive. The same principles apply to the adults we help, who are often very isolated. Rugby offers what can often be the first opportunity in a while to speak to and connect with others; the unfamiliar yet shared context provides a space in which it is much easier to talk to strangers than awkwardly sitting down at a coffee morning, for example.

Cohesion

Anyone who has played rugby at any level will tell you how much playing for a club makes them feel part of a bigger family and how the community looks after each other. It is this feeling we try to emulate with both our school and adult programmes. Participants make new friends, are part of a new, positively focused group and they experience something bigger than just their school or local community. We also heavily encourage informal peer to peer support. In schools this may mean children in older age groups looking out for younger SOHK participants around school. In adults, we regularly see participants forming close, supportive bonds and even finding each other jobs. I have included this as the final “C” as it is probably the least tangible and hardest to measure, but it really is the secret to using rugby for powerful change.