From the Haka to the Webb Ellis Trophy: Mind Games and Elite Sport? Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre


It is likely you heard this chant from the All-Blacks more than once over the final games of the #RWC2018. Their Maori ritual serves both in preserving an indigenous tradition and as a distinctive psychological tool for the reigning World Champions. Looking critically at the ritual it has a arousal inducing function for the players, embellishes their distinctive identity and can arguably diminish the confidence of the opposition. The latter point requires further analysis and a qualitative study we conducted with both former All-Blacks and their opponents is illuminating. The psychological advantage of the Haka has typically been overestimated. Our participants explained that as novices-the first time they faced this war dance it was intimidating but not surprisingly they adapted their pre-game arousal to adjust to it in subsequent matches.

Interestingly, for the All Blacks the ritual was a challenge in terms of choreography and timing so they too felt anxiety in their attempt to execute it accurately as debutants. Take for example, one of the few occasions they were restricted in their pre-game preparations and had to perform the Haka in the tunnel leading to the pitch. Dan Carter acknowledged that despite a resounding victory (they overcame Wales 45-10) they had been over-aroused from the emotion of the Haka and had received two yellow cards.

One of our graduates Cathal Sheridan, former Munster player who is now the mental skills coach with their rugby academy diminishes any myths about the Haka. “Let’s be honest about it. The New Zealand Haka is cool and provides a class spectacle to watch. The 90 second ritual doesn’t really influence the near 90 minute duration of most test matches though. Players decision making, cohesion, skill execution is not that vulnerable to a pre-match dance.”

Felix Jones who is now part of the South African Rugby coaching team also studied on our MSc program at PESS. Due to injury he missed out on the opportunity to face the All-Blacks but another facet of performance psychology was key to his progression. The psychology of injury is increasingly being more clearly understood and this dimension links firmly to player mental health and well-being. PJ Wilson, formerly Munster strength and conditioning coach, graduated from our programme with unique insights into the psychology of rehabilitation. One of our problem-based-learning modules is dedicated to an injury case study.

Recent graduate Greig Oliver is a member of the Munster back-room staff and is known as a specialist skills coach, conducted his dissertation on the topic of well-being and psychological recovery. Formerly capped by Scotland he says that the “role of psychology in rugby is much more than that of performance enhancement-it’s increasingly about understanding the person, not just the player, and what the person can bring to their preparation for the team.” It is not surprising then that UL sport scholar Niamh Briggs who is studying for her MSc. in sport, exercise and performance psychology says that the course has helped her deal with her transition from elite sport into coaching. And as we know referee decisions have been under scrutiny during the Rugby World Cup in Japan. The psychology of officiating is another dimension worthy of exploration according to Connacht rugby referee and graduate Katie Kilbane.

Former external examiner, Professor Craig Mahoney, who was instrumental in the emergence of sport psychology in Ireland (he helped Derry win the All-Ireland in 1993), perhaps sums up best how psychology has been embraced by rugby. “Even a decade ago coaches and players spoke of mind games but in recent years the role of psychology on the pitch has been augmented by an increased focus on the life of the performer outside the bubble beyond rugby.”

Online application for the MSc programmes in sport and exercise psychology is open for the January 2020 intake (applications close on December 1st). Our Masters programmes in this field are full-time one-year postgraduate programmes with innovative modules that focus on topics like psychology of injury, skill acquisition and rehabilitation, positive psychology and mental health and well-being. The programs have a dual role 1) prepares successful graduates for a career in applying sport psychology as a practitioner or 2) in the use of psychology in supporting other careers including sports coaching, sports management, rehabilitation and health promotion.

Those who are applying with a background in psychology and who meet the Psychological Society of the Ireland can apply for this course and  those with other qualifications or accreditation through prior learning and experience should look to the MSc  in Mental Skills and Mental Health in Sport and Exercise. Both programmes are identical with the exception of the entry qualifications and both have the same closing date.



Related Blogs


Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre ( is a chartered sport psychologist (Psychological Society of Ireland), chair of the Professional Quality Assurance Committee for the Sport Ireland Institute) and course director of the graduate training programs in sport exercise and performance psychology at PESS. He was psychologist for Munster rugby. @Tadhgmacintyre

Tagged with: