Health Systems Action

Conversion Disorder – The Plight of Rugby Place Kickers

As we celebrate our 2023 World Cup triumph, spare a thought for the place kickers who came under intense scrutiny – some were sidelined and others failed, while our own were heroes.

Conversion Disorder (CD) is a psychological condition diagnosed when someone has physical or sensory symptoms, like they have a brain condition, but without physical cause. In rugby, it’s when a player is suddenly and unexpectedly unable to convert tries or kick penalties, to the astonishment (and dismay) of teammates and fans alike.

A case report

A 26-year-old elite level fly half had a solid 76% success record during the international club tournament but began missing straightforward kicks. He reported palpitations on approaching the ball, a sensation of the goalposts closing in, a distorted perception of wind speed and direction, and was having nightmares of being chased by the remote- controlled ball delivery carrier. At times, he felt tackled by his thoughts, turned over by his emotions, and caught in a mental maul. The rest of his game was going great; in a recent match, his “no-look” pinpoint kick flew the width of the field into the hands of his sprinting team-mate for a spectacular try.

Kicking by the numbers

Rugby relies heavily on kicking; 45% of points come from it but in over 580 international games the average success rate was just 72%. In 6% of games, the entire result depended on a single kick. Even at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, only 75% of kicks were successful. After a missed kick, the next one was 7% less likely to go over. The best kicker in 2019, Dan Biggar, had an 89% success rate. But not all kicks are equal – the ones close to and directly in front of the posts are converted 99% of the time, only 38% from over the half-way line.

Why it’s hard

 Kicking in rugby demands precision. Distance and angle vary the difficulty. With goalposts 5.6m apart, a kick from the touch line, 35m from the try line, given the kicker a mere 4.6-degree window to aim at. A deviation of just over 2 degrees results in a miss. Kicking technique involves ball positioning, approach angle, foot angle, and follow-through and has complex biomechanics. Technical advice abounds, emphasizing intricate details.

Environmental factors, such as wind, rain, and pitch condition affect the trajectory. Altitude influences the ball’s distance. Mastery in varying conditions distinguishes good kickers from the greats.

Practice makes perfect

Jonny Wilkinson, the world’s best at the time, practised several hours a day, kicking from all angles and ranges. He finished each session with a series of six kicks that all had to be perfect. To improve accuracy, power, and consistency Wilkinson would try to land the ball on the crossbar, like a golf shot. He would imagine that a woman called Doris was sitting in the stand behind the goal, holding a can of Coke, and get the ball to land in Doris’s lap, knocking the drink out of her hands.

 All in the mind

 Place kicks, especially those taken at crucial moments late in the match, come with immense pressure, combining fatigue with the shot clock ticking down, and the opposition winger speeding towards you for a charge-down. Instead of focusing on winning the game, a kicker might focus on the technical aspects of the kick itself. A set routine helps with focus and blocking out distractions; it can be a specific number of breaths, steps, or specific thoughts. Deep breathing is calming as well as replacing negative thoughts  with positive ones (“I’ve made kicks like this many times before”). Breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable goals reduces pressure. Training under game-like conditions, with crowd noise or real spectators, can acclimatise players to actual match stress. Each player’s psychological preparation is distinct, necessitating personalized strategies.

 Conclusion

 During a rugby world cup, place kickers come under intense scrutiny and pressure. Conversion Disorder becomes a condition of national importance; if severe it can evolve to Bipolar Disorder. Kicking failures trigger national anxiety but we should be more sympathetic and less tee’d off when they occur; remember that everyone has their drop-outs. Though players can feel kicked by their feelings it’s crucial not to try to sidestep the issue but tackle it head-on. With the right approach, peak performance can be reclaimed.

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 Note: Apologies to readers allergic to puns and dad jokes, and to people with actual conversion disorder or bipolar disorder – real mental health conditions that cause much suffering.

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More reading

1.     Identifying Rugby’s Leading Goal-Kickers Using a Success Probability Model https://www.statsperform.com/resource/blog-identifying-rugbys-leading-goal-kickers-using-a-success-probability-model/.

2.     How Barrett and Pollard’s kicking stats compare to the best in the Northern Hemisphere. https://www.rugbypass.com/news/how-barrett-and-pollards-kicking-stats-compares-to-best-in-the-northern-hemisphere/.

3.     These are statistically the best goal-kickers in the world. https://www.ruck.co.uk/ranked-these-are-statistically-the-best-goal-kickers-in-the-world/.

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