Rugby player Jonny Wilkinson is famous for kicking goals that win England Rugby World Cups. He is also famous for being injury-prone. But he may yet become as famous for endurance, but not of the marathon kind. Since he kicked the winning drop goal against Australia in the 2003 World Cup, he has not played an England game. He has barely played for his club, the Newcastle Falcons.

 

For an elite athlete, this is a kind of marathon of psychological endurance. Each injury or missed training session creates anxiety and frustration and can lead to depression. Kelly Holmes, who won 1500m and 800m gold in Athens two years ago at age 34, toward the end of her career, reports she experienced dark days as a result of repeat injuries, including episodes of self-harm.

 

The drive to improve is given no outlet. But this drive may well be responsible for the injury in the first place. Wilkinson’s training has been described as obsessive. His accuracy as a kicker derives from endless practice sessions. Containing that drive is something he was unable to control when younger:-

I do not believe I am becoming more relaxed but maybe I am learning to train more appropriately for what I want to achieve now I have reached this age and this stage in my career. For me it is about what is right but will always include making the tough decisions. Up to now I have perhaps not had the strength to make these tough decisions because I always believed the toughest decision was to stay on the field and “tough it out” for an extra hour or so. The tough decisions for me now are about getting the most out of my training while still being able to rest and recuperate for the weekend’s game. I still train numerous times every day but I try now to train better and smarter, which does not necessarily always mean longer.”

On ITV News yesterday, reflecting on his recall to the England squad, Wilkinson retold how he has learnt French and Spanish, the guitar and piano during his absence from the game. Music, languages, and sport, when pursued to excellence, have all been shown to develop the pre-frontal cortex of the brain — where mental dexterity occurs. Regular meditation has the same effect.

 

 

To have the presence of mind to score in the last 30 seconds of a World Cup final is a rare talent, but one that must have been schooled by his endless training. It will be interesting to see if Wilkinson is mentally improved as he returns to international rugby in the next few months. Studying languages and music no doubt saw him through the mental marathon of repeat injuries. But could such exercises also represent a form of cross training for the mental part of athletic endeavour?

 

 

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