League: Away with the away blues

By Michael Brown

Sports science is a cutting-edge industry. Thousands are employed to try to get the best out of every athlete and every team.

Conditioning programmes, nutrition, hydration; seemingly everything has been thought of. But while they can get athletes' bodies ready for a sporting event, it will make little difference if the body's most powerful tool, something that occupies roughly 1400cm3, isn't functioning properly.

"The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven," celebrated English poet and thinker John Milton wrote in the early 17th century. Few team sports existed in Milton's day but that passage is as relevant today as when he penned it.

At the moment, the Warriors are stuck in a sort of purgatory every time they play away from the safety of Mt Smart Stadium. They transform from a side bustling with confidence to one that struggles with even the basics.

It's not that they have lost three times on the road this season, especially as they were against Melbourne, Manly and North Queensland, but it is the manner of the losses that is so alarming.

They scored 44 points in those games but conceded a staggering 132 at an average of 44. That scenario was unheard of since Ivan Cleary took the reins in 2006.

Of course, winning away from home is not something that just affects the Warriors. The Wellington Phoenix, and the New Zealand Knights before them, as well as the Breakers have struggled even more than their rugby league counterparts when crossing the Ditch.

Together, the three sides have a 25 per cent success rate playing in Australia. When it comes to the race for the playoffs, that's not a great return.

"It's 10-15 per cent physiological and 85-90 per cent psychological," says mental skills coach Dave Hadfield, who has worked extensively with the NZRU. "These guys are used to travel these days, staying in hotels and being away from home, so it is very largely psychological. You have to train your mind so you're comfortable away from home."

There's a common saying in French rugby - l'esprit de cloche (spirit of the bell) - which relates to the feeling individuals have for the area they are born. It's often used to describe why French teams find it almost impossible to win away from home, to such an extent players and fans virtually expect to lose.

Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt, formerly of Bay of Plenty and Auckland respectively, are trying to break that mindset with Clermont.

After a period of underwhelming results, Clermont made the grand final last year and, after an impressive victory in the hostile environment of Toulouse last weekend, are clear at the top of the table this season.

Likewise, New Zealand rugby teams for years carried the belief that winning at altitude in South Africa was nigh-on impossible. That has been demystified and they now have good success on the high veldt.

As Blues head strength and conditioning coach Mark Harvey said: "We don't even talk about it now. We don't see it as an obstacle and realise we just have to get on with it."

It doesn't mean teams take a blase attitude to travelling. Sports science takes care of that.

Issues on when to travel, what to do when you get there, whether to sleep on the plane or stay awake (the Breakers don't allow it), how much water to take in (2 litres of water on a flight) have long been debated and tested. But even after years of experimentation, a formula for success still doesn't exist.

The Blues like to travel three days before a game in Australia and give their players a day off immediately after the flight.

The Breakers go the day before for all games except Singapore when they go two days before, the Phoenix travel either one or two days before, and the Warriors tend to fly one day before the match. Last weekend, they tried going two days before playing North Queensland and had an overnight stop in Brisbane.

Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert is considering a different approach to away games this season. He's planning on holding evening trainings to help his players get in tune with the time zone they will be playing in. A game in Sydney usually kicks off at 9pm NZT so trainings will be at 9pm.

"Players are normally putting on slippers and watching a movie at this time rather than slipping on the boots and taking on Melbourne away," Herbert says. "Hopefully training at night snaps them out of that."

Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis tried this approach in his first season but found it counter-productive.

"It interrupted family and home life," he says. "Guys were going to bed at 2am but they found they were still getting up at 6am because that's when their kids got up. It's much better sticking to a routine."

Everyone the Herald on Sunday spoke to said the biggest factor to success was mental preparation.

Studies have shown that anxiety levels are higher when playing away, while home team players produce 30 per cent more testosterone, are more likely to take risks and respond to the positive reinforcement of home fans.

"People talk about how difficult it is to win away from home and that drips into a player's subconscious," Hadfield says. "If the subjective mind believes you will perform badly, then it will trip you up."

Hadfield uses two techniques to snap the subconscious mind of negative thoughts.

"The first is to surround yourself with positive thoughts," he explains, "and use positive statements like, 'we love playing away from home and enjoy the challenge'.

"The other is hypnosis. I hear some people say hypnosis is complete bullshit but the subconscious mind is far more accessible when under hypnosis. In essence, it's about changing one's perception."

Although the Warriors didn't get out the gold watches, they did work hard on mental preparation last week. They have actually been working hard on it over the past couple of years and now employ an organisation called Leading Teams.

"There's clearly a confidence issue there," Cleary says. "It's mental. When things aren't going great, we're not handling it. For some reason we can do that better at home.

"It's just hard work and reinforcement and trying to get that confidence back by working hard, pushing through the tough times and realising we can do it again."

PLAYING AWAY

The Warriors have always struggled when travelling away from home, but they aren't the only ones.

The North Queensland Cowboys present the best comparison.

Like the Warriors, they entered the competition in 1995, also travel large distances when playing away and have played in one grand final.

The Cowboys have won just 31 per cent of nearly 160 away matches since 1995.

In the past four seasons, their best period in the NRL, this has improved to 45 per cent.

While Dairy Farmers Stadium is seen as something of a fortress now, the Cowboys have still won only 42 per cent of their home matches compared to the Warriors' 58 per cent.

- Herald on Sunday

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