Inside View – Article 2
The Strength Within
A look inside the minds of leading players at Rugby World Cup 2023
A look inside the minds of leading players at Rugby World Cup 2023
"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an unbreakable will."
According to Mahatma Ghandi, brute force only paints part of the picture when it comes to determining how strong a person is. In fact, it plays a much smaller role than we believe.
And José Rodrigues, who has spent 20 years working as a physio with some of the most physical athletes on the planet, agrees. When you look beyond the exterior, past the muscle and bone, you can see the people they embody from an entirely different perspective. “Players have to be fit in body and in mind, because it’s that combination that will prevent injuries in a long period of time,” he says.
"Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement,” Helen Keller once wrote. “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence." This reflects how José feels about the role mentality, optimism and confidence play in his work.
He’s been a physio for the Portuguese national team since 2003 and was with the squad at the Rugby World Cup in 2007. The role may have changed over the past two decades, but José says that respecting the relationship between the physical and emotional has always been key.
“A player can’t go to the field feeling that he’s not OK or that he’s not comfortable or not fit,” he says. “You must put every piece together, so that when he goes to the field, he feels 100 per cent and can give everything. If a player goes to the field and is afraid of something, that could help bring about another injury.”
José has witnessed the full spectrum of injury, including career-ending breaks and ruptures. But he’s also seen minor miracles. While genetics and physical makeup play their part, José says the attitude and mental strength of injured players can have an outcome-defining impact too.
You have to put every piece together, so that when he goes to the field, he feels 100% and he can give everything”
Vasco Uva – who would become an icon of Portuguese rugby and No. 8 at the tournament – is one such case. “Uva, our captain, he had an injury and had to have surgery,” he recalls. “Initially they thought his Rugby World Cup was over, but he recovered. He played and he was our legendary captain in 2007.
“The head of the player and how he sees the injury is very important. It helps because the player is thinking well: he wants to recover fast; he listens to the physio and respects our demands.
“Also, it’s the job of the physio to calm the player down, to tell him ‘everything will be OK’ and give him confidence. Because when the physio works with the player and says, ‘everything will be OK’, it’s different because when he has pain or is finding his limit, this confidence can get the player to another level.”
Yet mental resilience isn’t everything, José says. It’s also about feeling comfortable and confident about your physical condition. For instance, the bandages players wear when they’re training or playing can make a difference, even if it’s only a placebo effect.
“The strapping when they go to the games, or to train, also provides confidence in the planning in their mind. They must be comfortable and sometimes the strapping is about that; about getting to the place where they’re confident they’ll be OK.”
Portuguese players, coaches and staff, including José, are using the Canon PowerShot V10 to document their own stories at Rugby World Cup 2023.
For José, the stakes are high, given that fielding a player who isn’t fully fit could result in them getting hurt, or even ending their career. Sometimes this involves difficult conversations, but for José, it’s another part of the physio’s job.
“All the teams and staff work for the same goal,” he says, “putting the players on the field as the best versions they can be.” “Sometimes we have conflict because the technical staff want to use a player and maybe the player is not fit. It’s our responsibility to manage this. It takes a lot of communication.
“It’s the medical staff that can say, ‘yes, he can train, but today he should not have contact’, or ‘we can do contact but not heavy contact.’”
As with most things, there’s more to rugby than you think. When you look past the players on the pitch, you find dozens of people, dedicated to one goal: the team’s success.
José and his colleagues are an integral part of the process. He is proud of the individual relationships he forges with players to both protect them from injury and improve their on-field performance.
“The relationship between physios and players has to be the best it can be,” he says. “It’s like a barber shop, when the player has some confidence to talk to the physios, it helps us see where they are mentally and helps us work with the player.
“So, the physios have to be open so the players can have confidence to be able to say what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.”
It’s important to be open, to be respectful and to be a good listener”
The “barber shop” analogy is an apt one. José’s approach creates a safe space in the treatment room, where players can be honest and share their concerns, both mental and physical.
“These talks often happen during massages or on the therapy tables. Most of the time it’s when the players are alone with the physios. It’s important to be open, to be respectful and to be a good listener, because sometimes the players go to the coaches saying “we’re OK, don’t worry about me,” but during our talks we understand that he’s not OK because he’s not feeling well.
“These talks are confidential, it’s just between us, these help us in how we have to work with the players, and what players need.”
Everyone should be able to tell their own story, which is why we’re empowering Jose and the Portugal staff and players to capture theirs, in their own way.
In helping the players become the “best versions of themselves”, there are countless hours of work that you’ll never see. Jose and the physios are relentless and, ultimately, selfless. For them, the results are worth it, because they help create the magical on-field moments celebrated for years to come.
Most of the time we are the first to wake up and the last ones to stop working.”
“People forget the physios and support staff. But the amount of responsibility in the team and in the day-to-day of the physio in the team is huge. Most of the time we are the first to wake up and the last ones to stop working.”
“I sometimes start treating players at 7am and stop treating them at 11pm. We don’t get noticed as much, but our work is very noticeable on the field.”
They may often be overlooked, but when you see José and his colleagues for what they are – a group of people dedicated to the physical and mental betterment of others – a new picture emerges, and it shows the unsung heroes of rugby and the Portuguese national team.
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