Anthony Watson: “Don’t fear competition”Anthony Watson, English rugby’s rising star, was crippled by pre-match anxiety – then he learnt to use the competitive instinct to his advantage
Anthony Watson has a surprisingly firm and assured handshake for a man once riddled with self-doubt and nerves.
Having grown up with two fiercely competitive brothers, his determination to triumph began to manifest itself as motivation-sapping anxiety, which threatened to put the brakes on the career of one of England’s most exciting new players.
Now, with the help of a mind coach, and eight international tries later, the 22-year-old is channelling his insatiable will to win in a far more productive way…
THE RED BULLETIN: How intense was the competition between you and your brothers while growing up?
ANTHONY WATSON: Put it this way, I recently saw a hilarious home video from when I was seven or eight. I was having a race against my older brother – it was only 50m or so – but after 20m I realised that I wasn’t going to win, so I veered to the left and burst into tears. When I was a kid, if I didn’t win I’d start crying. I was a really bad loser. Then the sibling rivalry began to create anxiety.
How did that happen?
It probably began because losing meant letting down the people around me. At a sports day when I was 15, everyone expected me to break school records, but the idea of failing them was so terrible that I didn’t even want to take part. I wanted it over with. That feeling worsened over the next five years, to the point where, before a rugby game, I’d wish I could fast-forward to the final whistle. Instead of finding a way to cope, I kept it all inside. Competition was what had driven me to be the best, but then the pressure got to me and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
What was the turning point?
I began to work with [mind coach] Don Macpherson at Bath Rugby last year. At first he was just concentrating on my nerves, but now he’s a mentor, helping me approach things in life the right way. He made me realise that if I put in the work Monday to Friday at training, there’s no reason I can’t perform on Saturday. I’ll also never forget the saying ‘Pressure is a privilege’. I’m privileged to be in a position where people expect me to perform, so I began to use that ‘burden’ in a positive way. It’s a privilege to represent my family, my friends and my country. That changed it all.
So competition is no longer the enemy?
Not at all. Competition is everything now. It’s why we all play. That feeling you get after winning a game is extra special. You can look around at your teammates, who’ve been through the same 80 minutes as you and given everything, and nobody can take that feeling away. It’s what drives me now.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you now ‘relish playing against big guys’. How do you mentally prepare for such a task?
The last ‘big guy’ I played against was the biggest guy I’ve ever seen on a pitch – Nemani Nadolo, who plays on the wing for Fiji. He’s about 6ft 5in and weighs 125kg, while I’m 6ft 1in and 90kg, so he was a fair bit bigger than me. It was a great challenge, though. I liked the fact that everyone was worried about what would happen, but all I was thinking was how I could impose my game on him.
How would you have approached that scenario if anxiety was still an issue?
The media talk would have really got to me. Instead, I concentrated on my own game and proving myself.
Is there anything that still makes you nervous?
I have this strange thing where whenever I walk over a bridge, I get the temptation to hurl my phone off it. Sometimes I have to put my phone away for safety. I’m sure I never would, but I always get that feeling.
What advice would you give to someone in the same situation as you were?
It’s too easy to just say, “Enjoy it,” as I know anxiety will always stop that from happening. Putting in the hours beforehand is important. If you can do it in training, there’s no reason you can’t when the time comes.