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The latest 'mind-stretching' Sale exercise to improve their play

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Alex Sanderson has revealed that one of the world’s leading neuropsychologists visited the Sale squad at their Carrington training ground on Monday in an effort to help them produce a better performance when they take on Bristol on Friday in the second leg of their round of 16 Heineken Champions Cup tie.


Ever since Sanderson was appointed as the successor to director of rugby Steve Diamond in January 2021, Sale have tried an array of outside-the-box off-field gambits in the hope of securing their players those vital top few inches to make a difference on the pitch. Just last September he spoke about their ambition to develop a mind gym

Now, fresh from what was roundly criticised as the worst of the eight first-leg Champions Cup ties last weekend, Sale are now striving to produce a way better display in the hope of overturning the slender one-point deficit they face at Ashton Gate following their 10-9 defeat at the AJ Bell last Saturday in a disappointingly dull encounter that was broadcast on free-to-air TV as well as BT Sport.  

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Monday was review day at the Sale training ground and despite the shortened turnaround to Friday’s away game, Sanderson admitted that his squad took a left-field deep dive into why it didn’t click for them in their first meeting against Bristol. 

Asked for his reflections on a match that was best forgotten 15 months into his reign as the Sale boss, Sanderson said: “Loads as you can imagine, racking my brain because we had a good training week. Herein lies your priorities as a coach and as a group on a short turnaround after a poor performance where we rued some of the opportunities we had, if you delve too deep you take too long to get over it and get on with it. 


“So we haven’t delved too deep this week although talk about deep, we did have one of the world’s leading neuropsychologists come in and do a little interactive presentation for us on Monday and highlighted our awareness of the effects of oxytocin and dopamine on your effort and your energy respectively which you can create, nor forcibly but create through meaningful social interactions and inward reflection. We looked at how we can be better, work harder, get tighter, go deeper as a team and as individuals to get a better performance rather than just look back at why it was so boring.”

Asked for the name of the neuropsychologist who visited Sale, Sanderson kicked to touch. “My missus told me not to tell you. She said to me don’t try and be too funny, because you’re not, don’t talk about people’s injuries because you don’t have that medical experience, and don’t talk about the neuropsychologist who I am currently in love with who does work with the special forces, with the RAF and the chief commander of space defence, whatever the f*** that is. 


“This guy is fascinating so everything you thought you knew or were sure about the power of team, the effectiveness, the tightness and the togetherness of the team to enhance performance, the sum of the parts being greater than the individual, everything you thought you knew about that as an intangible thing, this guy has irrefutable neurological evidence for why it improves performance. For a group of South Africans who think that all things lovey-dovey is fluffy, hopefully it opens their eyes to some of the science behind it as well. 

“We delved into the topic in respect to the physics study of co-regulation. So if you to twang an A note on the violin where I am sat right now and in the next room even though you couldn’t hear it just the vibrations of that string resonates. If there was a violin in that room it would pick up on that vibration through the wall or whatever it might be. 

“That is just an immaterial object but it you were to sit and watch a film, this is proven fact, if there is someone sat next to you subconsciously as a film went on your respiratory and brain rate will synchronise with that person subconsciously. It’s co-regulation. 

“Suffice to say that your skin is not the outside of you, it’s just the physical outside of you. There are elements to you that can affect people in a chaos theory, a Plato-physical manner which is now the getting into the understanding of that and if you are able to synch up in a harmonious manner then obviously you can have shared performance. 


“It’s a little bit mind-stretching, that is the best way to describe it. To overcome some feelings of frustration is to be curious about how you can be better and we just opened the minds a bit on Monday in and around some of these topics which has got me and the lads talking about it. 

“Co-regulation is a real thing… Body language is part of it but they think there is something more, hence why the skin is not the outside of you. If you are aware of that in your interaction with everyone, those small interactions become more meaningful.”

What does all this mean, though, for playing rugby on the pitch? “Don’t get me wrong, we have had that tough conversation and we have kept the rugby fix very, very simple… But we constantly use these opportunities to understand ourselves and performances a little bit more, a little bit greater. 

“Everyone comes in and talks about their rugby, that has been the traditional sense. Look we are not playing all that well, there is better ways to do it. I get that but I’m striving for something that might just give us the edge down the line that is a little bit different otherwise I’m only going to be as good as everyone else, we are only going to be as good as everyone else so to do that you have to stretch the boundaries a little bit. 

“We have looked at many different tools and avenues to the same end. It’s all about performance but exploring those intangible avenues regarding mentality and those areas where people tend to veer away from through fear because it is not the recognised method of doing it and you can’t measure it. 

“We still endeavour to try every hard in the things you can measure but everyone is at a level at that as we know so where do you get the edge? It’s through all the ways and means that we have tried and will continue to explore until we find things that stick and we have found a few things. I do believe that this guy that I have met – and the guy has agreed to help us over the next year – is going to give us some more tools that we can use moving forward.”


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