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'We're building a mind gym': Sanderson's mental Sale pre-season

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ashley Western/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rookie Sale boss Alex Sanderson has shed light on some of the ambitious curiosities that have been part of his first pre-season at the Manchester-based Gallagher Premiership club. The ex-Saracens assistant succeeded Steve Diamond at the helm last January and after going on to clinch a place in the semi-finals, his squad have since embarked on an ambitious plan to make themselves more robust.   


Gains have already been glimpsed in the likes of England midfielder Manu Tuilagi shedding 6kgs in pre-season but there is so more behind the Sale thinking under Sanderson than players simply shedding a few kilos and looking more ripped in appearance. There are other ways in which the new boss wants his talent to feel better about itself.

Sale media briefings by Sanderson last term developed a reputation for heading down unexpected rabbit holes and he started this new campaign no differently, candidly opening up about the various unusual gambits that have been implemented in recent months in the hope of gaining an on-field edge that pushes them closer to a first Premiership title since 2006. 

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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories

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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories

Away from the usual exhaustive exercises that every rugby club undertakes in a pre-season, Sanderson has placed a huge emphasis on mental skills at Sale, creating a mind gym, doing human flag-type work and embarking on exercises to regularly spruce up the culture at the club. It’s a fascinating idea and something best left to Sanderson to explain at length what exactly the heck is going on at Carrington ahead of a season that begins at home to Bath on September 18. 

“We wanted to make the place more robust so we are able to train harder in the weeks during the season to be able to improve the skill set as well as the game management and the ability to sustain performance,” he opened with regard to what has recently taken place on and off the training ground. 

“Not just outworking teams but outperforming teams over the 80 minutes and the base for that is something you lay down in the pre-season. We can train harder for longer without people breaking down. It was almost a case of getting them through the weeks when I first joined whereas now we have a bit left in the tank so we can do a bit more. There is a cardiovascular effect and an aerobic capacity to that that you want to build up and the weight. Everybody is doing that… but what we are talking about is are you able to perform? There is decision making involved in that, there is your mental resilience, mental fitness combined with your physical fitness. So mainly game-related, that is part of it. The other part, which we are really excited about, is the mental fitness, the mental skills side of the game. 

“All things being equal, how much of it comes down to the top two inches? Very few teams allow the time and space in the schedule to work on those mental skills. We have built a mind gym which is a gym solely for the mind. There are no weights in there. It is a gym for the improvement of mental skills. I rang my brother up and said, ‘Pat, you will never guess what I got the go-ahead for, what we are building? We are building a mind gym’. He was like, ‘Brilliant Al, but why do you think no one else had built one?’ There’s stuff, loads of stuff – wouldn’t you like to know what is in it? 


“We have got out on the field a guy called Jako the flag (David Jackson) because he is the best in the world at doing the human flag. He is a breathing expert. That is another layer of mental skills where you can emotionally regulate and self-regulate to be able to calm your emotions down through breathwork. We have been working hard on that. It’s organisation-wide. I have all the coaches doing it because we need to go on the journey to understand. 

“We don’t know how much of it works – maybe none of it works – but I’m pretty certain it will and we are going to throw everything at it to see what sticks to give them these tools to emotionally regulate themselves, to stay mentally resilient. There is a lot of research in terms of CO2 tolerance, being able to consciously be aware of your breathing. When you are recovering you can increase your V02 max by CO2 tolerance by up to 10 per cent – that’s without doing any fitness. 

“We had a guy in Snowden who spends four days out of every six weeks with the special forces talking to us about a lot of the tools he uses with them and we are trying to incorporate all these tools using specialists on a weekly basis, two sessions a week for the boys as an added extra on top of all the rugby stuff. 

“A lot of these things aren’t massively physically draining and they are all free, we are not talking supplements and stuff here, this is all the things that are under your control if we buy into it which we are doing. That has been another focus. 


“And the third one, there is a lady called Margaret Heffernan who coined the phrase ‘social culture’. She talks about culture as being like a garden and you have got to keep mowing the grass. My understanding is that it is a forever thing, you have to constantly reaffirm or reassess who you are and why you are doing it and then you layer on that process. 

“We have been through that process again and those purposes have changed from where we were five, six months ago so it was a good process to go through. Every Tuesday we do that. Jamie Langley has been a genius in doing it on an individual and small group basis so that all of their behaviours are intentional. It’s about getting the most out of every one of the players at every session and that will transfer to the game.”


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finn 6 hours ago
Massive red flag raised by weakened Champions Cup teams – Andy Goode

I wonder if the problem of some teams not taking it that seriously would be helped by making performance in the champions cup count towards qualification and/or seeding in the following year’s competition. Eg. top four seeds would be winners of the URC, premiership, and top 14, plus best performing team in the previous year’s CC who have not otherwise qualified. Doing that the seedings for this years comp. would have been: Tier one: Saracens - Munster - Toulouse - la Rochelle Tier two: Sale - Stormers - Racing 92 - Leinster Tier three: Leicester - Connacht - Bordeaux - Exeter Tier four: Northampton - Ulster - Lyon - Sharks Tier five: Harlequins - Glasgow - Stade Francais - Edinburgh Tier six: Bath - Bulls - Toulon - Ospreys The competition would probably work better with fewer teams, so I’d probably favour only the first 4 tiers being invited, and then going straight to a quarter final without a round of 16. On the one hand this would possibly incentivise teams to take the champions cup seriously, and on the other it would mean that the latter stages would be more likely to involve teams that have demonstrated a willingness to take the competition seriously. The main differences between my proposed system and the actual draw is that mine would give la Rochelle a fairly easy ride to the quarters, and would either exclude the Bulls entirely or would give then an insurmountably difficult draw. As it happened Exeter got quite an easy pool draw but that was a bit of a fluke. My system would reward Exeter for being one of the teams that demonstrably devote a lot of attention to the CC by guaranteeing them a good draw.

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