In 2007, the All-Blacks were set to win their first Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987. They led France 13 to 3 at half time in the quarter final. In the second half, it went a little pear shaped for them and they lost 20 18 in the process. Star player Anton Oliver likened the feeling afterwards to a death in the family. The expectation was so great, the result so damaging and hurtful. The players had choked due to the fear of failure – a crippling form of anxiety and performance stress brought on by huge expectation.

When the French took the lead, commentators suggested the All-Blacks just needed to get up the field and take a penalty to win it. They got up the field and created an opportunity but went for the try instead. Poor decision making and inability to stay calm and rational under pressure cost them the game and their chance to fulfill their countrymen’s expectations.

New Zealand v France - IRB RWC 2007 Quarter Final

France players celebrate as Rodney So’oialo of New Zealand walks away dejected following the Quarter Final of the Rugby World Cup 2007. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

 

We have seen where huge expectations have a major negative impact on performance in other sports too. Brazil were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the soccer world cup in 2014 as the nation expected. The English soccer team have also failed to meet expectations at numerous championships – most notably the 2014 world cup as the media frenzy set huge hysteria and expectations around them. They finished bottom of the group. The Irish Rugby team capitulated in the 2007 world cup as they failed to get out of the group stages and struggled to beat what are perceived to be a lesser nation in Georgia before losing to France and Argentina comprehensively.

We have also seen it on an individual basis. In 1986 Greg Norman led by 6 shots heading into the final day at Augusta National. He couldn’t handle the pressure and lost. Rory McIlroy suffered the same fate in 2011 at Augusta while Jean Van De Welde made a similar fall when he was red hot favourite to win the British Open at St Andrews. He even considered attempting to hit the ball from the drain on the famous 17th hole. His decision making was out of control. Colin Montgomerie could never win a golf major despite topping the European Tour Order of Merit for ten years in a row while more recently Sergio Garcia has struggled (lost numerous play-offs)  when it came to the majors in golf. Jimmy White could never win the World snooker championship despite being the best player in the world for many years.

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In 2011 the All-Blacks tried to address the problem of the impact of expectation through anxiety and performance stress. They brought in psychological support to help players manage their minds and decision making when under pressure. All Black psychologist Gilbert Enoka suggests that the brain delivers three types of response when challenged in a stressful environment – instinct, emotional and thought response. The body always does what the mind tells it to do and he felt that this was the root of the problem. The problem wasn’t one of fitness or physical skill-set.

Emotional and instinctive decisions can be somewhat erratic and often incorrect ones as had proved on previous occasions. He needed needed his players to steer towards decisions that are thought induced and made by clear and rational minds that aren’t overwhelmed by the stress and pressure of the occasion. For that to happen he needed them to be calm under pressure.

He brought in the help of Gazing Performance System’s. They work with high end business organisations such as Xerox, UPS and Avis in handling pressure and improving performance. Gazing Performance began working on control of attention to alleviate anxiety in pressure situations where it is easy for a mind to go from clear and positive mind to an over-heated, tense and frustrated one.

They described the All-Blacks to be H.O.T

  • Heated
  • Over-whelmed
  • Tense

They called this “Red Head” – where one is no longer in control.

Other unhelpful characteristics of having a “Red Head” might be

  • Tight
  • inhibited
  • results oriented
  • anxious
  • aggressive
  • over-compensating
  • desperate

 

They required the players to have a “Blue Head” – one of calmness that can maintain clarity of consciousness, situational awareness, accurate analysis and have the ability to make good decisions under pressure.

Typically, a “Blue Head” would have the following characteristics.

  • Loose
  • Expressive
  • In the Moment
  • Calm
  • Clear
  • Accurate
  • On task

Such a state of consciousness allows you to see the bigger picture, remain on task, and attend to relevant stimuli allowing players. Put simply, it allows the players to process the information at hand and make correct decisions.

For example, is there a positive overload to left or right (5v4 or 4v3 situation)? Is there a gap off the side of the ruck? Is the maul dominant enough to make yards? Is there a kick chase on? Should we take penalty or scrum? Tap kick penalty or go for the line-out? What type of line-out? Such decisions are made on a constant basis in rugby and such decisions often influence the result. Therefore having the ability to take the optimal option can be the deciding factor between winning and losing.

In this regard, some players need to be more psyched down than psyched up for a performance so that they can maintain appropriate clarity of consciousness for optimal decision making. Without realising, the natural charge of the environment of competitive sport (stadium, fans & noise) can put players in the H.O.T zone where they are unable to manage their thoughts. Those in that negative zone tend to go with an instinctive or emotional response as opposed to a rational thought induced response which very often is the wrong decision.

James Kerr in his book about the All-Blacks “Legacy” allays that former All-Black out half Andrew Mehrtens likens it to “striking the balance between being lucid and being motivated. There comes a point where you become too hyped up and you lose your lucidity and ability to read a situation and make a good decision.”

For example, with only minutes remaining in a match where your team are expected to win, your team are in an attacking position on the pitch in possession of the ball but losing by two points. Your thought process might be, “crap, we have to win this game, we are in trouble here”, as opposed to a strategic rational thought oriented response. This type of thought can keep you calm and allow you to see the big picture and make optimal decisions to help the team create a score to win the game.

Additionally, in such a contact sport, the best players and teams play on the edge of the rules. However, numerous athletes struggle to stay on the right side of that edge in intense pressure situations. Their “controlled aggression” is no longer controlled. Some may have a tendency to overcook their aggression levels (H.O.T.), lose the cool and demonstrate poor decision making, often resulting in sub-maximal performance or penalization through yellow / red cards etc depending on the sport.

Lack of control often occurs due to frustration. Frustration can come about due to many reasons – mistakes in own performance – unmet expectation, a bad pass, a missed putt, a dropped ball, a poor refereeing decision, concession of a soft score, a missed opportunity or previous negative relations with said opposition. When this happens, athlete’s often lose their thought clarity resulting in erratic performance or behaviour leaving them open to ill-discipline that may have further implications for the team or performance.

As such, the All-Black’s sought to implement a programme to develop optimal thought processes for the 2011 World Cup. Team psychologist Enoka suggests that many teams use psychological support on an ad hoc basis – a one off visit from a sport psychologist or inspirational motivational speaker, a day away but rarely something continuous and progressive. Few focus on long term improvement. Enoka told Real Estate Business Magazine that it is crazy the way some people think, “because if you want to build up strength, you go to the gym three times a week and work on your core strength. It just seems that if you want to develop your ability to concentrate and focus and be flexible in what you do from a mental perspective, wouldn’t you apply the same approach?”

Prior to the 2011 world cup, Enoka, with Gazing Performance built layers of pressure allowing the player’s minds to adapt and acclimatize to the pressure. Accordingly, All-Black brains adjusted and developed clarity with regard to accuracy, automaticity of execution and situational awareness in a similar way to which a Math’s teacher might build layered schema in his students. Never too much too soon, but a strategic layered approach. When they were finished, players felt in control of their minds and were ready to execute their skills with appropriate tactical awareness.

All-Blacks

Mental strategies were put in place to firstly calm the mind. Richie McCaw in his book describes the work that Ceri Evans of Gazing Performance did with helping them maintain such calm. Like meditation, he described how he got them to reconnect during breaks in play at opportune times. “Breathing slowly and deliberately…..shift your attention to something external – the ground, or your feet or the ball at hand or the grandstand………use deep breaths and key words to get out of your own head, get yourself ‘back in the present’, regain your situational awareness”. These techniques help the body and mind to centre, relax and maintain appropriate thought activation.

Other mental strategies or what sport psychologists might call “attentional focus cues” or “triggers” were implemented by Enoka and Gazing Performance also. These cues gave players a map of what they should be doing generally in different scenarios. It would work in a similar way to what Neuro Linguistic Programming might do for adult behaviour.

It would work as a road-map to help players to navigate their way through a game while enabling activation of appropriate thought processes and clarity of mind and purpose. While we don’t fully know the actual cues implemented for 2011, Anton Oliver – an All Black at the previous world cup in 2007 gives some insight into what may have been involved in James Kerr’ book “Legacy“. Remembering the “cues” from 2007, “I can still remember them……….TQB, top quality ball. OTG, over the gainline. KBA, keep ball alive. LQB, lightening quick ball. You get those four things going, we’re fine………that gave us the template to figure out the game”.

2011 world cup

In the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final with the All-Blacks in the lead at 8-7 against the same opposition as 2007 (France), the All-Blacks now had the tools to win. The book “Legacy” describes how “Richie McCaw breathes, holds his wrist, stamps his feet – reconnecting with himself, returning to the moment. Brad Thorne throws water over himself cooling his thoughts. Kieran Read stares out to the far distant edge of the stadium, regaining perspective” all maintaining appropriate clarity as the clock counts down slowly. They are in control of their own minds. The whistle goes. They are finally champions.

Open Your Mind

You can read more on the topic of performance stress here.

Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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