A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team

keep-calm-and-chillax-72By most measures, the New Zealand All-Blacks are the toughest, smartest, and most successful sports team on the planet. The rugby squad has won 86 percent their games during the modern era against some of the most ferocious competition in the world. Best of all, they begin each match with a crazy, terrifyingly cool haka dance (below).

So it won’t surprise you to learn that the All-Blacks train incredibly hard, or that they have a robust team culture, or that they are tactically brilliant. But it might surprise you to learn that they spend a lot of time and energy working on an area which most of us totally ignore: emotional skills.

Specifically, their ability to regulate mood, to stay positive and resilient, to handle unfair ups and downs, to remain even-keeled, and to deal with unpredictable misfortune without losing your grip.  Basically, their competitive temperament.

It’s funny, we don’t normally think of temperament as a skill. We think of it as a fixed product of someone’s character. We instinctively assume that temperaments are either weak (tend to choke under pressure) or strong (tend to come through). The All-Blacks, however, treat temperament and emotion as muscles to be trained with specific workouts.

Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches. It was the typical stuff we all experience from time to time: they were trying too hard, being overly aggressive, and experiencing the tunnel-vision syndrome Navy pilots dryly refer to as OBE: Overcome By Events.

So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head.

Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed.

Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance.

The key is doing three things:

  • 1) seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting
  • 2) sense cues when you are entering Red-Head mode
  • 3) use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head.

On the All-Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever  tool you use doesn’t matter — what matters is realizing you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space.

I think this is an idea that applies to a lot more than just sports. The notion that you can build yourself an emotional thermostat that senses when it’s overheating, and cools itself down when needed, is powerfully useful.

What I like best is how it flips the normal dynamic about emotions — where everyone is left to deal with it on their own — and turns it into a platform for group conversation. Players and coaches can use this language to tell a player that he’s glowing red, or to appreciate a player who stays blue under pressure.  It forms a language of performance that, like all shared languages, connects people and lifts them up.

(Plus, that haka!)

PS: if you want to read more about the All-Blacks, check out Legacy: What the All-Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr

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