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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12 Responses to “A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team”

  1. Mark says:

    That’s pretty cool. I’ve recently read work by a guy named Gershon Tenenbaum. He’s studied decision-making in athletes, and written on how experts are better able to maintain appropriate levels of arousal and regulate emotions to stay in the optimal zone of functioning (IZOF). It’s a surprisingly, deep, complex, and (in this dork’s opinion) absolutely fascinating topic.

    Thanks – now i’m eager to track down some info on the Navy pilot’s OBE, tunnel-vision thing.


  2. Great article

    Again another simple solution to a complex problem and creating images for what would be a complex issue to explain in words, which again goes to prove the brain works best with images

    There was a period of time that the All Blacks would start flat in games after performing the Haka because they put so much passion into performing it, which would put them into the Red-Head mode rather than the preferred Blue-Head mode thereby handing the first 10 minutes of a match to the opposition.

    As you’re so rightly pointing out Dan, upstairs is quickly becoming the key area because now the physical aspects of sport are so close together and the differences are so small that the mind is where the biggest advances are to occur.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Hey Mark, Thanks for the rec — Tenebaum sounds fascinating. I’m excited to check it out.

    And if you’re gonna go deep on pilot decision-making, google OODA Loops — it’s terrific.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hi Robin — Thanks for that — especially the point about the brain working best with images. So, so true. And that makes TOTAL sense that the team would struggle to get back in Blue Head mode after the fire of the haka. Reminds me a bit of the over-the-top introductions that are so common in sports these days. Is it any wonder that so many teams come up flat in big games?

  5. Mark says:

    Hi Daniel – …re: checking out OODA loops. Will do – thanks!

  6. Brad R says:

    Dear Daniel: My father was an engineer and my mother acted so my brain is black and blue from all the precise for emotional arguments in my brain! For further guidance on this subject, I recommend reading Steve Peters The Chimp Paradox: The mind management program to help you achieve success, confidence and happiness for another look at controlling emotions or chimp as he calls it. Dr. Peters helped the British Olympic Cyclists become champions!

  7. Rob says:

    Daniel – You should check out the program/book called zones of regulation. It’s being used by Occupational Therapists/teachers in elementary schools to help younger kids learn how their body actions are linked to their feelings and emotions and how those emotions and actions can prepare your body to be ready to learn. I’m looking forward to piloting it with a few teachers this school year. I Always look forward to your posts!

  8. Martin Fairn says:

    Dear Daniel: Firstly I would like to say I appreciated your article that highlights how a seemingly basic but really practical aspect of performance development has been employed by one of the most iconic sporting brands who have certainly achieved levels of sustained performance under extreme pressure. Those achievements have allowed their reputation to transcend not only other sports but also into the world of business and beyond.

    However I would like to adjust one key statement made in your article in terms of the how the creation or development of the ‘red to blue’ concept and tool came about. Rather than it being devised by the All Blacks the concept and associated tools and coaching programme were actually created around 1999 – 2000 by the UK based company Gazing Performance Systems Ltd. Dr Ceri Evans is a founding partner and leading developer for Gazing Performance supported by Renzie Hanham and the rest of the Gazing team.

    Following the initial development of the ‘red to blue’ concept it was taken by the Gazing team and adapted for a wide range of organisations that include sporting organisations such as the English Rugby Union in 2001 to 2004 where it formed a core platform of their National Academy programme and remains as a key element of their elite coach development programme. Gazing Performance has also adapted and deployed the concept across a range of businesses that include such well known organisations as Xerox Corporation, who continue to deploy the training across all their regions including North America. The programme has even been adapted and delivered into education for students and schools including for several schools in Soweto, South Africa as part of a community project. However as you point out the All Blacks took the ‘red head blue head’ concept and really made it their own and Dr Evans was instrumental in helping them do that. We are fortunate he still remains as one of the Gazing Performance Systems founding shareholders.

    I point the above out not in any way to minimise what you have written but hopefully to add clarity as to the source of ‘red to blue’, and richness in the knowledge that such an apparently useful and impactful tool is accessible for everyone in all types of environment – they just need to use it as well as the All Blacks do which is the biggest challenge! But there is evidence of progress in recognition that mind set and mental,or emotional skills play a key part in the development of abilities of individuals and teams to perform in all types of pressurised environments. Please feel free to follow up as I would be happy to discuss in more detail the development of this concept and how it has been deployed into these different domains? Thanks again. Regards Martin.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Martin — I really appreciate your comment. I’m grateful for the clarification, and glad to know that the Red/Blue method 1) has a history; and 2) is being employed in lots of diverse domains. I would like to learn more about Gazing. Do you have any materials/sites that would be interesting? If so, please feel free to send them to me at danieljcoyle17@gmail.com.

  10. djcoyle says:

    Thanks very much Rob — I will definitely check it out! Appreciate your thinking of me.

  11. Great insight Dan! Cool to see how a NLP technique gets used by the best sports team in a way everybody can relate to. And labeling it red/blue head refers to recent studies as well.

    I’ll definitely share this article with my clients, especially the French 🙂


  12. Concept One Navy Team Specific

    […] normally think of temperament as a skill. We think of it as a fixed product of s […]

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