Brian Ashton: All Blacks' red-blue thinking lights a path everyone else should follow

Tackling The Issues

As I was away last week and did not write a column, I want to offer belated congratulations to the All Blacks on winning the 2011 World Cup.

New Zealand were comfortably the best team in the tournament, if not necessarily in the final in which France again confounded all opinion and put in a massive performance. I am not sure that the "chokers" tag attached to New Zealand at World Cups will ever totally disappear but I suspect the All Blacks do not give a stuff.

I have resisted commenting on England's efforts – on and off the field – and have no desire to go into detail already covered elsewhere. Suffice to say that they did not endear themselves to many people.

World Cup captain Lewis Moody has flown the nest and made some interestingly strange comments regarding the behaviour of some of his squad-mates. Many of the remainder of the elite club/international game appear to be in a state of denial, self-preservation and hopeful re-ingratiation – all characteristics of the self-serving ruling classes.

Post World Cup final interviews with head coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw revealed the mindset the All Blacks have been developing to ensure they were in a position to deal with adversity in a positive manner.

Adversity certainly appeared to envelop the No 10 jersey, from the loss during the qualifying pool stages of Dan Carter to a serious groin tear and the subsequent injuries to two successors. But New Zealand coped, and their fourth incumbent, Stephen Donald, kicked the winning points.

Regular readers will know that I am a strong believer in technical, physical, tactical, lifestyle and mental skills: the ingredients for success. All these areas are important. The technical and physical underpin, and set, a performance default-line when fatigue kicks in.

The area of coaching and preparation that has most interested me over the past decade, however, has been the contribution of the mental side of the game. It glues together all the other elements and maintains the route to success in hostile, pressurised environments. The mindset drives performance.

McCaw spoke about the adaptability of the squad when adversity struck and of dealing with it, using clarity of thought and execution that enables a group to get back on task and, more importantly, remain there.

Graham Henry made several references to the world of blue and red-headed behaviour that helped the group to recognise and understand early-warning signs of negative developments. If these distractions threaten to reduce control, the individual triggers were employed to get back to the job at hand. He referred to Brad Thorne pouring water over himself and McCaw stamping on the ground.

I do not like the term "sports psychology" (it spooks me), but I am a fervent believer in the importance of developing mental skills, of developing the capacity to focus solely on the task at hand while ignoring diversions.

There's an obvious list in rugby – personal dramas, game-plan failures, unexpected opposition performance, refereeing decisions, yellow and red cards and injuries to your best players. There are red-headed triggers that, if left to fester, can cause disruption, even to the best prepared teams.

It is not enough, and indeed can muddy the waters, to have flying doctor-style visits by psychologists to provide short-term remedies. Mental skills must be an integral part of preparation on a regular basis. They improve with practice.

All this leads to an interesting point. With the 2011 World Cup still 12 months away, Graham Henry, through the All Blacks' mental conditioning coach, Gilbert Enoka, enlisted the help of two directors and founding partners of Gazing Performance, Dr Ceri Evans and Renzie Hanham, to assist in mentally preparing the All Blacks, not just for the World Cup but during it.

The fundamental premise of Gazing Performance is to provide a framework and tools that help people to think clearly and correctly under pressure by stripping away any mystique and complexity, for example making it readily accessible to all in any organisation.

In 2002 I was asked by the Rugby Football Union to instigate a National Academy to develop young players who would embrace, and thrive in, a hostile environment. Our most important back-room appointment was to find someone who could help deliver this. Gazing Performance were employed as mental skills experts.

The players engaged red-blue thinking immediately. The approach was easily understood and had practical applications. This was not generalisation about having confidence and belief, nor did it attempt to compare with neuro-biological science. It involved a common-sense approach, applicable to all areas of preparation. The sadness was that when I left the Academy in 2006, Gazing Performance disappeared as well.

Unlike the All Black management, there were coaches who could not distinguish between mental and physical toughness, an absurdity when you will all have witnessed the most macho of players receive cards for disruptive behaviour, and how pressure can bring about poor decision-making from the hard men of the game.

Mental skills are integral to preparation and success in all areas of life. Perhaps we should pay them a little more respect.

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