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By: Steel Institute Of Performance  06-Dec-2011
Keywords: Athletes

Following on from last month’s discussion regarding the All Blacks win over France in the RWC final, a number of readers have asked me to examine the AB’s performance in a more critical manner in order to deepen their appreciation of the mental game. While I am happy to do this, it is important you (as a recipient of our newsletter) accept I have no interest in taking anything away from the AB’s win, but rather consider my commentary as an opportunity to explore this subject in a way that may enable you to better understand how to increase your and/or your team’s psychological capacity to perform.

While the All Blacks won, they could have just as easily lost. In fact I do not believe I saw anything within either the AB’s, the coaching staff or for that matter the French that gave me reason to believe the game was at any time sewn up. Rather as the game wore on, the AB’s (and coaches) appeared to become increasingly uneasy about how the game was unfolding and yet no one appeared to know how to arrest it. As such I would rate the AB’s mental performance a 4 out of 10. I would also (and therefore) rate their performance on the field a 4 out of 10; in terms of how well they played compared to how well they could have played based on their potential.

What intrigues me most is that Henry, who continues to prove his technical and tactical prowess, said ìwhile they didn’t have control of the game, they had control of their mindsî (Super Sport, NZ Herald, Friday 28 Oct 2011). The point I would make is ‘if they had control of their minds, they would have had control of the game’. As they clearly didn’t have control of the game, at least not in the latter stages, they couldn’t have had control of their minds.

The reason I am interested in emphasising this point is because it is a common misconception experienced by both athletes and coaches alike who have endeavoured to utilise sport psychology as a performance enabler. What I mean by this is my research suggests athletes who use sport psychology as an enabler do not perform notably better than those who don’t because they tend to misinterpret both the significance and influence of the mental game; hence the reason I decided to examine performance as I did. I believe Henry’s comment above supports my observations, and indeed my concerns, that traditional sport psychology tends to be of little value to those who use it hence an increasing number of the world’s elite are starting to explore alternative options.

The fact of the matter is, our ‘psychological’ performance and ‘physiological’ performance should for all intents and purposes be considered one and the same (refer our Psychological Capacity/Performance Ability model). It is not in my opinion appropriate to assume the two are separate (although I accept the body can fail to perform as anticipated if basic bodily functions cease to operate as expected). If however we imagine they are, as Henry and his sport psychologist seem to believe, we will miss the point entirely and thus be unlikely to identify how to increase our capacity (to perform). Let me explain; if an athlete performs well, we must assume they were able to access and/or utilise their physical potential i.e. their skills, knowledge, experience and physical capability. If on the other hand an athlete did not perform as well as we know they could, then something must have prevented them from doing so (refer to the Steel Foundation of Performance models 1 & 2) i.e. something must have happened to inhibit their ability to access and thus utilise their potential. As our skills, knowledge, experience and physical capability cannot suddenly change or disappear (unless we get injured or become fatigued) something else must change for this phenomenon to occur. Based on my research, I came to believe the thing that changes that ultimately causes a change in performance (good or bad) is our mind-set. What I mean by this is I came to realise it is the quality or ‘appropriateness’ of our mind-set or State of Mind that dictates how much of our potential (skills, knowledge, experience and physical capability) we can access or utilise at any given point in time. If we were to believe the AB’s had (by and large) greater potential (skills, knowledge, experience and physical capability) than the French, why were they suddenly unable to access it during the final, or at least in the later stages of the final? In other words, why were they suddenly unable to use their potential against France when everything that led up to the final suggested that it could and should have been a foregone conclusion?

Incidentally, I am not in any way interested in dismissing the French. They are a talented group of players who have the potential to beat most when they get it right, but they were hardly the slick, cohesive and formidable team Henry had assembled; hence the reason most followers of the game anticipated a comfortable win. Those who were less confident of a victory would almost certainly site the AB’s tendency to choke (capitulate) on big occasions as the reason for their uncertainty i.e. most did not believe the French would have the physical capability to match the All Blacks however many questioned whether the AB’s would have the mental strength to maintain an appropriate state if they came under intense pressure by the French.

As such, the question I believe we should ask is not ‘how did the AB’s win’ (which would not only deflect us away from what matters but prevent us from learning anything useful) but ‘why didn’t they win by 20 + points when they clearly had the potential to do so?

If asked this question, I suspect the AB’s would be tempted to say the French didn’t allow them to. Which although that indeed ‘became’ the case, it is inaccurate for it would suggest the AB’s had no alternative when clearly they did (as evidenced by periods of play in the first half and virtually all preliminary games both teams played leading up to the final), however because of their deteriorating mind-set, they started losing control of the game and thus became increasingly focussed on the need to ‘protect their line’ rather than ‘score additional points’. It is in my opinion an irrefutable fact that when we see a team wanting a game or match to be over i.e. when time on the clock is perceived by a team to be a disadvantage rather than an advantage, we know they are in an inappropriate mind-set. The French however wanted the game to go on because they knew they were gaining the upper hand meaning the more time they had, the more they knew they could seize control of the game and thus have a greater opportunity to secure a victory. If the AB’s had control of their minds as Henry stated, I believe they would have retained control of the game and therefore would have used the full period of play to try and score additional points (to achieve a more comprehensive win) than suddenly change their tactics and opt for a purely ‘defensive’ strategy and in doing so, put the game at risk.

It would be interesting to know if Henry advised the AB’s to change their tactics i.e. consciously shift their focus from trying to score additional points to just defending their line, or whether their change in strategy come about as a consequence of their deteriorating mind-set . While I cannot answer that question, I am of the opinion the game unfolded in a way that was entirely consistent with (and thus indicative of) the change in mind-set (to both teams) hence the reason I believe the AB’s lost control of their minds and therefore of the game. In other words, as the AB’s lost control of their minds they naturally started losing control of the game. As they lost control of the game they became increasingly reactive and thus defensive and in doing so, wanted the game to end to prevent the French from scoring; hence the reason I believe they were in an ‘inappropriate’ mind-set.

Before we continue, let’s consider Henry’s comment ìwhile we didn’t have control of the game, we had control of our mindsî from a slightly different angle. Did Henry say this because he genuinely believed the AB’s ‘were’ in control of their minds; in which case he has been misled by those who advise him (as mentioned above - although not intentionally I accept), or did he say it because in comparison to how they fared against France in the quarter finals in 2007 when they did capitulate, they were in a better state?

The interesting thing is, while the AB’s did perform better this time, they were not significantly better. Had they lost in the dying minutes of the game through either a penalty or drop goal given both were on the cards, we would have recognised more similarities between the two games than differences. For this reason I do not believe the AB’s have made any fundamental change to the way they think about the mental game, which is understandable given they never examined the effectiveness of the model or framework they are using (sport psychology) even though they placed considerably more emphasis on the need to develop their mental skills because of their previous failings (refer Oct 2007 issue ‘what went wrong’).

To explore this subject further, let me ask a couple of questions. ‘Why do most elite athletes competing in the modern era have such noticeable up’s and down’s? Why, for example, were the Kiwi’s (Rugby League team), made to look like a bunch of school boys against the Kangaroo’s and British in their latest outings at the World Cup when we know they are a highly talented group of players who can beat any team when they get it right? Why did the Silver Ferns suddenly come unstuck against the Diamonds (Australia) when they were heading into the final quarter (of their most recent match against the Diamonds) in command? Why does Michael Campbell, one of Golf’s most naturally talented players, miss more cuts than he makes? Why are so many of our best so often failing to perform as we know they can when they themselves believe they are doing everything right?

While many in the world of elite sport will answer such questions with the standard ‘it was due to technical and/or tactical eras’, I believe the majority of their comments prove nothing more than their lack of understanding as to the factors that govern athletic performance. By that I mean most coaches operating at an elite level remain mystified by such occurrences hence the reason they are so ineffective at improving their winning percentages. Unfortunately however, rather than examining the issue in more depth in order to try and identify a more accurate conclusion, most seek comfort by assuming the fore mentioned argument but in doing so continue to miss the point. In contrast, I believe the answer is remarkably simple. The reason athletes perform one day and then fall apart the next is not because their technique or tactics suddenly change but because their State of Mind (mind-set) does. By that I mean on some occasions athletes perform well ‘mentally’ (and therefore physically), but as most have little if any comprehension as to why or how that came to be, they have little idea as to how to do it again the next time. The fact of the matter is, most elite athletes competing on the international stage get it wrong more often than they get it right because of their inability to produce a winning mind-set, hence the reason for their continuing up’s and down’s i.e. most, despite their obvious physical skills and technical and tactical capabilities, are no more able to produce a winning performance (mind-set) than those witnessing the spectacle hence the reason we continue to hear the argument that ‘there is no easy or obvious solution’.

While it is all very well for a coach to say they are doing everything they can to win, what are they doing to enable their athletes to create the necessary mind-set to bring their wishes to fruition? Thinking it is simply a matter of having the right skill sets and game plan (strategy) is unlikely to be enough (especially in international sports) because the competition they come up against isn’t likely to be all that bad. In my opinion, teaching athletes how to create the right and necessary (appropriate) mind-set is the key to their success, however as so few coaches understand it even fewer athletes are likely to ever master it.

To highlight this point, we only need consider the campaigns of some of the dominant nations competing in the RWC. I for one do not agree with the idea that a number of the teams selected the wrong players, but rather would suggest their lack lustre performances provided evidence their coaches were incapable of teaching them how to create the appropriate mind-set to win. In other words I do not believe any team, South Africa or England included, picked their players casually as some have suggested, but rather they were unable to create the right state in order to access or utilise what they had (potential). I have no doubt every team competing in the world cup would have selected the very best team they believed they could muster from those who were legally available. Assuming this would have been the case why did they get it so wrong? i.e. why were they unable to play to their potential? If it was simply a matter of getting the basics right, as their coaches seem to think, we wouldn’t have seen their games unfold as they did. That doesn’t mean they would have walked away with a victory, but they certainly would have walked away with the satisfaction of knowing they performed as well as they could based on their potential at that time.

To summarise I would suggest teaching athletes how to perform to their potential is not going to be answered via the implementation or utilisation of an out dated model that continues to fail. The only way a coach will ever make serious inroads into increasing his or her team’s ability to perform is when he or she comes to the realisation their athletes ‘Performance Ability’ is dictated by their ‘Psychological Capacity’; meaning until such time as they know how to increase their athletes (psychological) capacity to perform, they will never master the art of enabling them to improve their ability to perform. In order to achieve this we must accept that our mind-set or state of mind is like a dimmer switch in that it can be completely inappropriate (off) to completely appropriate (on full). In between the two are increasing levels of appropriateness or inappropriateness depending on how you look at it. Failing to understand this remains an issue for the AB’s hence the reason they think their state (of mind) was right because they won, rather than capitulate and therefore lose; whereas I would suggest it was on but only just and certainly not anywhere near where it could or should have been.

Group Programme schedule 2012

Other News

Congratulations to Kane Radford for winning the (AKL) State Harbour Crossing ahead of former world champion and Olympic Silver medallist Trent Grimsy.

Congratulations also to Dafydd Sanders who won the national heavy weight Taekwondo Black Belt Championships earlier this month and 5 time World Taekwondo Champion Carl Van Roon for winning the individual men’s Tri-Asian Championships in the Philippines on Saturday.

Congratulations also to James & Wells for winning the coveted Intellectual Law Firm of the year award for the third consecutive year at the New Zealand Law Awards.

Summary

If you are serious about performance and ready to assemble a winning team, call us. We will equip you with the tools to achieve it.

© 2011 Craig Steel, Steel Institute of Performance Limited

Keywords: Athletes

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In 1996, after seven years of research, our principal and head performance specialist Craig Steel developed a revolutionary process designed to teach elite athletes how to create the right state of mind to excel on the world stage. The deciding factor that governs the success of any human endeavour is the quality of performance; whether that be at the pinnacle of international sport or global business.