A secret to All Black rugby success?

In the midst of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand is like to reflect on one of the most successful Brand’s New Zealand has produced- the All Blacks.

Renowned in the wake of multiple World Cup failures as the game’s greatest chokers, the All Blacks in the last 10 years have gone to stunning lengths to fix the major psychological faults running through the team and management.

Pressure created by the competition and by fans expectations of the team was once something that would crush the All Blacks. It was the one part of test football they couldn’t handle. Not when it mattered.

They were physically strong but mentally brittle, burdened perhaps by sitting at the apex of a macho world where men were expected to be able to either ignore or simply not have feelings of apprehension, anxiety and stress in relation to what they were being asked to do.  Sounds a lot like the business world?

Hours would be spent practising the technical, tactical and physical part of the game, but mental training was left to individual players to simply get their heads right on their own: that they would “switch on” come game day.

After losing a series of World Cup competitions the All Blacks coaching teams new, unofficial mandate- devised by head coach Graham Henry and supported by the NZ Rugby leadership-  was to prove they could learn from their mistakes and that meant all parts of their operation were put under review. It was the mental skills side, though, where their attention was focused.

The search for answers led by psychology guru Gilbert Enoka, which effectively saw the All Blacks adopt a psychological ethos which is built on this idea that during a game the players can have either red heads or blue heads.

Red or Blue

Red Head is characterised by feelings of anxiety and stress, where focus is not on task but outcome and as a result players become inhibited and less able to perform physically.

Blue heads are calm, clear and task focused – locked into the process. The All Blacks see blue heads as living in the moment.

To make good decisions, each individual has to be calm, clear, concise and focused on nothing but process. That’s certainly not easy when a huge part of the game is about physical confrontation. Team members were taught how to recognise when they were moving into a “red head” perspective either because of physical tiredness or competitive pressure and how to break out of this and return to the blue head approach of clear thinking, aware of and anticipating what is happening next

Just as important in removing the All Blacks’ mental fragility has been the obvious change in attitudes driven by the senior players.

The players could have rejected the findings and mocked the idea they needed to open themselves to the alternative thinking but they knew that they had panicked and made poor decisions under pressure and that the cycle had to be broken.

The basis of the change in All Blacks performance is not only constantly searching for strategic mastery on the field, and top  class physical fitness enabling them to perform at their best right until the rnd of the game. Mental skills are fully integrated into the routine for the players – it’s not a box they tick after they have nailed their tactical, technical and physical preparation.

How often as managers when under pressure focus purely on results – get a “red head” – when what we need is to focus on the tasks and quality needed to get the job done.


(NB this piece is published before game 2 of the current All Blacks Lions series … let’s see how well the ABs perform

addendum… they lost! Let’s see if resilience is one of the ABs critical capabilities)

All black references and Red-Blue thinking