How the top athletes in the world deal with pressure
The All Blacks begin by defining it.
“Pressure is expectation, scrutiny and consequence,” says All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka. He’s the man charged with developing the mental toughness of the world’s most successful sporting outfit.
“Under pressure, your attention is either diverted or on track,” he says.
“If you’re diverted, you have a negative emotional response and unhelpful behaviour. That means you’re stuck. That means you’re overwhelmed.”
Choking. Making bad decisions. Losing it.
Out of Red and into Blue
This is what the All Blacks call Red Head. It’s a metaphor introduced to the environment by Ceri Evans, a forensic psychologist who studies brain biology under pressure.
Mental toughness is about being able to make the shift from Red Head to its opposite, Blue Head.
“If your attention is on track, you have situational awareness,” says Enoka. “You execute accurately. You are clear, you adapt, and you overcome.”
The idea is to be able to recognise the Red – a team game, and then shift to the Blue – an optimal performance state.
“Invariably under pressure it’s the thinking that shuts down,” Enoka tells Gregor Paul at the New Zealand Herald. “That means you are relying on emotion and instinct and can no longer pick up the cues and information to make good decisions. If you become disconnected then you can focus on outcome and not task and the ability to make good decisions is compromised.”
Getting out of your head
In his excellent autobiography, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw says it begins with breathing:
“Breathing slowly and deliberately, nose and mouth, with a two second pause. While breathing, hold your wrist on the out-breath. Then shift your attention to something external – the ground or your feet, or the ball at hand, or even alternating big toes, or the grandstand. Get your eyes up, looking out. You’ve got to use deep breaths and key words to get out of your own head, find an external focus, get yourself back in the present, regain your situational awareness.”
Each player uses their own centering process. Simple, physical anchors that bring them back to the moment. Kieran Read scans the stadium to get the big picture. Richie McCaw stamps his feet to get grounded. Brad Thorn throws water on his face to cool himself down.
Self awareness. Meditation. Mindfulness. Not the first thing that leaps to mind when thinking of the imperious All Blacks. Yet this reflective ability – this ‘soft stuff’ – is the thing that gives this remarkable group of men their edge.
At this level, sport – like business and life – is a mind game, won primarily in the head.
Against Wales, England learned this the hard way. When the call was for Blue, they chose Red. And were gone.
The All Blacks play on, against expectation, scrutiny, consequence, against mounting pressure, against their own nagging doubts, against the world.