The act of ‘stepping up’, while frequently used, is poorly understood, hence the reason so few who strive to experience it, ever manage to actually achieve it.
The reason for this is because most people – including the vast majority of the world’s coaches whom most would assume would understand it – remain unclear as to what needs to occur to enable an individual to experience a step-change in their performance. Having researched this subject for over 20 years, I have come to believe the act of stepping-up requires a psychological transformation to occur before the subsequent and corresponding physiological change or improvement can be realised. That said, stepping-up does not come about as a result of increased effort or commitment, it can only occur as a consequence of a human being thinking differently about themselves (namely better or more appropriately) that in turn precipitates a step-change in their behaviour; and thus an improvement in their resulting performance. For this to materialise, an individual must experience an improvement in the way they perceive themselves which can only happen if they improve (or experience an improvement in) their self-image. It is important to note however that the change itself ‘feels’ like a change in self-belief, self-esteem and self-confidence; being the evidential emotional responses to a change in self-image. In other words, a person would need to gain a larger vision of themselves in order to see themselves as having the capacity to perform at a higher level in order to experience a step-change. The problem for most of us however is that we are typically so unaware of the process that needs to occur to experience such a change, we tend not to consider it a feat we can (consciously) create, but rather something that might occur if everything goes our way e.g. when our preparation is perfect and everything goes according to plan; perpetuating the myth that a step-change occurs as a consequence of either a ‘physiological’ or ‘behavioural’ change rather than a ‘psychological’ one – hence the reason the experience remains as elusive to most today as ever before.
My research into this fascinating human phenomenon has offered me the opportunity to examine whether we can in fact engineer such a change or whether it is, as mentioned above, beyond our ability or control. Before we examine the process, which is the purpose of this newsletter, I would like to suggest that a step-change can indeed be realised by anyone as long as they understand the process and remain acutely conscious of it. In other words, engineering a step change in our performance – irrespective of our endeavour – can be achieved by anyone who has the ability providing they understand the principles of human performance and are prepared to be open-minded.
To elaborate on this process, I would like to discuss two different. This month I am going to discuss the Auckland Blues. Next month I will focus on the citizens of challenged EU nations. The reason I have chosen these two different groups is firstly to provide as much breadth as I can in terms of context for the discussion and secondly because both will require a step-change in the performance of their people in order to improve their outcomes and/or predicament.
As we all know, the Blues include some of the most naturally gifted players in the country yet despite their considerable talent, they have been sub-standard performers. For this reason I believe it would be fair to suggest the board of Auckland Rugby must have agreed their lacklustre performance was not only below par, but unacceptable to the region they represent – meaning they knew something must be done if they were to have any chance of improving their future seasons standing. While I have no knowledge of the type of conversations that took place that led to Sir John Kirwan’s appointment, I would like to think the attribute that clinched it was his belief in the team’s ability to step up to a higher level of performance and thus his ability to facilitate a new era for Auckland Rugby. Irrespective of Pat Lam’s knowledge of the game and passion for his players, it would have been extremely difficult for the board to continue to back him as their coach even if they believed he was on track and would get there in the end i.e. the risk of not making a decision far outweighed the risk of making a decision especially when there was limited evidence of Lam’s plan coming to fruition.
For this reason I suggest we think the Auckland Blues are looking for a step-change and that Sir John’s appointment verifies the board’s belief that it should indeed be possible. One of the defining conclusions that no doubt forced the board’s decision was the belief that their players had the potential to do better; thereby suggesting that something was obviously going wrong that led to their notable failure. Of course the question one could ask, based on the above, is what will Kirwan do to engineer the desired change?
If we were to accept our (SIP’s) hypothesis – that for a step-change to occur a ‘psychological’ transformation must take place – we will appreciate how quickly this could be achieved when we know they have the talent. What I mean by this is if the players were to believe that Sir John’s appointment would provide the answer, the impediment they have suffered from over the past few years (being a lack of self-confidence and self-belief) would not only disappear, his presence could free them of future trauma. In other words, the players themselves are likely to imagine their failure (which they presumably think ‘caused’ their deterioration in self-confidence) came about as a result of poor on-field technical and tactical deployment rather than a lack of capability; simply because they know they have the ability to play at the desired level. If their belief in themselves were to change as a consequence of Kirwin’s involvement, they could access their capability (Skills, Knowledge and Experience) and thus play to their potential (refer to the Steel Foundation of Performance Model One). The point is Sir John understands the team he has inherited has the capability to be competitive, hence the reason the Blues themselves should feel increasingly confident that he will ‘enable’ them to engineer a step-change in their performance and thus improve their results.
A question I have pondered over many years is why the vast majority of elite coaches still believe it requires multiple generations of athletes participating in a particular sport to enable that nation to reach an international standard in that sport i.e. why don’t they believe athletes can achieve significant step-changes quickly and regularly in order to become competitive before their so-called time? The only plausible answer I have managed to come up with is that most have such little comprehension of the drivers of human performance that they are incapable of empowering their athletes to step-up meaning they see very little evidence as a result of their efforts to cause them to question their assumption i.e. their experience suggests to them that it takes years to develop the capability required to become competitive in a particular sport reinforcing the idea that it is the ‘time’ and ‘exposure’ they assume to be important rather than the ‘mind-set’ of the athletes involved. To highlight this point, why couldn’t the US for example win the 2016 Rugby World Cup? If we did not understand the principles of performance, we could only conclude that the reason they are unlikely to do so is because most involved would naturally assume that it will take years to improve the standard of their national competition to the level required to develop the calibre of players to win the cup. If however we were to realise that in fact the reason this process takes so long is not because it takes ‘multiple’ generations to develop the skills in an ‘individual’, but because it takes years of performing at a certain level to enable the players to believe they can (due again to their misguided assumption). In other words, the US are not reliant upon additional generations of specific genes to be born to develop descent rugby players (as they already exist but instead are playing baseball, basketball and gridiron), they simply need to engage enough of their athletes in the sport and then teach them how to think like rugby champions. In other words, for as long as the US know they can’t win the rugby World Cup, we know they never will. The day they think they can however, is the day they will experience the all-important step-change.
It is important I stress that when I talk about a ‘step-change’, I am talking about a performance that would be considered by informed parties to be both unexpected and improbable, not just a better performance than the one they produced last time. In other words a step change is a change of significant magnitude, not just an improvement on previous performances.
If engineering a step-change were this simple, why isn’t it public knowledge – or at the very least being practiced by our athletes? My answer to this question is threefold; Firstly because of what I refer to as professionally ‘induced’ blindness – a term I have used to describe one of the unexpected consequences of specialised professions. What I mean by that is there is always a risk that a profession, or the people operating within that profession, may become the inadvertent inhibiters to further development (within their field of specialisation) for no other reason than until one of their own identifies a new hypothesis, they are likely to assume that none exist. For example, if we were to look to science as we should to provide an answer to a solution such as ‘how to engineer a step-change in human performance’, we are likely to presume that until such time as a new theorum has been presented by sports psychologists, the existing theory must be correct or at least the best on offer. As a consequence, alternative discoveries, if originating from outside the profession, are typically deemed ‘conjectural’ or ‘speculative’, rather than a plausible hypothesis worthy of consideration. Therefore the idea of professional blindness simply refers to the possibility that from time to time the people we look to for clarification are often ‘blind’ to alternative theorums as they tend to look to their colleagues to offer a more advanced understanding (incidentally, the word ‘theorum’ is used to describe a ‘scientific’ hypothesis that cannot be proven whereas a ‘mathematical’ hypothesis that can is referred to as a ‘theorem’ – hence the reason we refer to our frameworks as a theorum rather than a theorem). The outcome of this is that our theorum or framework, whilst proven to offer athletes a more advanced solution, has not been fully examined by the profession meaning it isn’t a hypothesis they understand; hence the reason it is not yet public knowledge.
Secondly, there is an interesting (albeit a perverse and impeding, human condition called ‘argumentum ad consequentiam’ which simply means that people tend to believe things depending on how much they like or dislike the consequences. As our premise proposes high level responsibility, it is not necessarily seen by all to be a tolerable and comforting idea meaning there are some who would rather focus their attention trying to dismiss its relevance than use it as a framework to live by.
The third reason is because of the fact that so few have come to realise that their results, including those our athletes achieve on the sports field, are primarily a consequence of their thoughts or mind-set (refer to our Performance Optimiser Model). In other words, because most of us assume our results are a consequence of our performance (at best), most of us overlook the fact that our mind-set is the key to us being able to engineer a step-change in our performance.
Delivering the Step-Change
If we were to consider our theorum, we would realise that it would be perfectly feasible to turn the Blues around by the start of next season; because we know they have the ability to match the competition.
In order to achieve this however, Sir John is going to have to challenge their belief about their capacity in order to enable them to recognise that this is where they must win from. If he does this, which I would like to think he will, the way they engage in their training will allow them to correct the issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. If the team discovers how to access their potential, they will not only grow in confidence, they could potentially become unbeatable; given the combination of their natural talent and the unlikely event that opposing teams will identify before next year that improving their mind-set deliberately can be an absolute game changer – as evidenced on so many occasions.
In other words, they don’t need to be any better than the other teams in the competition, they simply need to understand how to access what they’ve got in order to use it on every occasion. If we look at the teams who win, whether that be in rugby or any other sport, it is not that they are better technical or tactical exponents of their discipline, it is the fact they have a framework that enables them to access their potential more often than their competitors.
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