A number of readers have asked me to elaborate following my comments last month when I suggested the All Blacks ‘lack’ the basic principles of mental performance.
Firstly, what I mean by the basic principles of mental performance is simply the understanding of how the mind works and how we can use our minds to optimize our ability to perform.
As most in the sporting world are coming to realise, 95% of an athlete’s success on the day is psychological. Despite comments following the All Blacks disappointing performances against South Africa last month, I believe the AB’s are highly skilled players and would therefore suggest their inability to excel was not due to physiological shortcomings as most presume, but rather it was due to their inappropriate mind-sets. This explains why their efforts to fix their game via ‘skill’ development proved fruitless i.e. the challenge for the All Blacks is not improving their physical skills, but rather it is about knowing how to create the necessary mind-set to access their true potential.
One of the most commonly used words in international sport is entirely related to this phenomenon. When an athlete is ‘in form’, it is because their State of Mind is conducive to high level performance. When an athlete is ‘out of form’ it is because their State of Mind is inhibiting their ability to perform. Athletes don’t go in and out of form in a physical sense. What happens is their state of mind changes depending on the quality or appropriateness of their thinking. This in turn dictates their ‘form’.
What I find interesting is that most elite athletes around the world use sports psychologists to help them improve their psychological state however because of the way they work, it seldom makes a difference.
To give you an example, most of New Zealand’s high profile athletes including the likes of the All Blacks, the Warriors, the Black Caps and one of our favorite sons, US open winner Michael Campbell, have used (or continue to use) sports psychologists - highlighting the view that either the coaches and/or the athletes themselves believe it is important to work on their mental state. However despite their efforts, the performances of these highly skilled athletes rarely reflect their potential. This dilemma raises the question; is their less than optimal performance caused by skill deficiencies as most of our outspoken pundits seem to think, or is it because the psychological work they are doing to improve their form/ability ‘to’ perform, less effective than they are led to believe? In my opinion, it is the latter. Why? Because skills don’t suddenly change or disappear from one game to the next, but form (governed by ones mind-set) can and typically does.
Another subject I touched on last month was to do with capacity. In my opinion psychological capacity is the key to our performance and success. By the term ‘capacity’, I am referring to the vision a person has of themselves i.e. the image they hold of themselves in their own mind, or more accurately the ‘size or extent’ (capacity) of their self image. I don’t mean a person’s aspirations or dreams but the underlying fundamental beliefs they have formed about themselves and their ability to perform. If a person’s self image doesn’t change, their capacity won''t change either meaning their ability to perform at a higher level cannot change. Incidentally, when you hear coaches talk about the need for athletes to ‘step up’, what they are really saying is they believe their athletes need to increase their psychological capacity ‘to’ perform in order to operate at a higher level - even though it is clear the majority who say it, do not understand it.
In summary I would suggest that if the All Blacks are to win the next World Cup, which is of course starting to occupy the minds of the nation, they will have to create a fundamental change in mind-set. That said, I am confident Graham Henry will once again produce a highly skilled team, but will he build a team who believe they are ready and able to win?
Funding New Zealand sport
Sports Minister Murray McCully is exploring the idea of setting up a specialised organisation designed to help New Zealand win three world cups in our most high profile sports (Rugby, Cricket and Netball) and at least 10 Olympic medals by 2012.
While I am fully supportive of this discussion, I believe it would be useful for New Zealand to commence a deeper philosophical debate about the overall future of sport in this country i.e. should we focus on and thus fund particular sports or should we support all athletes who show international promise irrespective of the sports they play?
At the moment, SPARC is focusing on six codes – currently athletics, cycling, rowing, swimming, triathlon and yachting – being the sports they believe New Zealand is most likely to succeed in as well as rugby, cricket and netball. Other sports have to apply for a share of contestable funding if they want financial support.
As we all know, New Zealand has produced many successful athletes competing in many different sports, however being the small nation we are means we have limited tax payer funds to invest.
If we look at the funding issue as it stands, it is interesting to note that an unknown athlete without any financial support may find their success on the international stage helps other participants in their sport more than it helps them. What I mean by this is the majority of participants in a particular sport benefit from the success of a few - not because of their own ability, but because they are lucky enough to participate in a sport that has produced a recent champion.
Many have argued that NZ cannot succeed in the future if we continue to stretch our limited resources across a multitude of sports simply because the cost of developing the infrastructure and expertise required to excel is too vast. Rather, they say we should focus our efforts on specific sports where we already have the resources in place. While I don’t disagree with such comments, it overlooks a critical point and that is, a significant number of our most successful athletes succeed because they love what they do and want to excel not because they decided to pursue a sport that was financially supported.
Take for example Valarie Vili. Before Valarie there was no one. She didn’t follow in the footsteps of anyone. She had a superb physique for her discipline and along with her coach, worked away until ‘suddenly’ she burst on to the scene. Had SPARC not funded her, I doubt it would have made any difference. The same is true of Ben Fouhy. Yes he succeeded in a sport where NZ had once been a global powerhouse but nevertheless, he worked away without any major support to become a world champion.
If, as a result of a public discussion, we as a nation decided that it was about the medals, we may be better off focusing our efforts on sports where we have a realistic chance of continual long term success. For example, if we want to win Olympic or World Championship titles, we would be better to focus on smaller sports where there are fewer competitors e.g. focusing on swimming and athletics is a far more challenging proposition than focusing on Triathlon, and Rowing - not because they have better infrastructure, but because they are smaller sports and therefore field less world-class competitors. If on the other hand we want to be recognised as an internationally competitive (sporting) nation, let’s support all athletes who show promise in their respective disciplines.
To add to the funding debate, we only need look at how things can transpire under the current rules to see some obvious challenges. For example, because NZ Woman’s Hockey finished well below expectations in Beijing, they lost their funding yet despite their financial losses, they are starting to improve. Their situation and apparent recovery raises a couple of interesting questions; firstly, does SPARC’s involvement actually ‘improve’ results or does it just make life a little easier for those involved? And secondly, is the purpose of funding to help develop our athletes and thus enable them to win or is it simply a tool designed to keep them engaged for longer? The reason I say this is because the way funding is managed i.e. paid on ‘past’ results means it often arrives after the horse has bolted rather than assisting those who show promise at a time when they could benefit from intelligent support and/or intervention.
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