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The Canterbury Crusaders rugby team are warming up to use the power of thought to beat opponents on the field. As well as keeping their bodies fit, they are now exercising their minds.

Jamie Ford, director of the Foresight Institute, is to work with the team's management over the next two years to help players overcome any psychological blocks to success on the field.

Despite the Crusaders' solid track record, Ford says management's focus is on the next thing it can do to obtain an even stronger competitive edge. And that includes boosting self-confidence and developing a mental will to win.

"They've got a superb winning record," says Ford.

"But I guess that Robbie Deans and the Crusaders, and I'm sure their current coach, Todd Blackadder, along with Steve Lancaster, have what I call an empty box.

"Imagine this. You've got a whole lot of boxes, and in each one there's something that influences performance, be it training, fitness or physio.

"But there's an empty box. And the box is what we don't know yet - so what they've decided to do is put mental toughness in it."

Ford says research carried out by the likes of American Professor Martin Seligman shows teams that easily put aside a loss, and get over it quickly, are more likely to succeed in the long run.

"The team that bog themselves down with moaning and groaning and beating themselves up [over a loss] just haven't got what it takes. Their fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Over the past 40 years, study after study has shown that remaining at the top of your game - in sports or business - requires optimism and the mental toughness to take setbacks in your stride as you push for success.

"The Crusaders have demonstrated this attitude over many seasons - but they also know that other Super 14 teams are hungry for the championship title. No team can afford to become complacent with success.

"Failure to step up to new levels of performance means falling behind and that is not the Crusaders way."

Ford says his mental toughness training will become deeply embedded in the team's culture and the players' approach to life generally.

"It will spread out into their personal lives outside of the team and into other avenues of life and business."

Ford says he has had quite a few meetings with managers since he was contracted to work with the Crusaders in October. Before he starts, Ford will look at the individual coaching programmes that need to be put in place.

"I've been delighted with the enthusiasm that the management has shown and the way they have committed themselves to doing their own research and investigations about mental toughness.

"I need to make sure that everybody's going up the learning curve quickly and acquiring the in-depth knowledge, understanding and skills that are essential for them to take it forward to the team effectively."

While Ford's mental toughness programmes are traditionally used to help people working in offices, this is not the first time he has been called on to work with a sports team.

He has previously helped Netball North Harbour and has worked with High Performance Lab, a firm that designs physiological assessment and training programmes for athletes.

Ford says mental toughness is about more than just thinking positively about desired outcomes.

"Positive goals do not equal a positive attitude. Mental toughness is about an attitude that enables people to persist and strive for the things they consider worthwhile. Primarily, our emotions are an outcome of the way we think about things, and human beings act on emotion.

"There aren't many people who are like Mr Spock from Star Trek - that act rationally. Think about when people fall in love and decide to make that lifelong commitment.

"How many would get out a checklist and say to their partner, 'Look, things seem to be going well between us. I've got a 120-item checklist here, and as long as you get 115, then we'll pursue a long-term relationship'. Well, we don't do it rationally, do we?

"So mental toughness is about ensuring that we are encouraging thoughts that lead to positive emotions and minimise the negative emotions that can de-motivate us."

Ford says a key lesson to developing mental toughness is to be in touch with our emotional state and to continually ask ourselves, "What is it I'm thinking that's triggering off these [negative] emotions?"

"And another one is to live above the line, which is about taking absolute ownership of our thoughts and emotions. In childhood we get instructed early on to be careful of what we say and do because we can upset and hurt other people. That's a fallacy.

"Unfortunately, there's no class in high school that says, 'Well, that was a great idea but now you can give it up and take ownership of your own emotions'."

Ford says mental toughness is not about being rude, uncaring, inconsiderate or insensitive to other people. And neither is it about blaming ourselves for other people's emotional reactions to the things we do.

"How many times today will there be a conversation somewhere between two people where one will say to the other: 'Do you know that Margaret's very upset by what you said today?' And the person will say, 'Well, how could she be? I had no idea, I didn't mean that'.

"I've never seen upset flying out of one person into another, but it happens. And if we all had flip-top heads we could go across to the other person, open up their head and have a look and see if there was an intention - 99 times out of 100 there is no intention. But these are habits of thinking that get set very early in life."

What Ford helps people understand is that feeling bad, hurt or even humiliated is their decision. He says people must take control of fear, failure and self-doubt. And it is this kind of training that can help those affected by bullies.

"My observation is that in the bullying cases that I've read, the 'victims' have a mentally fragile way of thinking. The mentally tough people are not experiencing bullying, even though they're working for the same manager.

"There's still some important research work to be done in that area with people who are being bullied, to find out what is going on and what is different about them from the people who are not experiencing bullying but are working in the same environment."

But don't bullies simply pick on those less likely to challenge their behaviour?

"That's right. And the people less likely to retaliate are the mentally fragile, not the mentally tough. They can really benefit from mental toughness training.

"We're getting people on our courses that are quite mentally fragile and who want to become stronger for all kinds of personal and business reasons.

"We've also got really mentally tough people coming along who want to understand more about their people and how to be more effective with their colleagues who are showing some signs of mental fragility."

And in the current economic climate, Ford is also seeing those who want help to stay positive, to see through all the smokescreens of financial meltdown and find the business opportunities.

"That's what the mentally tough do. They put aside the doom and gloom factors and they focus on the fact that there's always an opportunity there somewhere.

"Businesses are going through a downturn and they need to be able to get through it in good shape. We've got corporate managers, we've got self-employed people, we've got small business owners, the full range of people who are ready to change the way they think."

And he says employers need people who are mentally tough, resilient and "like bamboo".

"They will flex under all these pressures and bounce back really fast."

And the good news for people who believe you need to be predisposed to being mentally tough is that Ford says anyone can learn to strengthen their mind.