All Blacks likely to cope better if we expect mice and not lions, says sports psychologist

By Steve Deane

Will the All Blacks win the world record 18th consecutive test match? Photo / Getty Images
Will the All Blacks win the world record 18th consecutive test match? Photo / Getty Images

World champions, yes. Chokers no more? We'll see.

The All Blacks may have squeaked past France to break a 24-year hoodoo in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park, but the 8-7 win over a side they had whipped by 20 points earlier in the tournament was hardly a performance to suggest the mental demons from over two decades of big match failure had been banished.

The August 16 Rugby Championship opener in Sydney against the resurgent Wallabies - when the All Blacks chase a world record 18th consecutive test match victory - will provide a stern examination of their mental fortitude.

"That is going to be a challenge," says seasoned sports psychologist Gary Hermansson.

A veteran of 100 first class games for Manawatu, Wellington and New Zealand Universities - including wins with Wellington over the touring Springboks in 1965 and British Lions in 1966 - Hermansson spent much of the past 15 years helping hone the mental skills of NZ's top athletes.

Lions between World Cups and mice at the quadrennial global shindigs, the All Blacks, Hermansson hardly needs to say, have been huge chokers in the World Cup era.

Given the level of detail that goes into ensuring the men in black are in the best possible physical condition come the Cup, the problem, he says, must be mental. He believes the explanation is that the source of the players' motivation shifts from a desire to do well to wanting to avoid failure. It's a classic recipe for, well, a four-yearly meltdown against the French.

"You could say that every World Cup since the first one they have choked and struggled quite badly at stages," Hermansson says.

"The best sporting performance happens when the mind and the body are in the present moment responding intuitively to whatever comes up right now. When you start getting too concerned about the outcome of an event you mentally shift ahead of where you are and you get more concerned about how this could turn out and the consequences of that. Basically, the mind and the body get out of alignment and anxiety creeps in. Anxiety is the feeling you have when your head is in one space and your body is in another.

"When you anticipate things often you anticipate them in a catastrophising way. So as soon as you start projecting ahead in time and worrying about how things will turn out then anxiety creeps in.

"As soon as that happens, your body tenses up, your mind tenses up, your decision-making goes awry and your muscles are tense so you don't use all those fine motor movements that should bring about the skills."

In a nutshell, you drop the ball. Oh, and you really do struggle to breathe.

"If you think about choking it means cutting off the air supply and often that is what happens - you are so tense you are not even in that moment with your body and mind working together enough to breathe properly."

In his book Going Mental on Sport, Hermansson predicted the All Blacks would again feel the mental squeeze in 2011, but suggested their mental resolve would be reinforced by the home crowd, increasing their chances of conquering their demons and their opposition.

That levelling factor won't exist in Sydney. But the fact that many people expect them to trip at the final hurdle might well work in their favour.

"When we are underdogs we can beat anybody," Hermansson says. "As soon as you start to make us favourites we shift our mindset to what it will mean if we don't get a result and we then struggle. I think that's part of our natural character."

It's a feature of our national psyche that even the mighty All Blacks struggle to shake.

- NZ Herald

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