Key Points:

The hopes of this sports-loving nation are on the Silver Ferns to restore some national pride.

After a string of seemingly inexplicable losses in other codes the netball world championship is our last chance to show the world what great sportspeople New Zealanders are.

After all:

* The Black Caps were beaten in the semifinals of the World Cup;

* Team NZ were soundly beaten by Alinghi in the America's Cup;

* The Warriors blew it in the NRL playoffs;

* The All Blacks were defeated in the quarter-finals by a poor French team;

* The Kiwis were thrashed by the Aussies, and now Great Britain.

As nice as it is to think the Silver Ferns will reverse that trend, they will join it - not because of sporting ability but because of attitude.

Our sportspeople simply aren't tough enough - we set them up to be soft. Indeed, "grief counselling" was arranged for the All Blacks before they left for the World Cup.

The likes of Colin Meads, Sir Brian Lochore and Chris Laidlaw must be stunned that today's All Blacks need grief counselling after a loss.

Did the All Blacks' preparation leave them so mentally soft they can't pick themselves up and get over it? Before the quarter-finals David Kirk questioned their mental toughness and he's been joined by John Drake and Sean Fitzpatrick.

To understand why Kiwi teams choke, look no further than Martin Seligman's work. In preparing teams, New Zealand's sports psychologists and mental skills coaches seem to ignore evidence from Seligman, who has a peerless reputation for his research into mental toughness and how crucial it is for success.

His proposition is simple: people with the more "optimistic explanatory style" (mental toughness attitude) thrive, while pessimists fail.

You can see this in your own life. Divide the people you know into two groups: those who are doing better in life (by whatever yardstick you care to use) and those doing worse. Nine times out of 10, you will describe the difference between them as "attitude".

For more than 40 years Seligman has been studying that attitude - now we can measure it and train it.

In simple terms, if you think negatively about why you win or lose you develop a pessimistic explanatory (thinking) style. And the science is clear: such thinking seriously damages your motivation and your belief that you can overcome future adversity.

Seligman's studies cover almost every aspect of life, including sporting achievement.

Seligman and his colleague Chris Peterson looked at how sportspeople described to the media why they won or lost. The resultant model they applied to major US sports and could predict with great accuracy the outcome of future games simply by using the explanations players gave.

Teams that rise above the pressure explain setbacks in terms that make losses temporary, specific and external. Teams that succumb use terms that make the reasons permanent, global, and personal.

Here's an optimistic baseball team explaining a loss: "They made the plays tonight." "They" is external, "tonight" specific and tonight's opponents are temporary.

Compare that with the manager of a talented but pessimistic baseball team "We can't hit. What the hell, let's face it." This wins the trifecta. "We" is personal, "can't hit" is permanent and global and "let's face it" is personal.

The Foresight Institute has been using Seligman's model for nearly 15 years and when we applied this model to our sportspeople, it was obvious Dean Barker was becoming more pessimistic as losses to Alinghi increased. Pessimistic people tend to fail under pressure.

Graham Henry is on record claiming the All Blacks' coaches did everything they could. But attitude matters and it obviously was not attended to with the best expertise available.

Business often looks to sport for ways to lift performance, but Kiwi sportspeople need to look at what business is doing. High-profile businesses are training staff to be mentally tough and resilient, because they know this is crucial to competitive success.

Until sportspeople understand this, they will continue to fail.

Unfortunately, it is predictable that the Silver Ferns will lose their world title. After losing to Australia last year, Adine Wilson said, "We need to look in the mirror and really see what we need to do different because they'll get even bigger and better by world cup next year."

She personalised the loss and made the factors underlying Australian success permanent and global, severely damaging motivation and self-confidence.

While Maria Lynch was coach of North Harbour she had a high regard for Seligman's expertise and brought Foresight in to help her team become more resilient. She is now assistant coach for netball for the Australian Institute of Sport. Hello Netball NZ, what are you doing to counter this?

The Aussies demonstrate mental toughness and attitude far superior to that of the Silver Ferns. Here's captain Liz Ellis, after this year's first test win over the Silver Ferns: "We're doing the little things better, we're treasuring possession a little bit more and we've stepped up our intensity in defence." She wins the optimism trifecta.

Contrast that with Ruth Aitken's comments: "On defence, we've just got to have a go. We packed back too much and allowed them the front line." She made the failure factors permanent, global and personal.

It might seem incredible that words could have any sort of impact, let alone influence attitudes enough to win or lose, but the science is clear that they do.

Readers might accuse me of damaging the Silver Ferns' chances by these comments. But are they really that soft that a few comments could damage their motivation and morale? If so I rest my case.

* Jamie Ford is manager of the Foresight Institute, a business organisation specialising in the application of Martin Seligman's research. jamie.f@foresight.co.nz