Five life lessons from the All Blacks

By James Kerr

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

UK-based writer James Kerr was granted access to the All Black camp for five weeks in 2010. Ahead of Sunday's test against England, he sets out what the All Blacks can teach us about life and leadership.

When the All Blacks take the field against England tomorrow morning they will do so as, statistically, the most successful sporting team in human history. New Zealand's win-rate over the last 100 years is over 75 per cent. It's a phenomenal record.

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But back in 2004, something was wrong. The 2003 World Cup had gone badly. Discipline was drunk and disorderly and the All Blacks were losing.

In response, new management under Graham Henry began to rebuild the world's most successful sporting team. They wanted a fresh culture that placed emphasis on individual character and personal leadership. Their mantra? 'Better People Make Better All Blacks'. The result? An incredible win-rate of just over 86 per cent , and a Rugby World Cup.

In early 2010, I had the privilege of going deep inside the All Blacks camp for five weeks. Here are lessons in leadership I learned.

1. Sweep the sheds

Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, some of the most famous names in world rugby - including Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Mils Muliaina - stop and tidy up after themselves. They literally and figuratively 'sweep the sheds'.

Former All Black Andrew Mehrtens describes it as personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value.

Though it might seem strange for a team of imperious dominance, humility is core to the culture.

2. Follow the spearhead

In Maori, whanau, the 'extended family', is symbolised by the spearhead.

Though it has three tips, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. Hence the All Blacks mantra 'No Dickheads', a term stolen from the Sydney Swans.

The All Blacks select on character as well as talent. Some of New Zealand's most promising players never pull on the black jersey - considered dickheads, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau.

3. Champions do extra

Former All Black Brad Thorn's mantra, 'Champions Do Extra', helped him become one of the most successful players in rugby history.

The philosophy simply means finding incremental ways to do more - in the gym, on the field, or for the team. It is much like the philosophy of marginal gains used by cycling's Team Sky.

A focus on continual improvement, the creation of a continual learning environment, and a willingness to spill blood for the jersey was at the core of All Black culture.

4. Keep a blue head

After the 2003 World Cup, the All Blacks worked with forensic psychiatrist Ceri Evans to understand how the brain works under pressure.

"Red Head" is an unresourceful state in which you are off-task, panicked and ineffective. "Blue Head" is an optimal state in which you are on task and performing to your best ability.

The All Blacks use triggers to switch from Red to Blue. Richie McCaw stamps his feet, while Kieran Read stares at the farthest point of the stadium, searching for the bigger picture.

5. Leave the jersey in a better place

The All Blacks have long had a saying: "leave the jersey in a better place". Their task is to represent all who have come before them - from George Nepia to Colin Meads, Michael Jones to Jonah Lomu, and all those who follow.

An All Black is, by definition, a role model to schoolchildren across New Zealand. This creates a compelling sense of higher purpose: if we play a bigger game, we play a more effective game.

Better people make better All Blacks - but they also make better doctors and lawyers, bankers and businessmen, fathers, brothers, and friends.

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- Daily Telegraph UK

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