What can the England football team learn from the ‘All Blacks’ rugby team?

Tougher Minds Founder Dr. Jon Finn talks to host Andrew Whitelam about the England team in football’s 2021 European Championships.

Dr. Jon highlights the invaluable lessons we can all learn about leadership, team performance and individual performance.

He also points out how the England soccer team could learn from the approach taken by the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’. They are the most successful team in world rugby and one of the most successful sports teams in history.

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Podcast Transcription

Andrew Whitelam  

Welcome to the Tougher Minds podcast. I’m Andrew Whitelam. I’m joined by Tougher Minds founder Dr. Jon Finn. And in this episode we’re talking about what it takes for teams to be successful. We’re going to discuss issues including effective leadership and performing under pressure. Now what’s prompted this discussion is the appearance of England, Scotland and Wales in football’s European Championships. And of course, England played Scotland at Wembley, two days prior to this recording, that match finished nil nil and Jon, whenever England or any of the Home Nations play, their performances are always carefully and closely analysed, especially by the sports media. And specifically, in the case of the England versus Scotland game, some commentators highlighted what they said was a lack of intensity in England’s performance. So Jon… what do we know about these types of issues from a brain and a habit perspective? What do we know about maintaining focus? And how can teams be focused, concentrated and committed whether in sports or business?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, I think the best way to think about this Andrew, this idea of intensity is to go back to the brain and think about how it works. One of the driving forces behind our brain, and therefore, concentration, alertness is our neurotransmitters. These are essentially chemicals in your brain. And there are certain neurotransmitters that we know are important for really focusing in a way that we need to focus to perform in the physical intensity like a, like a football match. Equally, we know there are neurotransmitters that we need to use in order to really concentrate in a meeting. And the neurotransmitters are important here are things like dopamine and noradrenaline and adrenaline. And we like to help people think about this by explaining a concept we created called Activation to them. So Activation is thinking of a dial that goes from zero all the way around to 100. And this dial represents how alert you are, how quickly or slowly you’re breathing quickly or slowly your heart is beating. If there are zeros, if you’re 000 on the Activation scale, it means that your death has the starting point. And as you come past being dead, so it’s been maybe numbers, 1234, etc, you’re probably asleep, then essentially, the numbers on the Activation dial represent being calm, relaxed, not very alert to the outside world, the highest numbers up to 100, you could be really pumped up, you could be really nervous, you could be really excited because it sort of looks to serve you in your brain. And for everything that you do every day, there’s an optimal Activation level. So to go to sleep tonight, you need to be at very low numbers. If you’re sitting at your desk, you need to concentrate for me, I need to be maybe a 50 or a 60 on the Activation dial to play a great game of football, there’s a certain number on the Activation dial that you need to be. And things are gonna happen in a football match, which influences your Activation dial, so it might kick you. And that might get your Activation really high, but it’s too high to perform to your potential. So you need to reduce it down again. Maybe you’ve been too calm or relaxed before the whistle blows. So that means when the whistle blows for the start of the game, your Activation isn’t where it needs to be. So what we say is the best sports teams, they’re really good at managing their Activation levels individually and collectively throughout the ebbs and flows of the game. One of the best examples we can save this is the famous New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks that won back to back World Cup 13 that was captained by Richard McCaw. And they had a win ratio of I think off the top of my head something like 95%. And they’re very deliberately working on this. And they actually talked about this as the blue heads and the red headsets. So the blue headset was car and the red headset was globally activated. And you could see on the field when they were playing. They have these trigger movements they were doing play on call Brad for needed to pour water over his felt self to calm ease himself down and reduces Activation when he was getting over activated and he thought he might start to kick penalties or were conceal the player slapping their thighs to pull themselves up if you’d like to increase our Activation level. So for me intensity is just part of a continuum of alertness and Activation. And it’s really a mirror of the sort of brain chemicals you. So I would say that what the pundits were really describing, when they were saying when they were saying, or observing that the desert and feeling Lund had the right level of intensity was that really, England English players didn’t have the right brain chemicals, neurotransmitters in their breads. And they’re actually not necessarily aware enough of that. And they didn’t have these sort of all black tight triggers that they could use to get their individual Activation levels up to where they needed them to be, in order to have the right intensity in that gear. So that would be one observation about that.

 

Andrew Whitelam  

And that concept of Activation, then, Jon, that that applies in any context, obviously, we’re talking first and foremost here about sporting context, and you’ve cited an excellent sporting parallel there, but that applies to us all?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, in anything that we’re doing every single day. So one of the tools, one of the happy mechanic tools we have in the level two advanced mechanic training programme is the the Activation profile, where we get people to profile their current Activation levels throughout the course of the day, but also the optimal Activation levels, you know, for many people, they will see, one of the typical things we see when people do this exercise is I see an Activation slump in the early part of the afternoon, for example, where they can’t get their Activation, to where they needed to be to concentrate in the where they need to concentrate. So there are things that we can do. And we help people to learn how to match their optimal Activation, with their actual active Activation. And that’s what we’re trying to do. You know, if you tried to go to sleep tonight, and you’ve just been checking your emails, and you get a worrying email, you’re going to be laying in bed overly activated, and essentially not being able to go to sleep. Because of that, if you didn’t sleep very well, that night, in the morning, then when you need to get your Activation up to the right level to focus on work, you know, you’re probably going to struggle to get to it. And I think the challenge of these international tournaments brings it back to the Orioles is that, you know, the players have sort of taken out of their normal rhythm. So they have the, they have the club rhythm, the club training patterns, the, you know, the pre, the pre mic preparation that goes on in your club side is probably different for the, for the the international side, and also with the COVID restrictions, obviously what the players can be doing. Just daily, you know, life now is limited. Sometimes you see, particularly in rugby, you might see people on the side of the pitch on a warm up bike, you know, ready to come on, let’s connect that to an Activation idea as well. We are absolutely essential for me, it’s and this is where we talk about it’s just as important as sleep diet and exercise Activation. But it’s invisible to most of us, it’s not something we really think about. The closest concept we think about is anxiety. And we think of anxiety as a negative thing like that. Whereas anxiety is not a negative thing. It can be just as helpful as it can be unhelpful if we know how to use it properly. So yeah, it’s ingrained into everything that we’re doing. And if we can learn more about it, to get better at managing it, then life and performance gets a lot easier.

 

Andrew Whitelam  

Okay, so we can see, then it’s a concept that could help people and teams increase their focus and intensity in any situation, as you’ve outlined. And I suppose the next question then is….. is creating and facilitating developing engendering this level of Activation? Is that the responsibility in a sporting context of the leaders off the field, the managers, the coaches, or perhaps in the workplace? People not right there in that situation? Is that responsibility something that has to happen before the performance begins, before the team begins doing what it has to…. before the team to take the field in a sporting context?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, well, I would say let’s look at the All Blacks’ approach. So the managers took strategic responsibility to recognise that the mental side of the game for the All Black team needed to be very deliberately developed in this the same way they were developing their technical, their tactical player, their technical player, their fitness levels that they understood, got to be developing, and committing to the mental part of our training in exactly the same intensity, if not more intensely, because this is the part of the game we’re lacking. One of the tactics to improve the mental side of the game was educating everyone. Activation or what we call Activation, they call it the blue heads, redheads that. So they gave the players the knowledge and the skills about this. But actually, then once you cross the white line, it’s up to the players to manage it. So this is where the All Blacks were exceptional because they’re parked their team full of leaders. And what I mean by leader is someone who’s not only good at influencing their own behaviour, so in this case, to get their own Activation to the correct level, but also people that are good at influencing other people’s behaviour. So if they see a team mate at the wrong Activation, or the wrong level of intensity, they can also positively influence that person to get their Activation to the right level. So , it’s a little bit of both. What leadership on the field is about is solving problems. So it’s helping the team collectively to solve problems. So in a football example, a problem might be that you need to solve Well, the way that we’re attacking the opposition is in breaking down their defence. That’s the problem. So therefore, the leaders on the field need to do So Sarah, well, this isn’t working, we need to attack the opposition’s defence in a different way to see if that breaks down that defence, so you can get some shots off. This is the same thing. So if the lead is on the field the same way, the minute the team is not activated enough, there’s not enough intensity in our player, the leaders need to be able to communicate with everyone else on the field, to get their Activation up to the right level just to overcome that problem. And this is how we train people to be Chief Habit Mechanics. And that’s what’s at the heart of that. It’s about learning not only to influence your own behaviour, but influence other people’s behaviours in a way that allows the team to solve the problems they need to solve, in this case to win the game. So if you’re a team that’s lacking intensity, the first problem that leaders need to solve is how do we get everyone to be more intense. And that’s about helping everyone to get better neurotransmitters into their brain, the dopamine in your adrenaline etc. So that’s the way that I would think about it. So it’s a little bit of both the management need to give the players the knowledge and the skills to do this, then it’s really up to the leaders on the field, to help people to build the habits of getting to the right Activation levels, through that lens of influencing other people’s behaviours, communicating and collaborating to help everyone solve problems. So if a team is on the field, and it’s recognising Wait a minute, we don’t have the right levels of intensity here to perform to our potential for the team is not able to do anything about that, that suggests that you don’t have world class leaders in your team, you don’t have chief mechanics. That’s not necessarily the players fault, because maybe no one’s ever shown them how to be a world class leader or a chief mechanic. But it points back towards a leadership problem.

 

Andrew Whitelam  

And Jon, I suppose the logical conclusion to what you’re saying then is that if a team has to be high performing, it’s required to be high performing, it wants to be world class and produce consistent world class performances, whether in sport or business, it has to develop more of these habits within the team, as you say, pack the team with Habit Mechanics. How can teams go about working towards that?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, well, I think we’ve got some really interesting examples. In small, looking at the leadership, and which is people’s ability to be having mechanics or chief mechanics. Then one really interesting insight is if we go back to the England rugby union team that won the 2003 World Cup under Clive Woodward, the backbone of that team, the majority of the starting 15 came from the amateur era of the sport, where they worked a full time job. And they played rugby as a hobby as a pastime. And then the sport became professional. So all those players got paid full time to play the sport. And many people would say that the level of leadership in that team hasn’t been replicated purely through a professional development process. So it’s been a commentary for a lot of years that the academy systems in, in rugby in this case, hadn’t been able to develop the sort of leaders that had been developed out of the amateur era. This is a really interesting observation, because I think maybe what we’ve been guilty of in sports development is focusing maybe too heavily on the technical, the tactical and the fitness side of things. But not enough on the mental and leadership development. I’ve worked a lot in the field. And I think that we’ve overlooked that previously. So what we need to do these days is obsession, I think, with getting world class players, world class, technical and tactical players. That’s great. But actually, what you also need is world class leaders. Because you don’t win football games or will begin to play, they’re pretty games just to assure world class technical and tactical players, games, the ebb and flow. And people have off days and great days, and leaders on having world class leaders on the fields, helps to mitigate those problems, and steer the ship, so that whatever problem or challenge you face on the field, the Habit Mechanic leaders can help everyone to communicate and collaborate to overcome the problem, whether it’s a lack of intensity, or a lack of ability to break down the opposition, fish’s defence or lack of ability to break up the opposition’s attack. So yeah, I think that the mental side, the leadership side? Well, I know that it absolutely can develop, I just question if we are spending enough purposeful time on that in teaching and developing players, who are as good at leading as they are as being, you know, on the ball from a technical tactical skill, perspective and a business perspective, if that makes sense, Andrew?

 

Andrew Whitelam  

Yes, certainly. And I think what I would then say is that, it’s probably worth pointing out and asking you that, if this applies equally in, in the business world ….in let’s call it real life as well, if you like….. that emphasis on developing leadership skills is so important, in all context, would you say, Jon?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s moving away from knowing to doing so. You know, you go on Google, what are the characteristics of good leaders, and you get a list of things that are pretty useless rarely, because good leaders don’t know what they need to do, they do it, they’re in the habit of doing it. So we need to have a framework that we can use to teach leaders. We’ve got to empower the leadership framework, the role model, the action communicator, the cultural architect, and the SWAT coach. And we have to have a way of helping leaders develop habits in all of those areas, analyse it, where their habits currently are, and to keep building new habits, so I think, Well, maybe not doing as good a job as we could, in developing what’s traditionally called the soft skills, or the leadership, the men, the mental performance side of things, because they’re just more difficult to develop, because they’re invisible, and they’re intangible, without these huge breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works, and why people do what they do through neuroscience and behavioural science. And we can use those insights to make leadership development, performance development, really tangible for people. And we’re having great success in doing that. And in doing that, by teaching people to be Habit Mechanics and Chief Habit  Mechanics, which is not just about knowing what to do, it’s about building better habits, so that you do what is most helpful for you, individually and collectively.

 

Andrew Whitelam  

Jon, where can people find out more about the Tougher Minds approaches ? Becoming a Habit Mechanic and a Chief Habit Mechanic certificate you say?

 

Dr. Jon Finn  

Yeah, well, I think if you want to feel better, you want to perform better. The only way to do that sustainably is to learn how to change your brain. And the only robust solution I know that helps you to do that is to learn how to become a Habit Mechanic. That’s why we’ve designed it like that. And if you want to become a Habit Mechanic, just go to our website and you can sign up for level one training for absolutely free. You get a certificate and everything. But loads of people are doing that at the moment. If you’re interested in the leadership side and want to be a Chief Habit Mechanic, you want to help your people and your team’s fulfil their potential….the only way that you can do that is by helping your people’s brains to work properly. And again, the only viable solution is to learn how to become a Chief Habit Mechanic and to start learning how to achieve that, you just go to the Tougher Minds website and watch a world class leadership workshop for free. And that lot will set you on the path, give you some skills and some insights as to how you can start doing that.

 

Andrew Whitelam  

Okay, Jon, thank you very much indeed for talking to us. We’ll continue to watch the European Championships and the performances of England, Scotland and Wales for more interesting examples that we can analyse, and draw parallels with and share insights about so thank you very much for your time. Don’t forget if you want to watch that workshop for free, go to the Tougher Minds website www.tougherminds.co.uk You’ve been listening to the Tougher Minds podcast. Thank you. And we’ll see you again soon.

 

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