As the All Blacks perform their ritual of the haka before the start of a rugby test match, a mysterious unity of spirit and strength of character is revealed. The ritual activates an alert, cohesive and focused group energy that is ready to tackle any challenge in the heat of battle.
Many years ago, when doing a research project about the pressures and harshness of the world of competitive elite sport, I found that elite athletes tended to live behind their ‘mask of competencies’. It seemed necessary that an athlete had to present an emotionally tough, ‘I am confident’, ‘I am in control’ exterior when dealing with the outside world. No weakness was allowed or accepted.
The longer the athlete spent in the arena of competition, the stronger the mask of competency needed to be. When dealing with excessive stress, I found that the athletes rigidified the mask of competency and denied any fears or doubts about their performance. This was usually done in order to emotionally protect themselves from criticism and judgement from public, media, coaches and even fellow players.
On a personal level, the rigid mask of competency tended to block the athlete from getting in touch with the internal dynamics of him/herself, especially around feelings of vulnerability. In turn, I found that this rigidity had a paradoxical impact on performance since it restricted the energetic system of the athlete and usually activated a downward spiral of performance.
It was interesting to read an interview about the All Blacks rugby culture given by their mental conditioning coach. There were two points that struck me in the article. Firstly, players need to feel that they belong in the team. Secondly, when the players are stressed, how can they collaborate and support others who are under pressure as well. This highlights the need to be selfless so that one can extend care and support to others in the most difficult times.
‘As a team, you (need) to sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s a powerful strategy; once I’m prepared to share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance’.
While it may seem rather strange that the mightiest force in world rugby places such high priority on players feeling that they belong in the sanctuary of a team that cares, it comes as no surprise to me. Playing sport in the love domain provides the interpersonal context for an athlete to fulfill all of his/her potential. However, creating such an environment is easier said than done.
Dedicated to my father, Popsie. His gentle, loving and nonjudgemental energy always underpinned his actions and words.