success & the All Blacks
The New Zealand All Blacks fascinate me. When it comes to team sport, they are the pinnacle. This isn’t just opinion – it's a statistical fact. The All Blacks have a win rate of over 75% within the past 100 years, which makes them more successful at the elite level than any other team in any other sport, anywhere. And this is all from a relatively small nation. There are only 4.5 million people living in New Zealand, with just over 140,000 registered rugby players. To give you comparison points, there are over 10 times as many rugby players registered in England. More people play rugby in the USA than in NZ. In light of this data, to say that the All Blacks consistently punch above their weight in demographic terms is a bit of an understatement.
Much has been written about the secrets of the success of the All Blacks. As a sport in New Zealand, rugby obviously benefits from being in such a prominent position, not least in terms of participation and national interest/obsession. The squad are thus able to tap into a very strong talent pool and talent pipeline of highly motivated and driven individuals who have rugby coursing through their veins. There is significant competition for places in the team. All of this is underpinned by a robust domestic club scene and high profile professional structure.
It has to be about more than this though. Over and above these obvious contributors to success are cultural and team performance factors. I’ve recently read good articles about this, written here by David Kirk, the 1987 World Cup winning captain, and also here in this article by James Kerr, who has also written a book about the All Blacks. In addition, this newspaper article talks about the role Gilbert Enoka - a ‘mental skills’ coach - has played in helping foster such a successful high performance culture for the All Blacks within the recent past.
I find all of this deeply interesting, and obviously there are factors here that relate directly to the kind of work that I am asked to undertake with teams (sports and business) here in Scotland.
If I was to pick out a key area in all of the above, for me probably the most significant factor is ‘All Black culture’ and how, for New Zealanders, there is a coming together of national and sporting identities that lays a foundation for something unbelievably powerful within their national rugby team.
I have always thought that New Zealanders have a strong national identity – certainly those that I have met at least. In part, some of this must be about being a geographically isolated island nation, but cultural heritage plays a strong role too, and it is hard to not think that the connectivity between rugby and Maori identity must be hugely significant - you only have to watch the Haka to evidence this. So, what I think this adds up to is that, in a single sport, the New Zealand nation have found a way to express themselves in a way that is aligned with their culture, values and heritage.
I think these factors impact directly on the psychology of each player. Individuals want, and need, to push themselves harder, faster and for longer. There is an intensity about the way the All Blacks play, alongside a desperation not to lose that David Kirk refers to in his article. Whilst any of this may be true for any professional rugby player playing with pride for his nation, there is something about the All Blacks that seems to carry more collective weight. I love the sense that an All Black is more than just a rugby player – he is the custodian of the jersey, and of a set of values that he has inherited from his forebears and will pass onto his successors. The meaning that this generates for individuals strikes me as a very important differentiator.
Can these kinds of effects be created elsewhere? I think they can, although obviously it’s extremely difficult. However, it’s abundantly clear to me that from this, it is logical to conclude that sustained team success is about much more than simply assembling a collection of talented people. Creating meaning for people within a team, or business endeavour, is where that little extra something will be found that will lead to individuals investing more for that collective purpose, and pushing themselves harder, faster and for longer.
Yours in psychology,