• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Double Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Photo/Getty Images

The secret behind the All Black's winning mindset

Dr Ceri Evans, whose work informed the All Blacks’ winning attitude in the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups, gives a guide to getting a boost from stress.

We might not like feeling pressure ourselves, but it’s compelling to watch how others cope when put to the test, especially sportspeople.

When the Rugby World Cup gets under way next month, fans are going to see plenty of close-ups of rugby players looking skywards and down to the ground searching for answers while experiencing tough moments. According to the author of Perform Under Pressure, Dr Ceri Evans, a sports consultant to the All Blacks, that tell-tale looking up and down is a sure sign that a player has lost focus: his eyes are out of the game and he can’t find a way through.

Evans, a Christchurch-based consultant psychiatrist, is the creator of a RED-BLUE mind model, which has been used by organisations, businesses, individuals, teams and our national men’s rugby side for performance under pressure.

There’s no way of knowing definitively if it was Evans’ RED-BLUE model that gave the team their winning edge in the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup. But when he came on board, the team’s cursed run of World Cup losses ended. No other team has won twice in a row.

Former All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, who has written the foreword for Evans’ book, relates how it nearly turned to custard in the last 10 minutes of the 2011 final.

“The match was touch and go and I felt myself going into the RED. It could have unfolded like in 2007, but I got myself back into the BLUE and thought, ‘This is the moment I have pictured and prepared for.’”

A doctor of forensic psychiatry, Evans was also a pro footballer and has a football coaching A licence, qualifications which would have commanded McCaw’s attention and respect.

As a young footballer, Ceri Evans was fascinated by how the body and mind worked. Photo/Diederik van Heyningen/Supplied

The former All Whites defender was able to explain to the All Blacks what happened to the brain under pressure, give the team permission to feel it, and offer radically different strategies for coping with the pressure that turned it into a challenge rather than a threat.

Evans says his RED-BLUE mind model isn’t just for the sports-centric. Anyone imagining that the pressure involved in high-performance activities is out of their grasp, and who faces mental barriers to reaching their goals, is invited to follow the RED-BLUE code.

If that sounds like an evangelising self-help book, Evans has reframed the terminology of that debased genre, saying his book is all about “self-health”. He is careful not to claim it as a text book, or a reference book. It’s not intended as a scientific account, and there are no references at the back, but its many diagrams are intended to make it a practical guide for anyone who wants to change the way they feel, think and act under pressure.

The RED-BLUE mind model may not be a clinical one, but it’s built on clinical understanding. “I’ve been delivering this language for quite a while and people have been encouraging me, saying, ‘We see your RED-BLUE language around and hear it all the time. It’s about time you owned this, put a frame around it, and told us more about it’.”

Evans, who is a sole practitioner whose work comes by word-of-mouth, was approached by several publishers. He settled on one that didn’t expect him to talk about high-profile people he has worked with. That would have gone against the tenets of his clinical training, and he flatly refuses to comment on the performances of any player, known or unknown to him.

However, the book includes more than the usual amount of short, glowing testimonials from a cross-section of chief executives and general managers of private and government organisations and sports enterprises, academics and, of course, from McCaw.

Photo/Getty Images
As a budding young footballer, Evans was fascinated by how the body and mind worked, and was searching for literature that would explain, in practical terms, “what was going on inside someone’s head that caused them to perform poorly or well”.

Sports psychology was in its infancy, and seeing a shrink about sports-related matters was thought to be weak-minded. It wasn’t until later, during his career as a forensic psychiatrist working in courts, prisons and hospitals, that Evans began to understand how the mind works under stress. He noticed how vulnerable people were under pressure and that there was a limited vocabulary to explain it.

When Evans met Christchurch graphic designer Renzie Hanham, he asked him if he could draw a diagram to map out his findings on the pathways to both effective and ineffective performance. Hanham became the RED-BLUE mind model’s co-developer.

Initially, they floundered around in uncharted territory until they had a eureka moment. They realised that the diagram should be RED-BLUE colour-coded and discovered that people seemed to grasp the simplicity of it immediately. Being able to show both the positive and negative pathways gave people an easily understandable choice.

So what is the code that is supposed to help you gain emotional control, think clearly and act effectively when you’re in the eye of the performance storm? It’s a marriage of the red, which is fast and about images, emotions, intuition and impressions, with the blue, which represents the slow, logical and rational.

Ideally, we need the energy of the red and the clarity of the blue in order to extract top performances from people in their professional and personal lives.

“There’s the physical element, which I describe as linear and is easy to understand and you can train for those, but the mental aspects are more abstract, hard to get at and describe,” Evans says.

“There is something about the abstract world we can’t get to grips with it, so just by naming it is incredibly settling. By saying, ‘I’m in the red at the moment’, gives it some basic language.”

Evans’ mental strategy is counterintuitive to what most people think about performance: namely, that you have to feel comfortable in the pressure moment. He believes that to actually reach your limits, you have to walk towards the pressure and discomfort and be in that moment in order to find your way through. The inclination to want less of the tough and uncomfortable moments accounts for why most of us remain stuck on a performance plateau.

It’s accepted that when you go to the gym and work your muscles to overload, that’s a good thing. It should be the same for mental overload.

“Where do we go to when we want to get mentally stronger? And when you go there, what is your apparatus? What is the simple tool or structure you use?”

The RED-BLUE model provides the tools to exercise mental movement, so rather than be overwhelmed, you can step back and get control, because without control there is no choice. When you’ve got emotional control and gained some clarity, the crucial next step is to seize the initiative and take effective action to get to the next level.

Followers of this method become three-steppers, as opposed to the 12-steppers of popular anti-addiction programmes. The Evans prescription is 1) Step back and see where your reaction to the situation sits on a RED-BLUE line, 2) Step up to a higher performance plane to gain an overview of the situation and 3) Step in to the higher plane and take action. The three steps encourage a kind of mental agility so that each internal movement can be deconstructed.

“What I’m trying to describe is, what if we stay in those tough moments rather than getting out of them. Instead of fight, flight and freeze, see it as a challenge rather than a threat.”

It’s about changing the mindset from being unable to perform because of the discomfort you’re experiencing, to realising that, to develop, you must stay in the moment. Evans describes those as “face and find” moments.

Photo/Getty Images

Is this contemporary thinking about physiology harmonising with psychology a whole lot of unfathomable mumbo jumbo and too hard to grasp for the average punter? Or has Evans hit on a winning formula?

It had McCaw transfixed. From extensive notes he made in an exercise book, he did deep analysis of his stress response. That turned him into a believer in the model, as are numerous other converts who’ve stress-tested it in a broad range of spheres.

Evans has some glittering bona fides to underpin the creation of his theory. After studying medicine at the University of Otago, he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. A master of arts degree in experimental psychology was followed by the awarding of the Gaskell Gold Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which made him a fellow.

His interest in traumatic memory led him to interview more than 100 violent offenders in the UK, where he focused on the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims. His niche became “pressure” as he looked at the range of human behaviour from the tragic to the triumphant. He discovered the extent to which intrusive memories linked to early development would enter the mind when the perpetrators were under chronic stress.

Evans believes we are strongly influenced by our early experiences, but we don’t tend to think about that in performance terms. Humans are vulnerable under pressure and most of us are haunted by difficult moments from our past.

“When you do something in front of people, and they respond in a certain way, you’re setting up a particular dynamic.”

When Evans returned to Christchurch from the UK, he was made clinical director of the Canterbury Regional Forensic Psychiatry Service. He led national projects on violence risk assessment and prison mental health screening and was an expert witness in civil and criminal cases.

Performing at sport’s top level is in his blood. His father, Gwyn Evans, played for Crystal Palace and was secretary-general of the New Zealand Football Association. His mother, Joy (née Williamson) Evans, was a New Zealand table tennis champion who represented the country overseas. Yet he says his parents weren’t pushy and had no expectations of him following in either of their sporting fields.

“My parents’ philosophy was that you’ve got to be active, you’ve got to do things and you’ve got to try hard, but it didn’t matter what you did, it was your choice. They were very non-judgmental and there were no expectations.”

A passionate Cantabrian, Evans has also studied and experienced first-hand the effects of the ongoing pressures on a population, during the Christchurch earthquakes and the mosque attacks.

He talks of tūrangawaewae, of the community standing tall together, holding their nerve and finding a way though in a time of crisis. It has made him even more attached to the city.

He thinks Christchurch has done incredibly well to survive and thrive, and that the trials the community has gone through mean “we now have more blue”.

Pressure, he suggests, should become our best friend. He’s not saying we should invite trauma into our lives. “But sometimes people do step up and we see extraordinary performances from them.”

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.