All Black Rugby: The Eloquence of Applied Neuroscience

20 October 2015

The current All Black rugby team is a product of enormous individual talent together with state-of-the-art applied neuroscience. It represents in fact the most eloquent convergence of neuropsychological coaching (neuromodulation) with physical performance.

Following their defeat in 2007, the All Black management and coaching team set about putting together a strategy which would incorporate validated neuroscientific principles so as to enhance and sustain peak performance. At the outset therefore, they consulted individuals knowledgeable in the Maori culture to assist in re-writing the words of the famous Haka and to modify it to represent the comprehensive cultural origins of New Zealand. The new Haka therefore has come to represent a collective national pride. The new Haka (now translated from the Maori to mean the Team in Black) emerges as the collective team mission statement and a central rallying point. It is the belief and trust in this central anchor which enhances oxytocin levels, which in turn enhances dopamine secretion (engagement, concentration, gratification) and suppresses the amygdala (fear, anxiety, rage). Oxytocin levels are also increased by team-bonding and subordination to the bigger collective of team effectiveness. In fact, after each game, one team member (in a rotation) is expected to clean up the change-room after the rest of the players have left.

Reasoning and appropriateness is mediated by the pre-frontal cortex (executive function). High levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (secreted by the activated amygdala) interfere with pre-frontal function and thus shift the individual player from the reflectiveness of pre-frontal function to the reflexiveness of the fight/flight amygdala. Excessive levels of noradrenaline are therefore countered by belief and trust in themselves and in each other and endorsed by the embracing of their central mission statement, the Haka, together with the mind state of mindfulness. In this context, mindfulness is defined as being fully reflective in the current action without the distraction of recent and past losses/disappointments or the distraction of future fear/challenges. In fact each player is encouraged to select a behavior or activity to which is anchored the default return to mindfulness in the present.

In effect therefore, New Zealand Rugby has incorporated sound neuropsychological applications, underpinned by validated neuroscientific principles and in so doing has raised the bar regarding sustained performance. Ultimately this will apply to all spheres of sport as well as to other performance-based endeavours.

Next time you experience the Haka, know that it is far more than just a war cry!


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