Kieran Read talks from personal experience about dealing with external noise and high expectations.
The higher the level of rugby, sport and business, the greater the expectations there are on you to succeed. This should come as no surprise, but it is amazing how many sports teams and businesses are not prepared to face this extra scrutiny. Performing at the highest level in sport and business requires a mental shift in our ability to deal with outside ‘noise’.
The noise ramps up at this level because the expectations are increased from our employees, fans, clients, customers, stakeholders and, of course, the media. If you think you can operate at the highest level without an increase in the noise from these people then you’re kidding yourself. What you have to do first and foremost is acknowledge these higher expectations that come with high performance. Once acknowledged, how do you put these external expectations to the side and stay focused on your own goals?
Let me tell you about my second year in the All Blacks in 2009. Through injuries and rest, we started the year without a number of our more senior players for two Tests against France and one against Italy. Even though we were a young team, the expectation on us externally and internally was that we should win, and win handsomely. In the first Test in Dunedin, things did not go to script and we lost 27-22 to France, my first loss in the black jersey.
Losing a Test for the All Blacks is one of the worst feelings in the world. You sit alone in the changing rooms thinking about all the things you could’ve done better or differently and you say to yourself and your teammates that we don’t want to have this feeling ever again. So, to Wellington we went, needing to win to draw the series. I remember that without a lot of our senior players around that week it felt really lonely. We were labelled the worst All Blacks side ever and all you wanted to do was go to training then hide away in your room.
The external expectation was that we had to win, and if we didn’t then it could spell the end of a number of our careers in the black jersey. We did not handle this expectation well. Yes, we all had a huge internal expectation of ourselves, but we ended up playing as if burdened by the external expectation.
Playing not to lose, we scraped a 14-10 victory which, although it was a win, didn’t feel much like one considering how we had played. The victory didn’t quieten any of the critics, and we went to Christchurch to play Italy with a looming cloud over our heads. We would win an ugly affair against the Italians, perhaps confirming to a lot of people that we were one of the worst All Blacks teams.
Without a lot of our senior players to help guide us through this adversity, we succumbed to the external scrutiny that was applied to us over these Tests. However, it did set me up to understand what it means to play for the All Blacks and what it takes if you want to be a high performer. After that campaign, I sat down with the coaches and management and spoke about how to best manage external expectations. I had a really strong drive to succeed and for the team to do well, so my internal expectations on myself were so strong that it didn’t actually matter what any of the external ‘noise’ was saying anyway.
Recognising this allowed me to take all the external scrutiny with a grain of salt, and I would say to myself, “There is no greater expectation than my own internal expectation.” This internal expectation wasn’t a burden at all; it was a real motivating factor, a real drive to improve myself, and it gave me no outs in my own performances. I believe this was key in ensuring my consistency in the game. You see some players who play well in the big games but let themselves down against perceived weaker opponents.
This shows an external motivation, motivated by the opposition and the context of the game. If you need something externally to motivate you to play well, then you will struggle to be consistent over a long period of time. By looking within for your motivation, you are also able to stay truer to your values. The extra scrutiny and expectation placed on you when playing in high-performing teams is immense, and it can lead to poor decision-making based on a quick fix instead of what is right.
For example, after a bad quarter of sales, you might start looking for cheaper alternatives that increase your sales over the short-term but, because the quality isn’t the same, in the long run you end up losing more customers. By staying strong to your own values, you will make decisions that are based off what is right for your company and team, not what everyone wants to hear or what from the outside might look great. Probably the largest external scrutiniser that puts the most expectation on the team is the media.
This isn’t so true in business, but for sports teams the media can increase expectations as the public tend to follow what is being said. After going through what I did in 2009, I came up with some clear rules for me to follow. First of all, understanding that the media’s role is to get eyes on their articles, and how they do this is up to them. Secondly, I stopped reading it. Now, there is no way you don’t feel the heat even if you don’t read the news.
You know personally when you or the team has had a bad game; you have reviewed your game, so know where things have gone wrong. Also, when in front of the media, the questions start to focus more on expectations and are a bit more personal, so it’s hard to shield yourself from it. There could be some harsh articles out there written about you but, as I said before, an article isn’t going to make me play better. My internal drivers and willingness to put the team first are what are going to make me play better in the next game.
I am not saying here that we need to go easy on our All Blacks teams. In fact, I believe having a strong expectation from our fans of winning is great for keeping the team on its toes. I would much rather have a public that cares whether we win or lose than if they were indifferent. And here is where we get our lesson. Expectation and scrutiny will increase the higher the level you are competing and, to ensure you don’t lose yourself to the external ‘noise’, you must have a clear set of standards to follow. Make your decisions based off your values and acknowledge the reality of the external scrutiny, while understanding the importance of your own internal expectations.
KIERAN READ played 127 Tests for the All Blacks and captained them on 52 occasions. He founded Kieran Read Leadership. Visit www.kieranread.co.nz for more information.
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