Keeping Your Head in the Game
SALT was privileged to sit down with Ian Foster, coach for the New Zealand All Blacks, to get his take on the importance of developing mental skills to cope with pressure, and how he helps young athletes mitigate the negative impact of social media. He also touches on the vital role that family and faith play as protective factors in his own mental wellbeing.
For the past decade, and even more acutely during the pandemic, conversations about mental health have become increasingly easier. Far from the taboo topic it once was, more and more Kiwi are opening up about their struggles and seeking help. While expedient access to services continues to be a problem in Aotearoa New Zealand, the messaging is clear—it’s okay not to be okay. Workplaces, schools and tertiary providers, churches, as well as various community groups, are all working hard to create environments that place a high priority on mental wellbeing. The professional sports industry is not just getting on board but, in some spaces, making significant strides forward.
That said, the statistics are still shocking—especially for New Zealand men. Workplace wellbeing and resilience training specialists Umbrella explain that ‘mental health is a topic that many men are reluctant to talk about. One indicator of our reluctance is the simple fact that while New Zealand males report lower rates of depression and anxiety than New Zealand females, men accounted for roughly three quarters (72 percent) of New Zealand suicides in 2020.’
Fostering high performance
Traditional beliefs about masculinity—like being tough and unwilling to show weakness—have historically dominated New Zealand culture and influenced behaviour with devasting results. However, these attitudes are consistently being challenged in the twenty-first century. In 2010, rugby star Sir John Kirwan published a groundbreaking memoir about his battle with mental illness, All Blacks Don’t Cry—the book title itself is a poignant social commentary calling out toxic attitudes about both masculinity and mental health. All Blacks coach Ian Foster affirms that there is absolutely no room for such corrosive attitudes within the All Blacks camp of 2023. In fact, for athletes and coaches alike to keep their head in the game, the complete opposite is true.
‘We have shifted a lot over the last decade to understanding that establishing a culture and environment that allows for vulnerability goes hand in hand with high performance. Knowing what athletes need help with and working with them encourages them to be better people, which makes them better rugby players,’ explains Ian. ‘There was a time when how we were coached and organised was very much about here’s the role and the code of behaviour, but within that there wasn’t room or opportunity given to show any signs of weakness.’
Ian knows this from experience, having played top level rugby himself for Waikato, and then the Chiefs as Super Rugby took off in the mid-90s. Successfully transitioning to coaching in 2002, Ian’s playbook includes eight years with the Chiefs and three years as co-coach of the Junior All Blacks. In 2012, he joined the All Blacks coaching team, becoming head coach in 2019. With the 2023 World Cup looming large, Ian knows all about pressure and how to manage it. But it’s the impact that pressure has on the young athletes in his charge that drives his coaching team to deliver on a culture that supports mental wellbeing.
‘My faith gives me the calmness to approach some of the difficult situations I find myself in.’
Speaking plainly about the pressure of the All Blacks environment, Ian uses the analogy of an egg. We all know how fragile an egg is and how easily it can crack when threatened by external pressure. But the All Blacks coaching team is constantly working with young athletes to build internal counter-pressure to minimise that threat.
‘Most people understand the concept of external pressure—the media and the public expectations of winning—but there are also some powerful pressures that the players put on themselves. For most athletes they have dreamed of being an All Black since they were a kid. They make the team and then boom, there’s the pressure of their own expectations, and that of family and friends who they want to make proud. What we have learnt is that you must match that external pressure—exceed it if possible—with positive internal pressure so that players don’t crack,’ says Ian.
That internal pressure obviously includes high expectations of behaviour and standards as well as individual player’s ownership of and commitment to a strict training regime.
‘If we don’t introduce the essential ingredient of vulnerability into the mix within the team camp, then the mental burden of performance and expectation can be overpowering,’ Ian emphasises. ‘Creating an environment where athletes feel safe to share what’s going on is vital. It’s not a big counselling or sob session, but it’s having intentionality around where a player is at and what they need help with. And that hopefully becomes part of the everyday language—that’s what we are striving for.’
Ian explains that the team leans heavily into the phrase ‘mental skills’, coined by All Blacks sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka. ‘It’s about helping players to be authentic in everything they do, and teaching a set of mental skills that support that. If a player is struggling, the first conversation will be with Gilbert, and from there we develop a strategy with the athlete.’
Obviously Ian holds ‘positional power’ as the head coach. ‘I have something players want, which is selection. So we work hard to create an environment that says okay I have this power and my role is to decide if you get to play, but I can’t afford to have you spending all day worrying about what I’m going to decide. That’s something you simply cannot control. So that’s a key mental skill, understanding what you can and can’t control. We help athletes work out that what they can control is their performance, so we work hard in that training space.’
Fostering self-worth and value
What a player can and can’t control spills over into social media—a reality for many of us today. Ian is quick to affirm that there are some positive aspects to social media, but he also has some sage advice for combating the negative. ‘The answers to gaining an understanding of who we are and how we determine our own value and self-worth are never going to be found on social media,’ he says.
‘We advise athletes to be careful about what they expose themselves to on social media, discussing with them what drives that need to read people’s comments. If they are needing that to build self-worth then there are some more important underlying issues we want to work on with a player.’
It’s senior players who contribute real value to this work with young and/or new players—men who know the pitfalls personally and how crucial it is to be disciplined around social media use. Players are encouraged to manage the amount of time they spend online. Ian wisely comments, ‘the minute you find yourself feeling better or worse based on random comments from people you don’t know personally, then you need to come back and re-centre yourself around who you are, what’s important to you and what you want to achieve; and make sure you’re talking with people who really matter to you and who can affirm those things.’
Ian is not immune to external pressures as head coach but benefits as much as the players from the supportive culture pushing back inside the All Blacks camp.
‘If we can’t get that support right from within the camp, we’re pretty stuffed,’ he says. The Irish series in 2022 was a particularly hard time, and it was senior player Ardie Savea who reached out to Ian, demonstrating how embedded the culture of support really is.
‘Ardie rang me up and asked, “How are you going Fos?” ‘And I said, “I’m going good.”
‘But then he said, “Nah nah, how are you really going?” ‘And I was able to say, “She’s a bit tough Ardie”. ‘And he said, “Well, we’re all in this together and you’re our boss and you’re where you need to be, and we believe that so let’s just get on and do it”. So I’ve got people around me willing to reach out and share and walk the journey when it’s tough.’
‘…while New Zealand males report lower rates of depression and anxiety than New Zealand females, men accounted for roughly three quarters of New Zealand suicides in 2020.’
Foster family, faith and footie
One of those people is Ian’s wife Leigh, as well as his extended family which he describes as ‘massively supportive’ and the people who ‘willingly ride the ups and downs’ with him and help Ian keep his head in the game.
‘Leigh understands the complexities of the job and the pressures, and she’s great if I’m away on tour because I can call her and vent. Her response is usually, “Oh well that’s part of the job so stop sulking and get on with it”. Sometimes the help I need isn’t soft and fuzzy but direct and pragmatic. But on the flip side, she’s a great listener when that’s what I need. This job would be very hard to do without a rock-solid family around you.’
Ian’s Christian faith also plays a significant role in his own wellbeing, helping him handle criticism and pressure.
‘My faith gives me the calmness to approach some of the difficult situations I find myself in. It doesn’t give me an advantage over anyone else in my business, but it helps me deal with it all. My faith helps me take the criticism in a constructive way. Some of that feedback is right, from a rugby sense, so I want to hear it. But I don’t want it to dent me as a person. My own confidence in who I am enables me to be relatively consistent with my team, so hopefully they don’t see someone fluctuate up and down based on results or external pressure. For me, having a clear sense that I am grounded in something is essential because then it doesn’t matter what’s out there that hits me, I can come back to who I am and what I believe in.’
Ian has observed this in others within the All Blacks camp. ‘We’ve had Muslims in our team, and other Christians, as well as people who probably don’t profess to have a faith at all but have some outstanding family values. Players who have those strong bases are the ones who have the best foundation to deal with what’s going to hit them as an All Black.’
Ultimately, it’s Ian’s love of the sport that keeps his head firmly in the game. ‘What I love about sport is that it builds community. It’s a mechanism for people to come together in a space where all the titles they have in life get put to the side. It doesn’t matter if you are a bank manager or a farmer because on the field you’re a sportsperson first—part of the team—trying to achieve something positive together. And that’s what I love most.’
SALT was lucky enough to continue the conversation with Ian Foster. Read more in our online bonus feature: Keeping Your Head After the Game