Sports Science Monthly – August 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this month’s edition we look at a new case study on the New Zealand All Black’s motivational culture, how to support non-responders in training, operationalizing deliberate practice, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Motivational climate driving success in an elite sporting team

Quick Summary – Supporting athletes in their achievement of success requires us to develop and maintain an environment in which they are motivated to achieve. This case study explores how New Zealand’s All Blacks have achieved this, providing important lessons for us all.

New Zealand’s National Rugby Team, the All Blacks, are generally considered to be the best rugby team ever. Since their first match in 1903, they have won over 75% of all the games they have played, and have won the World Cup three times, including back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2015; a feat which makes them the only team to retain their title. However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, they went through a period of sustained underperformance; having won the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, they struggled at that stage, and failed to make the final at both the 1999 and 2003 tournaments. Following the 2003 edition, they replaced head coach John Mitchell with Graham Henry. Under Henry, and his assistants Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen (the coach who succeeded Henry, taking the role until 2019), the team improved their winning percentage to 85%, which is an outstanding achievement in an already successful team. A paper, published back in 2014, provides us with some unique insight into how Henry and his coaches developed a motivational climate that underpinned this success—with potential lessons for all of us.

The authors utilised a case-study approach, primarily centered around Henry and one of his coaching assistants, Smith. Hansen, the other assistant coach, was not used as at the time of the research he was the head coach of the All Blacks. Multiple data sources were used in developing the case study, including in-depth interviews with Henry and Smith, and analysis of various media, such as books by former players and coaches, newspaper and magazine articles, and documentaries.

From their analysis, the authors identified eight main themes as key underpinners of the All Blacks successful motivational climate:

  • Critical turning point
  • Flexible and evolving
  • Dual-management model
  • “Better people make better All Blacks”
  • Responsibility
  • Leadership
  • Expectation of excellence, and
  • Team cohesion.

Critical Turning Point

During an All Blacks tour of South Africa in 2004, following a defeat, the players organized a night out where binge drinking and various other forms of antisocial behavior took place. Henry and Smith viewed this incident very dimly, and regarded it as symptom of a deep lack of maturity within the team. Once the team returned to New Zealand, Henry and Smith met with the senior players to have an incredibly forthright and blunt discussion around the various behaviors of the team. Henry recalled this as the most important meeting of his eight years in charge; Smith described it as a “coaching epiphany”, which allowed them to further develop their dual management model (discussed later). Both coaches viewed this meeting as a way of shifting the paradigm of how the team should behave, moving them from a team with a culture of binge drinking and outdated leadership, towards one with shared accountability and enhanced ownership. This event, and the coaches response to it, represented a crucial turning point in the motivational climate of the team, setting the foundation for future success. A second crucial turning point occurred following the 2007 Rugby World Cup, where New Zealand lost in the quarter-finals. As a result of this, the team underwent a post-event evaluation, where recommendations were made regarding the development of a streamlined leadership structure. Again, both coaches viewed this failure as a turning point as it forced them to analyze what was going wrong, setting the foundations for future success. This theory of critical turning points is perhaps similar to the concept of Rocky Road or Talent needs Trauma, whereby successful athletes have a negative experience during their development which sets the foundation for future success. It’s clear that we need such turning points across a variety of domains—in this case coaching and team dynamics—to deliver success, and, as a result, we should view failure as an important part of success, provided we can learn from it.

Flexible and Evolving

As a result of these critical turning points, the coaches approach, and hence the team’s motivational climate, were consistently evolving, and viewed as a work in progress. Henry himself reflected on his own evolution over almost 40 years of coaching, moving from being an authoritarian coach to one who coaches by consensus with his players, asking questions to facilitate learning and to understand the opinions of his coaching staff. Henry also reflected on his ability to change his coaching style depending on the situation; sometimes, he would be more direct and tough to create pressure-based situations, whilst other times he would be more questioning in nature. An example of this was when Henry received feedback from his captain regarding the overall lack of effectiveness of team talks; Henry had been giving team talks for 30 years, but here he was being told by the players that they were a waste of time—they would be better off focusing on themselves in those crucial final few minutes before kick-off. Henry changed his approach, demonstrating his flexibility and ability to evolve, as well as his emotional intelligence, an additional crucial pillar of coaching success.

Dual-Management Model

Henry viewed the management of the All Blacks as a collaborative effort between the coaching staff and the players. This required an on-field and off-field leadership group of players who could take control of a situation (which was streamlined following the second critical turning point outlined above). The players were also given increased input into developing game plans for upcoming matches, which enabled Henry to draw on their experiences and knowledge as players. This shared the “leadership load” across a variety of people, reducing the risk of burnout and ensuring performance could be sustained. It’s also strongly linked to the theory of an autonomy-supportive motivation climate, in which an individual’s needs around autonomy, competence, and relatedness are attended to.

Better People Make Better All Blacks

This is a phrase familiar to anyone who has read Legacy, the book exploring the culture of the All Blacks. Henry and his coaches determined that broad player development was a crucial issue in developing a successful motivational climate for their team, off the back of the binge drinking incident discussed above. Henry believed that this approach allowed the players to feel more connected to the people around them—players, fans, family—and would play for these people, driving their performance onwards. This approach also supports players in developing their intra- and inter-personal knowledge and emotional intelligence, crucial aspects underpinning successful team performances.


Henry and Smith both identified the importance of transferring responsibility to the players; this empowered them, and increased the expectation of accountability on their behalf for success on and off the pitch. This was born out of a desire to have the players be more proactive and involved in their success, instead of just sitting back and letting everyone else do it. This carried over into their on-field playing style; they wanted players who could problem solve effectively off the field, so they could make better decisions on it.


As outlined above, the leadership model within the All Blacks during this period was consistently evolving, moving towards some of the key principles that form part of transformational leadership; that is individual consideration, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, acceptance of group goals, high expectations surrounding performance, and appropriate role modeling. In addition, whilst the team had an on-field captain, there were a number of on-field leaders supporting him. This leadership group was also encouraged to take a key role in planning each season, developing a game plan, and organizing the training week—further illustrating the dual-management model in action.

Expectation of Excellence

Henry and Smith both identified the expectation of excellence within the team, which was built on the All Blacks’ long history of success in combination with individual player goals. Part of this is the All Blacks’ belief that players are a steward for the jersey; it’s not theirs, but they want to pass it onto the next person in a better place.

Team Cohesion

The All Blacks typically run with a non-hierarchical coaching structure, with head coach and assistant coaches all having equal levels of influence and ownership. There was strong alignment between players and coaches in terms of their goals and aims, which were, in turn, clear. The coaches also tried to keep the team environment fresh; roughly even seven weeks they would try to freshen what they were doing, potentially changing individual coaching roles, or how they did something like post-game analysis. Finally, there was a focus on trying to make training, and the team environment in general, enjoyable and fun to be in.

Key Take Homes

Some of the key elements of the motivational climate developed and cultivated by Henry and Smith within the All Blacks are related to supporting the autonomy of individual athletes. They are typically offered choice and provided with ownership and accountability for decision-making. They are encouraged to take the initiative, both for their own performance, and for that of the team—the later delivered via shared leadership groups. They also use empowering performance feedback, which is focused on improving the strengths of the players, as opposed to merely focusing on their weaknesses.

There were also strong signs indicative of a transformational leadership culture, in which coaches build relationships with players based on personal, emotional, and inspirational exchanges. A transformational leadership model for sport, developed by Arthur and colleagues, suggests that coaches should i) create an inspirational vision for the future; ii) provide support to the athletes to achieve that vision; and iii) provide sufficient challenge to the athletes to achieve that vision (for example, through high performance expectations).

The findings of this study lead the authors to make some recommendations to coaches of team sport athletes, that we might be able to use a bit more broadly:

  • Involve athletes in meaningful leadership roles within the group;
  • Serve as a transformational leader by focusing on inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, high performance expectations, and appropriate role modelling;
  • Develop your own emotional intelligence by improving your intra- and inter-personal knowledge and competencies;
  • Implement coaching strategies that develop autonomous athletes.

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