Richie McCaw is an overthinker, according to Dr Ceri Evans, the psychologist who helped the All Blacks great develop the ability to thrive under the most intense pressure of Test rugby.
The pair explained to TVNZ1’s Sunday the journey they had been on to develop the tools that allowed McCaw to captain the All Blacks to back-to-back World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015.
That journey started with the loss to France in the quarter finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, a low point in McCaw’s career and life where he was overcome by the burden of the expectation.
“I didn't really know how to react to be honest because I never really thought it was a possibility,” McCaw admitted of the historic defeat.
“The feeling I really look back on that I really hated was that helpless feeling, like I didn't know, I started to go, 'What do we do now?'
“Leading up to 2007, it had probably been quite fleeting, the mental side, understanding that pressure does affect how you perform we hadn't really talked about that side of things.
“I knew that was an area that I wasn't very good at. And I desperately wanted to be good at it.”
In 2010, Dr Evans started working with the All Blacks with a key focus to help the players control their brains during pressured situations.
“In the first session he made it really simple. He said everyone feels pressure, the All Blacks especially feel pressure and you're not human if you don't,” McCaw said of the first session with Dr Evans.
“This is why you feel pressure, high expectations, a lot of scrutiny and there are big consequences, all of a sudden it was like well that's quite real and it's okay to feel it.”
Dr Evans, a former Rhodes Scholar and All White, believes people have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and has developed a red and blue theory.
“The red system is primed for survival - its great strength is it's extremely fast, it's the gut feeling, either fight or flight, and if we get trapped we freeze. The blue system is about potential - it's the thinking brain, it's analytical, it runs on logic, words, numbers.
“The red system is much more powerful than the blue and so what we really want to do is under pressure have the blue system firing while the red system is firing as well. It's how to bring them together.”
McCaw reveals the red and blue theory is what got him through big moments.
“Richie is an overthinker," Dr Evans said. "He's a very bright guy, a lot goes on in his mind and of course one of the things about performance under pressure is not overthinking.
“When you're in the red, you stop seeing you, you stop hearing and you stop communicating and you just sort of become stuck.”