How Red2Blue helped GBWR achieve Gold
This month we talk to David Warner, a Red2Blue coach who was part of the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby team’s success in the 2020 Paralympics. David used Red2Blue as a key part of his psychological skills strategy for the GBWR team, as they elevated themselves from their fifth place ranking in Rio in 2016 to take home the Gold in Tokyo.
David came to coaching quite late in his career after many years as an IT consultant. His consulting experience gave him some insight into one-to-one work, which he enjoyed, and his dream was to train to be a sports psychologist. After returning to university at the age of 48 to pursue a Masters in Psychology, and a Masters in Occupational Psychology, it was a serendipitous meeting that led to his first sports contract.
In 2012, David came across the book The Chimp Paradox. Loving the neuroscience, and its insight into how our minds work, he contacted the author, Steve Peters, who just happened to be setting up a coaching company. The two hit it off and David began working for Steve, leading to a coaching contract two years later with Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby.
The ambition to win
The first few years with GBWR were tough and the team were struggling to make headway. “We were ranked fifth in the world when I joined,” David says, “but the ambition was always to win a medal at the Paralympic Games. I went along to Rio with the team. We started ranking fifth and we finished placing fifth. After that, all our funding was removed.”
Without any funding, the programme was going to collapse unless they could enlist some volunteers. A few people, including David, stepped in to help, even though GBWR couldn’t afford to pay for their time. They managed to hold the programme together for a couple of years, securing enough sponsorship to compete at competition level. The hard work paid off: GBWR won the 2017 European Championships and qualified for the 2018 World Championships in Sydney.
By the time they got to Sydney, the team had risen to fourth in the world, but success was short-lived. They lost a close semi-final against Australia then got “absolutely hammered” in the Bronze medal match against the USA, losing by 11 points. The team were at a crossroads – they’d secured all this sponsorship but hadn’t delivered, so something had to change.
A new way of thinking
“We needed a new way of looking at things, something that all the players could buy into,” says David. “By chance, a colleague of mine had been talking about Red2Blue, so when I got back from Sydney, I did some research and thought it might be what we were looking for.”
Soon after, David found himself in Twickenham where Gazing is based, and arranged to meet Bede for a coffee. After chatting through the team’s problems Bede sketched out on the back of a napkin, how he thought Red2Blue could help. “It immediately resonated with me,” David says. “I saw this was something the team could buy into.” David signed up to train as a Red2Blue coach and began to introduce the concept to the team.
“What I love about Red2Blue is it’s a simple concept. There’s neuroscience behind it – we’re trying to understand what the brain is doing. But everybody gets the simplicity of ‘Are you Red Headed or are you Blue Headed? Where’s your attention? Are you focused on what you’re supposed to be doing or are you not?”
A common language
When he introduced Red2Blue to the team, he was pleased to see that it resonated with the athletes, staff and coaches. It made sense, fitting in easily with how they operated and almost immediately became a common language.
In May 2019, they were playing in a practice tournament amongst the world’s top teams, and, for the first time, they won! During the debrief, David realised that the Red2Blue work they’d been doing had suddenly clicked for the whole team.
“One of our players said, ‘This Red Head thing is not just about being annoyed and angry is it? It’s about whenever I’m distracted. So, when I score a try and I’m off celebrating when I should be transitioning, that’s Red Head, isn’t it?’ You could almost hear the penny drop in the room. You could hear everybody go, ‘Aha, that’s what it is’.”
Staying on task
That was when magic started to happen for the team. Once one player vocalised that it was about staying on task and in that moment, it clicked for the rest of the team too. “After that, it became about following our processes, making sure we all knew what we were doing, staying on that task and keeping everyone else accountable to stay on their tasks,” David says.
The next step was to enable the team to support the individuals within it. Talking to the team one-to-one, David established what each person’s Red Head moments were, what would trigger them, their inner mantras (positive feedback loops) and what they needed from their teammates and coaches to help them get back to Blue. The result was a much more open and honest dialogue amongst the players about what they needed from each other, allowing the team to understand, support and respond to the needs of each individual.
Building the right culture
Red2Blue also played a huge part in building the GBWR team’s culture. Conscious that GB had never won a Gold medal, or any medal at World level, (all the leading teams – USA, Australia, Japan, and Canada – were outside of Europe), the team wanted to shift and rewrite GB’s history to go from being a losing team to a winning team.
They knew they needed a winning mindset, but what did a winning mindset look like? “We looked at what the winning teams were doing. What were their behaviours? What were their attitudes? What did they do on court? What did they do off court? What were they doing that we weren’t? We discovered that one of the key differentiators was their decision-making in pressurised situations”.
Processes to handle pressure
The team needed to understand what to do in those pressurised moments – particularly towards the end of a game – what each person’s role was and the processes they needed to follow. From there on, it became not just about developing the skills and the strengths they needed, but also focusing on the processes that the team needed to follow under pressure, to give themselves the best chance of winning.
“It was a case of practice and practice and practice so that mindset became behaviours, which then became process, all driven by being in a Blue Headed state in those crucial moments,” David says.
It soon became apparent that Red2Blue was succeeding in changing the outcome of the game. David cites the final at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, where GB were playing the USA. “We always struggled against the USA,” David says. “We’ve had our moments against them, but we rarely won, often losing close games in the final minutes.” This time, GB were three points up in the final quarter.
Preparation pays off
David had been working with one particular player who tended to have a Red Head reaction to unfair refereeing calls. He would lose focus and, while he was gathering his thoughts, he’d be out of play. “We worked on a few routines, inner mantras for him to say – like ‘sport isn’t always fair’, and ‘it was a bad decision, let’s focus on what happens next’”. The player also asked his teammates to come over and say ‘Blue Head’ if the saw him losing focus – to help him snap him out of his Red Headed moments.
So, back to the final quarter, GB were three points up with a few minutes to go. The player in question was carrying the ball and got hit in his chair. The chair bounced up off the ground and another player came and hit him again while he was up in the air; he was knocked over.
There’s a strange rule in wheelchair rugby, David explains, that when you fall on the ground holding the ball, it’s a turnover to the other team. The player had been knocked over in his chair, but the second hit was an illegal hit. David looked over at the player as he and his chair were being lifted back upright by the support staff, wondering how he’d react. “I looked at him and he just looked really focused, steely eyed. Two plays later, he hit an American and knocked him and his chair over and got the turnover back. I knew at that point we were going to win.”
The winning moment
David saw a couple of years’ worth of work with that player come to fruition in that moment. “I could see he’d had done everything we’d agreed he would do in that kind of situation.” GB went on to close out the game 54-49 and win the Gold.
On the plane home, David asked the player what happened. “He said ‘I knew it was an illegal hit. But I also knew there was nothing I could do about the decision. So, I just thought about what I was going to do next, not in an aggressive way but in a cold, calculated way.’ And that’s what he did.”
Your circle of control
After GBWR achieved their dream of winning the Gold in Tokyo, David decided to step away from coaching teams and now works with individuals – from sports people to businesspeople to private individuals.
There are two pieces of advice that David offers his clients. The first one, which reflects Red2Blue’s ethos, is to make sure you only validate yourself against processes that are within your circle of control. In other words, redefine your success to things that you can control, such as living by your values and following your processes rather than seeking external validation as a marker of success. By focussing on doing the right things, external success is more likely to follow.
David’s second piece of advice is “Always ask yourself, is what we’re about to do going to get us closer to the dream we’re trying to achieve or further away?” If the GBWR team’s Paralympic experience is anything to go by, that advice certainly pays off!
If you’re interested in finding out more about the work David does or would like to work with him one-to-one, you can email him at [email protected].