mental skills

Strength-based thinking can help you build self-esteem and perform better

Mental skills coach Jason Brennan’s latest column details the process of SBT.

Updated 18.45

THIS THIRD ARTICLE in our series on mental skills is focused on Strength-Based Thinking (SBT) and how to apply it in sports and other areas of life or performance.

  • Read the first two articles in this series here

In basic terms, SBT involves reminding yourself, in particular your brain/mind, of the various aspects of your performance that you are really good at – based on real experience and solid information.

Instructions for following your own SBT process can found at the end of this article.

Strength-Based Thinking

One question that is often asked in relation to SBT and other strength-based approaches is, ‘If it works in all manner of pursuits – sports, business, personal achievement – why doesn’t everyone just do it?’

This is a straight forward ‘conscious’ question, with a more complex ‘unconscious’ answer.

We are not all that we see.

New ZealandÕs Richie McCaw Richie McCaw used a strength-based thinking approach.

Us humans are very complex creatures – not necessarily physically, as we are very much like other animals in many ways – but psychologically we are extremely complex. A recent documentary reminded me of this exact fact. I had forgotten that we are the only animals that cook!

Away from cooking though, sometimes our complexity does not always work for us, and this is especially so in certain aspects of our psychology and performance. Just because we know something works or to be correct or true, or even that it is good for us, we often fail to change or adapt our behaviour accordingly.

Even when we know we know this, we still do not change our behaviour!

This is sadly why many New Year resolutions don’t last long enough to create decent enough change that will truly stick. We can fall off the wagon or gradually give up/give in.

This is a very common experience for many (but not all) and the reason lies mostly in our unconscious self and the struggle of the unconscious to re-establish old patterns of behaviour and habits.

It’s like old programming trying to re-assert itself or override the new one being introduced.

This is also why many people find SBT initially difficult to imagine doing. Some people even find the name itself challenging, as it challenges the old unconscious programming straight off the bat – with the word ‘strength’, as this word can stir up various emotions.

However when techniques like STB do take hold, the results speak for themselves. Greater self-esteem, greater self-confidence and a stronger belief in one’s abilities and one’s self.

Therefore, better performance!

It is important to note here that our strengths are not based on our future but based purely on already proven results – what has actually gone before.

A view of Champions Cup balls Strength-based thinking can help bring about greater performance. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

This is the beauty of SBT – it challenges the early programming (thinking) in a way that instantly overrides and implements it with reality-based examples that stick. It sticks because it is soundly based in reality (and not make believe/or a wished for fantasy).

When the old programming starts to re-engage itself, it can easily be challenged and debunked – like the mind saying, ‘No, I can’t say that about myself anymore because it’s just not true. I have all this other evidence telling me something different to what I used to tell myself, and I can trust this new evidence.’

Developing the ability to rely on SBT – or in simpler terms, rely on one’s own proven strengths – is one of the earliest processes that I introduce to athletes.

It is one they can initially struggle in doing by themselves, but can quickly engage with it when working with someone outside of themselves – someone who gets them thinking differently about themselves and their past performances.

SPORTS Performance

One of the tools I have developed to kick-start this process is a SPORTS performance sheet.

S                Strengths

P               Peak performance

O               Options to improve and excel

R               Rate underperformance

T                Team support available

S                Specific strategies – list

This survey starts with the athlete’s strengths; followed by an emphasis on their ability to improve, grow, develop and build these strengths – before exploring the area of underperformance.

The most common and frequent response I get from athletes and elite players is that by themselves, they found it hard to rate their strengths. That might be surprising to some.

It is often the area that we need to work consciously on together, to expand. Interestingly, when it comes to rating their underperformance, they find this the easiest part to answer!

The reason for this struggle lies in our unconscious and our ability to be overly and harshly self-critical. / YouTube

This criticism overshadows the truth of an athlete’s performance and true abilities. Some of the best athletes that I have worked with initially score their strengths moderate to low, while many young players can often over-score themselves and their strengths.

The key to SBT is honesty – being true to oneself, with truth-based facts. Not being harsh in a ‘parental critical’ way; not being too nice or polite in an overly ‘parental nurturing’ way; or indeed too over the top in a ‘child-like’ naive way.

The key is to be authentic. Really reflecting on what a player or a person has already achieved in the course of getting to where they are right now.

What they actually know they are good at – based not only on their own personal experience but also based on feedback they have received from others (coaches, teammates, other players, commentators and educated/experienced individuals).

For athletes and players, their list usually starts with technical skills – passing, tackling, shooting, speed, etc. – but they are also things like leadership, supporting roles, being a team player, professionalism, humour, strategic thinking.

Together, we build on these experiences and create a list not just of their abilities but of their Assets – all of what they bring to a team.

Assets are qualities such as passion, focus, physicality, cleverness, socialiability, coachablity, relationship skills, attitude, energy, values – the list is endless and unique to each player.

This process is designed to make these Assets more conscious, by linking them to actual experiences and actual feedback (when did this happen, where, how do you know, feedback with or by who).

New ZealandÕs Richie McCaw McCaw has a consistent SBT routine before games. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The conscious mind is then seeking out real memories.

Doing this repeatedly in a SBT process allows the neural pathways and neural transmitters to strengthen through usage. Reminding oneself of these experiences in an actively conscious way, creates a stronger bridge time and again – then allowing the list to be recalled easily.

This strong neural pathway is very useful when it is time for a player or athlete to face into a crucial performance – a big game or test, even an important presentation.

An SBT process can also become part of an athlete’s ‘priming’ of their mind before a competition.

I encourage all players to implement a process like this during their pre-game routine.

Richie’s routine

All athletes have a pre-game routine, whether they are conscious of it or not. Having a conscious pre-game routine is much more powerful.

A good example of this comes from All Black captain Richie McCaw’s book The Open Side. As a young boy, he was heavily influenced by his uncle. When Richie said he wanted to be an All Black, his uncle encouraged him not to stop there – why not be the ‘Greatest All Black’?

Young Richie connected instantly with this and wrote out a list of his goals, at his uncle’s encouragement. In big letters he wrote ‘GAB’ – Greatest All Black.


As he developed as a rugby player, he brought a small notebook into the changing room for every game. In it, he had the letters ‘GAB’ written at the top. Over time, McCaw added to this book with a list of all the aspects of his game and his performance that he knew he was good at and wanted to continue to be good at.

He would read them, write out more and even set specific goals for each game based on areas of his performance he needed to lift to beat the opposition. This is a great example of ‘priming’ that includes a SBT process.


SBT is a powerful routine to engage with and all it takes is a little time and a little reflection.

Any person can do this by grabbing a pen and notebook (or your phone) and following the simple instructions below. If routinely practised, it will help with all performance – sport, business and personal.

Step 1 – Write out what you are good at.

Step 2 – Write out what else you are good at. What are your personal assets?

Step 3 – Write out how you know you are good at these things.

Step 4 – Write out who you would ask (in your mind), that you trust, who could confirm that you are good at these things.

Step 5 – Write out what you think others would also say you are good at.

Step 6 – Rate how good you are at these behaviours (on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being exceptional and 0 not actually having these behaviours).

Step 7 – Check your score. Are you being too harsh, too generous or just right?

Step 8 – Write out how you can actually use and build on your assets.

This list is the foundation of your SBT process. For the process to work well, you must look at this list often, but especially before a stressful or tense situation.


I’d love to hear about your experiences in mental skills. Have you ever used an SBT approach before? How easy or difficult did you find the process above? Have you used any mental skills techniques before?

Feel free to comment below or via

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