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Finding the mental edge

Saturday 10 June 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Features, Health, In Depth, Weekend


Finding the mental edge
Mental performance coach David Niethe (centre) has fun with the audience at the Rarotonga Auditorium this week. 23060825

Mental performance coach David Niethe has advised some of New Zealand’s top sportspeople on reaching their goals. He talks to Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood about his career and how he can inspire others.

It’s been more than 30 years that David Niethe, fed up with his job as a printer worker and advertiser in Auckland decided to become a mental performance coach.

He’s come a long way since operating it out of his garage, to a few clients, to travelling around New Zealand and Australia sharing his secrets with anyone who will listen.

This is his first visit to the Cook Islands, and he’s just held two seminars – one for adults, one for secondary school students – about getting the mental edge.

“It all started when I wanted to find the mental strength for myself when I was doing strongman,” Niethe says.

“I was curious and continually educating myself, I’ve always been looking for that mental edge. I’m constantly reading, I’m constantly improving myself.

“I think my early years of work – I left school without any qualifications – sort of served me, because it gave me the motivation to make a change,” Niethe says,

“At first, I was happy to escape from school. But then as you got into the work, you wonder to yourself ‘is this it?’. There’s nothing more motivating than pain. You will do pretty much anything to avoid pain.”

Niethe’s early years in the mental performance coaching field involved him juggling two jobs.

“I was working a full-time job during the day, and building my coaching business at night. Those early years were tough, and I’m grateful for all the support I got from my wife in particular. But you’ve got to put in the effort. So many people live their lives on default,” he says.

Over time, he began to build up a client base, especially in sport, solely through word-of-mouth.

“I’ve never had to advertise my services to anyone, people have just got on board,” he says.

“You’ve got to remember that this was the mid-to-late 1990s, and New Zealand didn’t really have much of a concept of what mental high-performance means.”

He remembers the early years of working with golfer Michael Hendry, who came to Niethe with a vision of becoming a millionaire on the golfing circuit.

“At the time, he was financially struggling on the circuit, but he had a dream and he could visualise it.

“He’s since done incredibly well for himself, to the point that he was able to buy an Aston Martin,” Niethe says. 

But Niethe’s life changed when he was introduced to the family of golfer Lydia Ko.

“She was only eight at the time, but was so incredibly curious. I worked with her for eight years, and right from the start, she wanted to win,” Niethe says.

“I remember in her early years, we got her to visualise her success, and on one occasion she cut out a picture of herself and placed it over the cover of Golf Digest.

“Right from when she was eight, she wanted to be the best female golfer in the world. She has astonishing mental resolve, and that’s what has got her to the top. I worked with her for eight years.”

Niethe says working with sports teams can have a different flavour.

“It looks at the bigger picture, the team structure, and the collective values and goals. Over time, you become like a family member to the team,” he says.

“Eventually, you build that rapport and trust, and that’s when you can accelerate their mental performance.”

He still keeps in touch with several of the 2015 NBL-championship winning New Zealand Breakers basketball side.

“I trust myself to deliver what is best required for the team and the individuals at the time,” Niethe says.

“I break a lot of rules as a mental performance coach because most like structure, they like notes, I know my instincts are really good.

“A psychologist will teach you how the car works, my job is to teach you how to drive.”

Niethe says a good mental performance coach is consistent and persistent.

“The fastest-growing business today is IT, the second-fastest is coaching. But coaching has one of the highest failure rates, because people think it’s just an opportunity to go in and make a lot of money. That’s not what coaching is about,” he says.

“This is something that I’ve grown organically. There were no excuses, I had to make this happen.”

It often comes down to curiosity, Niethe says, when it comes to high performers.

He reflects on the years he spent as a mental performance coach for UFC fighter Israel Adesanya as a case in point.

“He would be writing notes, he did everything that was required of him, that man held on to a vision. There were times when he was living on next to nothing, just sleeping in a room next to the gymnasium all the time, and look where he has got to now,” Niethe says.

“He was enormously curious, always asking questions, but he’s totally self-made. He would tell me what he liked and didn’t like, but he was always thinking.”

Niethe is a sought-after motivational speaker, but he says he tries not to take himself too seriously.

“For seminars, I share a hell of a lot of information, and people might just take one thing. That one thing could be a trigger of change that sparks an avalanche of change,” he says.

“I just show up. I have done hundreds of these things, and I absolutely trust that I know exactly what needs to be said. You get to a point where it’s so ingrained. It’s like a craftsman, you practice it so many times.”

Niethe is looking to expand his own horizons academically – he’s taking a degree in Psychology and Philosophy at Massey University – and he meditates on how far he’s come.

“My job is to make myself redundant, but it’s always pretty cool to hear from someone you worked with 10, 20, 30 years ago, all of them matter, all of them are significant,” Niethe says.

“I work 20 hours a week. A lot of my time is with the family and friends. This is my life by design, not by default. I set out to step-by-step meticulously build the business to the point where I absolutely was living the life I wanted. That took a lot of effort, and it still does.”