The brain behind the All Blacks' brawn

By Leah Haines

I'm standing in the hub of the All Blacks' brain. If they had a collective mind, this is where it would live - in this cosy, wood-lined Christchurch front room.

This is the study of the All Blacks' private shrink, Gilbert Enoka. It's where the motivational mind-man forms the ideas to give the team the mental edge needed to win next year's Rugby World Cup.

Here, in the brain, we are staying connected to the now. Clasping our flat whites, Enoka and I are living the moment. We are not rushing into the future or dwelling on the past. We are changing the paradigm: overcoming obstacles, winning the next moment and always, always, moving forward.

Enoka has a library of "motivationisms" on the tip of his tongue which have found their way into the All Blacks' post-game vernacular: They're the sort of inspiring cliches that keep you nodding in rapt agreement till you get home, rewind the tape, and start trying to translate it into something the average person can understand.

Gilbert - Bert to his mates and Berty to his secretary (he spends a lot of time on the phone) - has carved out a niche as the premium purveyor of mind training for sports people, ranging from the Silver Ferns to teenage tap-dancing sensations.

He prefers to be called a mental skills coach but over the years he's earned other nicknames, too.

When he worked for the Black Caps he was known as HMS Enoka because of the inevitability of his steaming into view when a cricketer's heart, or game, started to sink.

Sure enough the long-lanky Enoka would be there, at the player's elbow, gently nudging them off for a rescue talk. He's gone on to work with Super 12 rugby players, volleyballers and netballers.

These days, however, there is only time to keep the All Blacks moving forward. He tours with them, trains with them and teaches their coaches how to coach. He is literally the brains behind their brawn.

But it's the bruteness that Enoka is slowly softening. He is the man who's taking the he-man out of the All Blacks and hopefully turning them into World Champions in the process.

"I've always called the sports psyche that I work in the Ugly Duckling of all the sports sciences," Enoka says. "Bio mechanics, exercise physiology, people are comfortable with those. But the moment you get above the neck they start thinking: 'A shrink! Well if I need that then there's something wrong with me...' Especially the older generation - the baby boomers and beyond. To them it's witch doctor stuff. "

Yep. His is the sort of namby pamby business which has old-time players bristling. Even former All Black coach John Mitchell didn't want a bar of it and Enoka found himself sidelined under his administration.

The old guard can be sticks in the mud sometimes. Take the fiasco over Anton Oliver posing nude for a painting. All Black hard man Colin Meads almost threw up into his gumboots.

"We're meant to be salt of the earth, down-to-earth bloody good guys," he told a newspaper. "You don't pose bloody nude, or get a painting of yourself in the nude."

Enoka laughs when reminded of the outbust. "A lot of the stoic tough men of the past would say 'Hey, you shouldn't show your weaknesses'."

Or one's bottom? "That's right! Yeah, well part of where we go is that we felt the All Blacks have been trapped in tradition. We've been doing a lot of things because the old people, like Colin Meads, did them."

Because of that, Enoka reckons, the younger All Blacks decided to create their own legacy. And part of that was their own haka. "They said we want to develop something that's ourselves.

"So we sat them down and said to them: 'Tell us what it means to be an All Black' - they said: 'When I put on the jersey I go out there to perform, it's my time and my moment'.

"That last action," he says, imitating the throat-cutting gesture, "has never been controversial to the guys because they said the actions are not the key things there, it's the words. And the words are 'it's our time, our moment'. All of a sudden we saw a more intense connection by the players to the multicultural diversity of New Zealand because they now had a visual representation of something that represents what it means to be an All Black."

The All Blacks getting in touch with themselves? Too right. And it's not just about a new haka.

Enoka has got them in group sessions, learning to be vulnerable. Learning to talk about life, love and the universe. It's about breaking down that stoicism that Meads holds so dear - creating mental toughness and changing the culture in the process.

First on Enoka's hitlist is the culture of silence. "Encouraging people to talk openly about the daily struggles, about what it means to be an All Black. And to talk openly about the impact and affect that has on your loved ones. If we can get people to overcome that culture of silence then we're going to create an environment where people feel supported and are more free to be themselves."

The other cultures he wants to see disappear are secrecy - which mainly involves having realistic rules so the players don't go behind the team's back to break them - and then the culture of 'me'.

"We really want to promote the notion that if we share and we trust and we do things together, that we're going to achieve something greater than the sum of the total parts."

So does all this sharing, trusting and vulnerability add up to a better team? Enoka reckons so.

"We've found that some of our best performances have combined with times when people have got up and said, 'I'm struggling here, I need some help'. This could be sitting in with a group of people when they start to talk about that struggle. They might say 'This is what I'm feeling' and someone else says 'Yeah, I am too'."

How good are they at sharing?

Very good. But after some initial successes, there is still some way to go, he reckons.

Enoka, himself, has come a long way from Masterton where he grew up, the youngest of six brothers shuffled between boys' homes. Their mother, a pakeha, was crippled and incapable of looking after them when their dad skipped back to Rarotonga.

Yet Enoka reckons he has nothing to complain about.

"I was probably more advantaged by being there. When I met my father, he was a lovely man, but I thought if I'd have been brought up in that other existence it would probably have been more challenging."

But the boys were clearly from the wrong side of the tracks.

When he moved back in with his mother, at age 12, Enoka found the prestigious Palmerston North High School wouldn't let him in because he was "bad, from the bad end of town".

It bothered him, briefly. "What it taught me at a very young age was that if I was going to make something of my life I had to do it myself."

So he did, going to university at age 16, graduating with a BA, going on to teach, play volleyball for New Zealand, and then helping out coaching volleyball and netball where he discovered an innate talent for understanding the mental aspects of performance.

Along the way he collected more qualifications in organisational and industrial psychology, met Leigh Gibbs who went on to be assistant coach for the Silver Ferns, and Wayne Smith who he followed through Super 12 rugby and on to the All Blacks.

And then this year he was promoted to general manager of Harcourts International Ltd, where he had been training sales people using similar techniques as he had on sports people.

Juggling the two jobs is full on, he concedes. But necessary since not all coaches have appreciated the emotional side to performance training - something that could leave him without a job if he wasn't careful again.

Meanwhile, he reckons the current batch of All Blacks, are the most talented group of individuals he has ever worked with and their captain, Richie McCaw, potentially the best the team has ever seen.

McCaw's mental skills are "top of the class". What remains is for the rest of the team to get there too. They're close, he reckons, but there's still some work to do yet. It's all about the moment, says Enoka. This one, then the next one. "That's how you overcome obstacles and win games. It's by winning the next moment."

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