3 Dec 2023

Gilbert Enoka: Mental skills for sport and life

From Sunday Morning, 11:10 am on 3 December 2023
Gilbert Enoka, All Blacks mental skills coach.


All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka is moving on to new pastures. Enoka has also held the title of All Blacks manager of leadership and was with the team for 23 years, having first joined with Wayne Smith in the year 2000.

He was involved in 291 tests and helped the All Blacks win back to back rugby world cups, 18 Bledisloes, 3 Grand Slams, as well as Tri Nations and Rugby Championships. He was also a former New Zealand volleyball rep, general manager of Harcourts real estate company and worked with the Silver Ferns, Black Caps and the Crusaders. And in his early life, spent time in orphanage.

He talked to Jim Mora about his time with the team, nurturing the mind to improve the game, and making use of the wisdom that can be gained from tough times.

At the All Black's recent world cup final loss to the Springboks Enoka was on the sidelines, where he said he was roiling inside as he watching the game unfold.

"[It's] very difficult to remain calm in moments like that ... to be honest it was like a furnace inside," Enoka says.

"But what I've learnt over the years - you have moments where you're not calm on the inside, but the actions need to be calm on the outside. So you have to be in full control. I had to be composed for the team in that moment, and I was."

He's philosophical about the loss.

"I still feel that while high performance sport isn't fair, we didn't lose that game because of [refereeing] errors - we had opportunities to still get away with a victory, which we didn't take in the moment."

The focus on teamwork through each step of training, development, pastoral care, the play on the field and the wins and losses is key to the All Blacks, Enoka says.

"At the centre of all of this is that no-one is bigger than the team.

"How do we rein in egos? We've got to be smart about getting them to buy into something bigger than themselves. You use the tribe to uphold the standards.

"The whole notion that's forged inside the All Blacks is that you don't have to create miracles out there, you don't have to be someone you're not, you don't have to be great at the game, you just have to be great for the team.

"And when people understand that, then ego does not have a place to take root in a structure like that."

New Zealand's Tamaiti Williams reacts after South Africa won the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final.

New Zealand's Tamaiti Williams reacts after South Africa won the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final. Photo: AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA

For each member of the team, he asks them to challenge their self-awareness, because 'you'll never advance above the opinion you have of yourself'.

"Once you understand that vulnerable is the new strong - and especially for males - asking for help, getting others to identify blind spots helps you break through those ceilings, growing self-awareness, asking yourself 'is what I'm doing helping me or hindering me?' "

And training the mind isn't just a mental game, Enoka says.

"I've learned that it's hard to manage your mind with your mind, so sometimes where your mind isn't where it needs to be you've got to use your body to shift your brain. Getting involved in physical activities and movement can get you unstuck ... to help you explore different parts of your potential."

Moments of challenge and failure will occur throughout careers, but recovery from the lows can lead to new heights if it's cultivated: "You might lose the battle, but don't lose the lesson."

Among the tough lessons he has faced was the All Blacks' 2007 world cup defeat by France.

"We choked. And that was the area - I was responsible."

Afterwards they worked through what had gone wrong, and realised that they had turned up with "a sense of entitlement" and a tendency for avoidance of playing the game in a way that put them under pressure.

"So I had to look at myself, and had to admit - to say that I needed support in my area to enable ourselves to develop the skill sets to enable the All Blacks to actually front the challenges that they get in pressure moments like that."

That development became a "springboard" to winning the next world cups, he says.

And one of the most valuable lessons was setting the team up to lean in to pressure and to recognise those moments of pressure as an opportunity to achieve something great, he says.

"You develop a skill set that enables you to crystallise in those pressure moments, rather than crack."

The team also learned that the language used when someone is facing adversity is crucial. And he recommends using that knowledge in every area of life - noting which language works for someone and lifts them constructively and which doesn't.

"Don't say 'take care', 'keep your chin up, 'keep smiling' - say to me 'embrace the challenge', 'lean into it', 'no backwards step', 'everything you've got', 'I'm with ya'.

"And I think once we shifted the mindset into that space, all of a sudden it lifted us up."

Everyone, in every walk of life or situation can take those tools and can challenge themselves on what their situation now is and what the next level they want to achieve looks like, and then start working on steps to get there, he says.

Gilbert Enoka's highlights - his picks for the top games:

  • The All Blacks vs Wallabies Bledisloe Cup game in Sydney in 2000 with a capacity crowd: "We were out to 24-nil and then they came back - often described as one of the best games of rugby ever played," Enoka says
  • The 2011 and 2015 World Cups
  • The All Blacks vs South Africa, 14 August 2022: "When everyone was written off, we'd lost to Ireland, we'd lost the first test to the Springboks, then we fronted up at ... Ellis Park and the boys did the business"
  • The 2023 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland, where: "No one really thought the All Blacks would go past the quarterfinal, but the performance put on by the men on that day I just thought it was terrific"