Gilbert Enoka rides rough journey to inspire New Zealand rugby revolution

All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka, centre, helped transform the national team after a rough childhood.
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAXNZ

All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka, centre, helped transform the national team after a rough childhood.

Gilbert Enoka has used many of the brutal lessons he endured during childhood to inspire a rugby revolution at the elite level.

Hidden away in the backroom of the All Blacks machinery, the sports psychologist has helped transform the national team – playing a pivotal part in taking them from the depths of despair after their 2007 World Cup quarterfinal loss to the French in Cardiff through to their record-breaking Rugby World Cup triumph at Twickenham two months ago.

In his 15 years with the All Blacks as a mental skills specialist, Enoka worked closely with Wayne Smith, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen – remarkable longevity in a profession once condemned as sheer quackery.

Forget images of leather couches and stuffy offices, Enoka's form of sports psychology has him holding one-on-one sessions in dressing rooms, in hotels and on planes with some of the world's best athletes – All Blacks, Black Caps, Silver Ferns, Olympic stars.

Much of the knowledge Enoka passes on has been shaped by his own tough journey through a childhood spent inside an orphanage in the Central Districts.

The youngest of six brothers, he arrived at a boys' home on Marton's Tutaenui Road aged just 18 months after his father took off back to Rarotonga, leaving his crippled mother incapable of caring for her kids. Enoka stayed at the boys' home until he turned 12.

"I have no resentment for the old man," Enoka said. "He turned up later and there was no problem once I met him and understood him. We were probably in a better place than where we were."

Living with 30 to 40 children who were apart from their families taught him plenty of early lessons. He learnt to fight. He learnt to survive.

"They didn't have any welfare system in that day so they basically swooped us up and put us in a children's home. It wasn't a horrible experience. A lot of my resilience was probably forged back in that forum.

"I remember driving out of there at 12 years old and thinking there's a world out there with certain types of people, and then there was me."

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Four decades on, Enoka received a letter this week announcing he would be made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport and psychology.

"I thought me and the people inside that home were different.

"I reflected back to that moment when I got that letter. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would have been involved in some wonderful occasions and get an honour from the Governor-General in appreciation of what you've contributed to New Zealand.

"I shook my head in disbelief. I'm deeply grateful for the people I've met and those who had helped me."

After leaving the boys' home, Enoka returned to his mother in Palmerston North. She had remarried, and he says his stepfather wasn't exactly a role model.

"It wasn't a good environment. He was on the booze all the time. There were flagons on the bench. All I wanted to do was get out of it."

So he did. At 16, Enoka fled to university and a physical education course in Christchurch. He doesn't know how he arrived at that decision – only it was the right one.

In those days you were paid to study teaching. Had that not been the case, Enoka says he would not be where he is today.

Known to most as "Bert", Enoka went on to teach at Hillmorton High School – a low-decile area he could relate to – in Christchurch for more than a decade while juggling his sporting passion of volleyball. Former Kiwis second-rower David Kidwell was among his pupils at the school.

After returning from an international volleyball tour, he found a Woolf Fisher scholarship letter in his staff pigeonhole offering him one year off work on full pay. He used the opportunity to study post-graduate psychology. The mental side of sports performance grabbed him. 

Completing his academic studies, he spent seven years touring with the Black Caps, time with Leigh Gibbs and the Silver Ferns, and spells with Keith Mair and the Canterbury Rams basketball team.

But it took a meeting with Wayne Smith, who was selling sports gear to PE departments while still an All Black in the 1980s, to open the rugby door. Mental skills were not common in Kiwi spor - even touting psychology provoked extreme reactions in some macho-driven rugby environments.  

"There's nothing hocus-pocus about it," Smith said.

Unperturbed, Smith and Enoka became trailblazers – albeit sneakily.

Smith first benefitted from Enoka's guidance as an All Blacks first five-eighth in 1982. Sick of fluctuating form, he turned to Enoka for advice. Enoka moulded Smith's search for consistency on the foundation of weekly routines.

"You need to go through the same preparation every week, where your body and mind starts to understand there's a big event coming up," Smith says.

"By the time the whistle sounds for kickoff, you're ready to go.

"I got into a routine that involved some visualisation.

"Everyone daydreams – this is more a structured way of seeing yourself perform and making the right decisions while you're sitting in your chair. It complements a lot of the physical stuff you do."

Enoka's methods are embraced by today's All Blacks. His much-touted "red head, blue head" theory allow the All Blacks to develop individual techniques for staying focused and avoid being consumed by pressure.

The World Cup pain of Cardiff in 2007 – when the All Blacks blew a 13-3 quarterfinal lead to eventually lose 20-18 to France – was a profound point, one that signalled the need for significant shift in thinking.

"Failing there was tremendously challenging for one and all; for the nation, administrators, but it was a turning point.

"When I sat in that Cardiff dressing room thinking 'wow what's the future going to hold' to think the next two World Cups, we would be victorious no-one would have given you anything for that prediction."

Enoka instilled a switch in thinking from what could be termed "panicky red" to "clear-thinking blue", and it has ignited a major shift in the players' ability to win tight matches. Over the past four years, the All Blacks have lost just three of 53 tests.

To get in that space Richie McCaw would stamp his feet; Brad Thorn threw water on himself and Kieran Read stares the length of the field.

Essentially, players need the strength to harness their composure; confidence and grounding to forget about the past and not worry about the future, and perform in the now when it matters most.

"It's hard for me to imagine having any of the success I've had without Bert there," Smith says.

"He provided a resource and skillset that was missing and played huge part of us being successful at every level."

Such ideas were far too revolutionary for pre-professional rugby, and soSmith and Enoka were forced to hide their relationship in their early days together.

Canterbury B became the first rugby team in New Zealand to use a sports psychologist in the early 1980s. Captained at centre by Hansen and coached by Smith, the team brought along notebooks and spent around 20 minutes every training session jotting down Enoka's advice.

Thirty years on, All Blacks all carry around their own 1B4 notebooks  personal to themselves. They carry them on buses and in team hotels, into meetings and even to meal times.

With sports psychology now an essential part of modern-day player's preparation, the secrecy required around Enoka's role back then seems absurd.  

In 1989, Smith applied to the Canterbury union to take Enoka to the national sevens tournament in Palmerston North – as a masseur.

"It was a waste of time trying to tell them he was a sports psychologist," Smith said. "I remember the union being very suspicious about the arrangement so they sent the chairman up to keep an eye on us."

Upon arrival, Smith sent Enoka to get some oil to legitimise the facade. He came back with peanut oil.  

"I remember saying to him 'we don't want to fry them, we want to rub them'. He had to give the boys a bit of a rub down to keep up the masquerade.

"I was absolutely convinced about the value of mental-skills training and convinced about Bert as a person, so I wanted to combine the two."

Old-school attitudes continued to prevail. The need for outside motivators seen as a weakness; that was meant to be the role of the coach.

"There were a lot of times when we started out where I was labelled a mad professor and they were calling to bring back Grizz Wyllie.

"Bert always kept a pretty low profile because of the perception of a shrink. People always had the perception of 'why the hell do top sportsmen need a shrink? What the hell is wrong with them?'

"He was always pretty aware of what people said so he's always stayed in the background a wee bit."

It wasn't until Smith joined the Crusaders in 1997 under now New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew that Enoka finally became part of the team with a part-time paid role. Even then it took some convincing.

"Whilst [Tew] was also initially a wee bit aghast at the fact I wanted a sports psych as part of my staff, he trusted me and was forward thinking enough to have a look at it," Smith adds. "It was the first time I was able to pay Bert anything."

Together with Peter Sloane and Hansen, Smith and Enoka won three titles with the Crusaders – after the team had failed to register a single win in Super Rugby's inaugural season 12 months earlier.  

From there, Smith took Enoka into the All Blacks.

But acceptance at that level was short-lived. Enoka was marginalised under John Mitchell and Robbie Deans in an era he describes as "unpleasant".

Enoka hung on and stayed with the All Blacks under Henry, playing a major part in transforming the All Blacks culture – which included creating a new identity through the Kapa o Pango haka in 2004.

Henry accelerated Enoka's influence, and Hansen later pulled him into the inner sanctum, which gave him a voice when it came to evaluating players' performances.

For all the highs, there were lows -

Through it all, Enoka's guiding principal has been a No Dickheads policy.

"I don't think you can be a positive person on the rugby field and a prick off it. If you're going to reach your potential, you've got to be who you are on and off.

"If this environment spits out people that are robust and strong on the inside, then society becomes better because you get better fathers, brothers and mates.

"In my 15 years with the All Blacks, if you can get both parties growing together that's the only way an athlete will achieve their potential and access the gift they've been blessed with."

All Blacks New Years honours:

Richie McCaw (Order of New Zealand)

Dan Carter (Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Gilbert Enoka (Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Mike Cron (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Keven Mealamu (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Ma'a Nonu(Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Conrad Smith (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Tony Woodcock (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

 - Sunday Star Times

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