Much like a conditioning coach focuses on muscles to perform, a mental skills coach looks at what can be done with the mind to aid performance. This is the expertise of Gilbert Enoka who just kicked off his 17th year as the mental skills specialist for the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks. Known for their world-beating mental strength, the team has set a record with their three World Cup titles.
With his holistic approach to mental toughness, Enoka helps the current world champions to perform in big moments – but his insights on tapping to the mind’s potential go beyond the pitch.
Let’s talk brain power: What does it take to be an All Black?
Much like in business, it starts with character. If you don’t put the team first, you’ll never make it. We drive the notion of gratitude. When the ego grows too much, it squashes other things in the environment.
The team also has a rich history cultivated by a legacy of success. Our people understand that their role is to continue and enhance that narrative.
The All Blacks have an extraordinary team culture. What’s the secret?
You can have all the strategies in the world, but in the end, what will enable you to overachieve – or underachieve – is your culture.
We nourish the All Blacks culture every day by drawing from our rich Maori heritage. In our cornerstone philosophies, the team towers above the individual. You’ll never succeed on your own, but you will be successful as an individual if the team functions well.
As the custodian of the culture, I make sure everyone has a sense of belonging. When you walk to the pitch, you should feel you belong to this place and that it’s fed and nourished by the people. Too many organizations focus on the vision and values when they should feed a sense of belonging instead, especially if you’re working with a myriad of cultures.
Elite athletes excel in high-pressure situations. Can you share some strategies for thinking clearly under pressure?
There are no magic bullets, but you shouldn’t complicate things either. It’s as simple as understanding your current reality and determining your task. If you stay focused on the process and don’t get overpowered by things that are out of your control, you can navigate through the day.
If I’m an athlete preparing for the World Cup Final and think, “What if we lose? How will my country react?”, it might defeat me. But if I pull back and say, “I’ll get out of bed, do my stretches, have breakfast, go to this meeting,” I’m proceeding step by step.
In business, you’ve got a meeting to nail, a deadline to meet, things to create. If you start thinking about all the possible consequences, you will feel overwhelmed. Dial it down and deal with the first thing on your list. Take control one moment at a time.
But when we’re stressed out, how can we collaborate and support others who are under pressure as well?
As a team, you can sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s a powerful strategy; once I’m prepared to share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance.
If you’re comfortable all the time, you’ll never get the success you want. Top teams and individuals thrive outside of their comfort zones.
Those are great reminders. People also tend to think vulnerability and high-performance culture don’t mix.
And that’s false. I’ve been in this space for 16 years, and the coaches often say to me, “Gilbert, where are you going with this?” And I say, “I don’t know, but I know we’re heading in the right direction.” Accepting your vulnerability and having comfort in uncertainty is one method of managing stress.
You have a strict 'No D*ckheads' policy with the team. What can other organizations learn from it?
A d*ckhead makes everything about them. Often teams put up with it because a player has so much talent. We look for early warning signs and wean the big egos out pretty quickly. Our motto is,
Our coach Steve Hansen, a brilliant man, once came into a team meeting a few minutes late. As he walked in, one of the senior players stood up and said, “Coach, you can’t be late. Not again, please.” So it’s actually the team monitoring this behavior.
What are the early warning signs of big egos? People can hide that up to a point.
Look for people putting themselves ahead of the team. Or people who think they’re entitled to things or expect the rules to be different for them. People operating deceitfully in the dark, or alternatively, being unnecessarily loud about their work.
The management might not spot these counterproductive behaviors. The players and leaders themselves should call others out for their inflated egos.
You coach the mental skills of an entire team. Who coaches you?
The best mental skills coach is someone who’s honest with me and knows my vulnerabilities, so that would be my wife. In addition, I seek coaches for different areas of expertise. Before the 2015 World Cup, I had a conversation with this wonderful mentor who asked how long I’ve been working with the All Blacks. ”15 years,” I said and pumped my chest out, feeling proud. She leaned towards me and said, ”Nice start.”
It’s important to have people who challenge you and give you a new perspective in an instant.In the end, life is about understanding yourself and surrounding yourself with people who have different skillsets from you, and using that knowledge base to power the people you lead.