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.

Women and Man during an interview at adidas All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking Mental Strength Vulnerability Team Spirit
“I've never seen an athlete or a business person truly succeed without experiencing, overcoming, and navigating their way through pressure.”
Man laughing during Interview All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking mental strength vulnerability team spirit
“We have a defense coach, kicking coach, strength and conditioning coach, nutrition coach… why not have a mental skills coach?”
Hands with ring gesturing All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking Mental Strength Vulnerability Team Spirit
“External environment can create pressure in your mind. How individuals manage their internal conditions enables them to prevail.”
01 of

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.

But remember:

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.

Man gesturing during interview with adidas All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking mental strength vulnerability team spirit
“Ego is a serious underminer of performance and it can creep up. We drive the notion of gratitude.”
Man gesturing during interview adidas All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking mental strength vulnerability team spirit
“If all you do is see the negatives, then the reality can weigh you down. But if you can think and see things clearly, you're able to determine what you have to do.”
Man and Woman during Interview adidas All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking mental Strength vulnerability team spirit
“A lot of people are telling others to ‘Be positive, get up, and do it.’ But when you get out the door and interact with the real world, it becomes difficult.”
01 of

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.

Man standing outside arms folded All Blacks Mental Coach Gilbert Enoka talking Mental Strength Vulnerability Team Spirit
“In the end, you need only three bones to be successful: a wish bone, a back bone, and a funny bone.”
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by aman 01.03.2017
A very nice post. Loved it. Specially the part around:
1) Letting go off the ego
2) Thinking team
3) Wife being the best when it comes to feedback
One of the things that I learnt around best team-building was in the sport of "rowing". In a team competition, if the rowers are not in sync (both mentally and physically) at each stroke; team will not stand any chance!!
The thing around "showing vulnerability" is dicey in inter-cultural settings. Unless there is an empathetic atmosphere around, where failure, mistakes are accepted; vulnerability can boomerang, specially in leadership roles:)
Reply
Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas | Editor aman 01.03.2017
Hi Aman, I really like your analogy on rowing. What did you do as a team to become in synch?
Thanks for sharing your experiences!
Cheers,
Frank
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by aman Frank Thomas 02.03.2017
Hi Frank

The example of rowing that I mentioned is from an example I remember from a Leadership course in MBA class. In real work experience and outside of it, team work has several genres depending on what type of team one works with.
I can cite you a personal example when in 2009-2010 when I was told that a virtual distributed team could not deliver a specific program/product since the team members were individually distributed (including me) across 10+ cities in 2 continents! There was no successful story behind such an attempt and people had not tried it!
Yet by working virtually, assuaging individual needs, keeping virtual communication close to perfect, could turn around individuals into a productive, engaged team. It was not easy for sure, but keeping flexibility in communication mode (both, verbal and non-verbal was the key), ensuring empowerment and empathy made it a successful plus enriching experience.

Warm Regards,
Aman
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by Frank aman 02.03.2017
Sounds like a quite memorable and valuable experience. Thanks for sharing, Aman. I agree that good communications within a team is super important. Cheers, Frank
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by aman Frank 03.03.2017
Yes it was truly a nice and challenging experience. If you get a chance do checkout and share with any other patrons of Gameplan a good white paper on Leadership acaross cultures:
https://www.crcpress.com/rsc/downloads/Transpersonal_Leadership_-_Leadership_Across_Cultures.pdf
Have a good weekend
Warm Regards,
Aman
Reply
by Gemina Stroud 01.03.2017
Fantastic interview Maria!

When I researched Golfer Lydia Ko for a blog post, I came across some interesting tidbits from her mental conditioning coach, David Niethe. David stated that Lydia has the ability to picture the types of shots she wants to create. He went on to say that great athletes have a balance between the creative mind and intellectual ability. Your interview with Gilbert Enoka focuses on what can be done with the mind. This proves to me that the mind is a very powerful tool. We will get what our mind's eye sees. My take away? Don't defeat yourself with negative thoughts!! Give yourself a fighting chance.
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by Maria Nokkonen | Editor Gemina Stroud 02.03.2017
Thanks for sharing your takeaways, Gemina. I also like his approach of treating the mind as malleable muscle. What it also boils down to is having either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset – the growth-mindset individuals want to stretch themselves and work towards becoming their best. /Maria
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by Elly Kapyela 08.03.2017
Beautiful and Helpful
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by monde 13.03.2017
share with the boys
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by Andrew Maclennan 16.03.2017
Some great stuff in here but also some quite contradictory things too as I see it....

"Accepting your vulnerability and having comfort in uncertainty is one method of managing stress"...cool, ok, yet also "take control, one moment at a time". Those things don't go together to me.
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by Maria Nokkonen | Editor Andrew Maclennan 16.03.2017
Hi Andrew, thanks for (deep) reading the interview and for peeling the layers :)

As I interpret Gilbert’s message, we can only control what’s happening right now (or rather: what we are doing right now), which is why we should keep our focus at the task at hand. At the same time, we should recognize that anything can happen in the future no matter how carefully we plan it, and this means being comfortable with uncertainty. No one has a crystal ball, we’re all vulnerable. This loops back to being mindful in the moment, the only thing we have some control over.

Let me know your thoughts.
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by Viola Tam 22.03.2017
Hi Maria,

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post!

Love the focus on mental focus. It is indeed the main factor for peak performance.

An article so well researched and well written!

With Appreciation,

Viola Tam
Reply
by Maria Nokkonen Viola Tam 23.03.2017
Thanks, Viola, for your lovely feedback. The credit naturally goes to Gilbert who was kind enough to share his wisdom on GamePlan A :) Hope you’ve already subscribed to updates on our latest stories (the paper plane icon in the navigation).
Take care,
Maria
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by Rod Willis 11.06.2017
Great article. The environment the players are working within is as much a core component of success as are the individual people in the mix. With a predisposition for focussing on the people aspect, we can sometimes fail to pay attention to the team/group environment space.


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by Maria Nokkonen Rod Willis 12.06.2017
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts with us, Rod. I'm glad you found Gilbert's insights helpful. /Maria
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by lerma 26.06.2017
very inspiring!
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by Nikos 12.08.2017
Great great article!
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by marc miller 11.09.2017
good stuff!
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by Rudolf Goosen 20.11.2017
Great interview Maria! Thank you for allowing the world to be part of it.
I would like to congratulate Gilbert on a great article and approach to a winning culture. As a South African (and avid Springbok supporter) I do similar work to what Gilbert does, but I must say I am amazed by his humble and honest approach. He is truly an inspiration to many Coaches and I would like to thank him for all the hard work he has done with the World's greatest sports team.
From one Mental Coach to another....I solute you my friend.

God Bless
Rudolf Goosen
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by Maria Nokkonen Rudolf Goosen 24.11.2017
Thank you, Rudolf, for reading and sharing your thoughts with us! We’re also hugely inspired by Gilbert’s wisdom that applies to work and life at large.
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