Gilbert Enoka didn’t have the brightest of beginnings. He and his five brothers grew up in children’s homes after their dad left their disabled mother. But the man who many credit with the All Blacks’ world-beating mental toughness and “no dickheads” policy isn’t holding any grudges. Here he tells Dale Husband about his journey, from a shy orphanage boy to custodian of All Blacks’ culture.
E te rangatira, Gilbert. Thank you very much for talking to e-tangata. Firstly, because we’re notoriously nosy, maybe we could talk about your connections. And the Enoka name — where does it come from?
Well, the Enoka name comes from Rarotonga. My father (Maro “Jimmy” Enoka) was a born and bred Raro. He lived in Avarua. A lot of whānau there. And he travelled back and forth to New Zealand in his early years.
He came over here at 40 and met my mother (Anna Eleanor Lynn), who was a Pākehā woman in Palmerston North. They had six children, of which I’m the youngest. I have five brothers. No sisters. Nine years between my oldest brother and me, so they were busy.
I didn’t really know my father. My only real recollection of him was when he turned up at age 60, basically saying: “Here I am. Look after me.”
My mother was crippled. When my father left and went back to the islands, she couldn’t look after us. So myself and my other five brothers were put into an orphanage. Into children’s homes. There was one in Ōtaki, where I spent a good deal of my early life from 18 months old. Then I got moved to Marton, to a home in Tutaenui Road. I stayed there until I was 12 years old. My brothers came and went. We didn’t really spend a lot of time together as a family because we were at two different locations. Some were at Ōtaki.
I left the children’s home at 12 and went back to Palmerston North to live with my mother, who had married my stepfather by then. I had these grandiose pictures of going back to this castle, this white palace. And I remember going into the house and seeing all these Penthouse pictures around the wall. The stepfather was pretty much ruled by alcohol. He had flagons on the table basically every morning when he got up.
So my vision of what life was like outside of the orphanage was absolutely shattered. I had to get out of there. So, at age 16, I left there and went down to Canterbury and went to university. I started studying physical education.
I bear no grudge against my mother or father. When I met my dad later, he was a simpler man. My mother, with all good intentions, tried to do the right thing. In hindsight, I had many helping hands at the orphanage. And a lot of things assisted me as I moved on through my journey.
I suppose, in a way, you were denied not just an upbringing by your parents, but a cultural dimension to that upbringing as well. Do you have cause to resent that start?
That’s a really good question. I’ve always felt an ihi and a specialness around Māori, and around the cultural aspect. I taught at Hillmorton High School and I would walk past the kapa haka group when they were performing. I just gravitated to them — I felt an umbilical connection.
At times, I feel like I missed out on a connection to that aspect of my whakapapa. I would love to have been brought up with the culture, to have had that nourishment. Because I think that would’ve just added to what I could bring, and enriched the talents I was blessed with. I experienced so many things around the way Māori and Pasifika do things. And they just seemed so normal, natural and special — and to have a deeper connection to how things are than in the Pākehā world.
Gilbert, I just assumed with a name like Enoka, that you were Māori. Did that happen to you a lot during the course of your early life?
Yes. Some of my brothers had Raro middle names, too. My older brother is Roger Maro. My third eldest brother is Bernard Teoe-ote-pai. As we got older, we began to value the specialness of those names, but in the early days, it was more of a challenge than a specialness. In those days, the bias towards the white man, the Pākehā, was strong. So we tended to get looked down on a little bit. Being in an orphanage, and obviously with the Raro background, there were some challenges. You learned how to fight. Which is a good thing.
Obviously, none of us are advocates for physical violence but I recall back in those times, young guys sort of had to stand up for themselves. You were raised in an orphanage, which most of us would look on as a hardship, and horrible, but maybe it wasn’t quite like that. What would you say about those who cared for you for the better part of your first 12 years?
The people who cared for us were awesome. They were Brethren, a religious group, so it was based on doing a community good. The aunties and uncles, as we called them, were special people who gave up their lives to work inside the home. There probably would’ve been 30 to 40 of us there at any one time. Their motives were always good.
We had an almost self-sufficient existence. We had animals. We killed our own sheep and meat. We had a huge vege garden. So we’d have to get up and do chores before we started the day. We came home and we did chores at the end of the day. Couldn’t play sport. That was my only bugbear, because you had to come back after school and work. But, I learned a good work ethic. Was cared for really, really well.
I still remember the day I left, driving out of the gates. And I was actually in tears because I was leaving.
I don’t have bad memories. Everything that was given to us, and directed to us, came out of a genuine sense of care. Hardship came more from the mental perspective — from seeing what other people had and what you didn’t have. Those were the times I thought that there were certain people that lived in the world — and me. You thought you were different.
Did you lose contact with your brothers or are you a tight crew, still, to this day?
I was pretty much with my brother above me, Tony. We were at Ōtaki together and we were in Marton together. The other four of my brothers were sort of split, so we didn’t have much to do with them during that period. When they got to about 15, 16, my brothers left the orphanage.
They came and visited us. I can remember my oldest brother, Roger, who’s now a professor in the States, coming to Ōtaki to visit us. There was a blocked toilet, and I can still remember to this day, him unblocking the toilet and, as a reward, taking me and Tony for a walk down on the beach.
There were some special times. Once we left the orphanage, we remained extremely close. We met every Christmas. So we sort of had our collegial and communal childhood at a later age than most people. Through our 20s and 30s we’d Christmas together, we’d holiday together. We did everything together and remained very strong as a whānau.
What happened to the six lads? Did you all end up punching above your weight?
Pretty well. Roger is my eldest brother, and he paved the way. Very, very successful in his field. Probably the best in the world. I sometimes ask myself: “How did you go where you went?” And I think part of me was just looking at Roger and seeing what he did. My second brother, John, died of cancer a couple of years ago. He owned his own furniture business in Palmerston North. My third brother, Bernard, he was a schoolteacher at Motueka High School. My next brother, Dudley, was CEO of The Yellow Pages, a billion-dollar company. He started off in Telecom licking stamps on telegram envelopes. Then my brother Tony is deputy principal at Waimea College in Nelson.
So you’ve got a group that’s come out of a reasonable degree of adversity, and, as you say, punched above their weight, and been really successful.
Hey, we all have our demons. You don’t go through those sorts of experiences without getting scars. But we’ve worked pretty hard to get success. And we’re all still with the first wives. All six of us. It’s been an interesting journey for the Enoka whānau.
That last bit is a pretty remarkable stat in this day and age. Congratulations to you all. You went off initially looking at phys ed, but ended up doing psychology. Tell us why.
Well, I did physical education because I loved sport and everything it involved. I left my training course and went to teach at Hillmorton High School in Christchurch, which I loved. It was a low-decile school. So you had kids that didn’t want to go to school. Kids that didn’t want to go to class. Kids that didn’t want to learn. They were people who had challenges, which I had a great affinity with, because my life had been filled with those sorts of things as well. So I loved my time there.
While I was there, I played volleyball. I ended up playing for New Zealand for 10 years. Toured the world. And, at the same time, I coached volleyball at Hillmorton. Men’s and women’s. We actually got a national title at the school and a couple of runners-up.
I was a player-coach of our volleyball team and I was looking for ways to improve our performance. That led me down the track of the mind and how the brain works and how that can either assist or inhibit performance. I started exploring those dimensions and applying those principles to the teams I was coaching. I instantly connected with it, and it became a passion, which I pursued with vigour.
While I was at Hillmorton, Leigh Gibbs (former Silver Ferns’ coach) was on the staff. She was Canterbury Netball coach, and we had lots of conversations about what I was doing. So then I started working with Canterbury Netball. I was assistant coach for three years. And I worked with the Silver Ferns when Leigh was coach.
Wayne Smith, who was an All Black at the time, was working for Canterbury Sport and he would come round and sell sports equipment to the phys ed department. So I would sit down and have conversations with him. And I’d help him with his performance. He enjoyed it that much, that we began to work together. So we worked with Canterbury B, Canterbury Sevens, New Zealand Sevens. Then with the Crusaders. Then on to the All Blacks.
I left Hillmorton because I loved psychology that much, I wanted to do a PhD. So I started studying that. Then, Chris Doig, who was the CEO of New Zealand Cricket at the time, was opening up the cricket academy, and he asked me to come and work with them. So I worked with the New Zealand cricket side. Had seven to eight years touring the world with them.
I fell into it through passion, initially. Connections, secondly. And then opportunity was probably the third one.
There have been many, I guess, strong advocates, coaches, thinkers, looking for that top two inches, that little improvement in performance. The one-percenters. Who did you listen to, read, or watch, that influenced or mentored you in some of your approaches to improving sports performance?
Well, in the early days, I was just thirsty for anything and everything. I read books and travelled to conferences. I remember when I was starting out, I used to have conversations with the late Laurie O’Reilly, who was the coach of the Canterbury University Rugby team. He was ahead of his time as a coach. And I sort of said: “Look, there’s this conference in Portugal. I’d love to go to it.” It was the World Sport Psychology conference. I had a young family at the time, I was just on a teacher’s salary, so I just couldn’t afford it. He just pulled his chequebook out and wrote me a cheque for the airfares and accommodation. And he said: “All you gotta do is come back and teach my team what you find.”
So, you know, you had people like that who were willing to help.
Things were going really good. We won national titles in volleyball. We had really good success in the cricket. We won at Lords for the first time. We did some really wonderful things. With the Crusaders, we won four titles.
Then I went over to France in 2007 (with the All Blacks, for the Rugby World Cup), and we lost. We went over there expecting to win. Arrogant, probably. And we got bundled out in the quarterfinal. And I thought: “Wow.” I was part of the problem, because I didn’t have the answer to some of the things that we found most challenging at the time. A lot of people say the referee was the problem. We were more of the problem. I came back from that and said: “Jeepers, you haven’t got all the answers, mate. You need to get some help.”
So I formed a small group. There’s a forensic psychiatrist here in Christchurch called Ceri Evans. A very, very smart man. There’s an eighth dan martial artist called Renzie Hanham. And the three of us sat down, and I said: “Look. I don’t know the answers to this. We need to work on improving.” So we had conversations, and we became an advisory group to the All Blacks.
And, all of a sudden, my thinking took on a whole new dimension. It didn’t just shift me. It catapulted me into a different sphere of understanding.
Since that day, I do look and read a bit, but I feel we’re at the forefront and we’re leading the world in a lot of areas that we don’t share too much. Because we want to keep the intellectual property and we want to stay ahead of the curve.
One of the biggest questions that Graham Henry and Steve Hansen used to say to me is: “Where are you going with this, Bert?” And I’d say: “I don’t know. But I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
I’m intrigued by the “red head, blue head” thinking, where one has you in a panic mode and the other one has you convinced that you have the tools at your disposal if you stick to your plan. And the plan is that you can come out of this on top. We’ve seen that time and time again since 2007, so the formula is right.
I feel obliged to ask a little bit about motivating Māori and Polynesian players. You’ve heard the kōrero that our people don’t have the patience for cricket. That we’re not suited to individual sports. And we only like team sports. Has it been any more of a challenge, working out strategies to motivate our Māori and Pasifika men and women?
I think there’s a couple of ways to answer that question. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t lump people into categories. To say that — because of this ability, because of this segment of society, because of this ethnicity — that these people are certain things.
I think some of our Polynesian brothers and sisters are constrained by two things. They’re constrained a little bit by the tradition of respect because they’re always trained to respect their elders and to look up to them. They don’t challenge and question. But, sometimes, if what you hear ain’t right, you’ve got to question and challenge your understanding. So we have to put structures in place that will allow or encourage people to do that.
The cultural dimension that exists within Māoridom and Pasifika is so much richer than anything I’ve ever encountered. And tapping into that, and leveraging that, is huge. I’d like to get some of our Māori and Pasifika people to dream bigger. Be bolder. To aim for higher clouds. Sometimes they’re comfortable where they are now. And there’s no gap between that and where they want to get to.
So, getting people to dream more and to aim big, and to question and probe — they’re the sorts of things. For me, it’s very individual. There are some challenges but — if we can ignite and excite — boy. I always say: “God didn’t give everyone everything. You’ve got to find something yourself.” But I tell you what. Our Māori and Pasifika brothers and sisters, they’ve been given their fair share of the talent pool.
You’d be aware, too, that there’s a school of thought that rugby and rugby league give license to guys to remain adolescents into their thirties. But you push the line that good sportsmen can make good men, good fathers — and played a major part in transforming the All Blacks culture along those lines. Tell us about that “no dickheads” policy that’s associated with your thinking.
This is my 16th year in the All Blacks, so I’ve had a reasonable tenure. Longer than anyone. There’s been 538 All Black tests over the last 100 years and I’ve been involved with 204 of them. So I’ve seen a lot.
And one thing I do know is that everyone is born with talent. But you won’t realise that talent unless you become a good person. You can still be good. But I don’t think you can be great, as defined by the talent you’re given, unless you’re a good person.
We’ve worked really hard on helping our people, our men and women, to become good people. Because, you do that, and then you realise that you’re grateful as a human being for the talent you were given and the opportunity you were given. And, through that, you can then contribute and unleash that talent on the world.
Let’s talk about the men, because that’s who I mainly work with now. They’re going to spend more of their lives as fathers, and as husbands, and as brothers, and as uncles, and as mates, than they are as All Blacks. We want to basically equip them with skill-sets that allow them to become really positive contributors to the wider society.
We’re on the countdown to wrapping up our kōrero. Who have you enjoyed working with? Not necessarily the best. But, of the many players you’ve come in contact with, whose growth have you enjoyed seeing most?
I don’t think I can answer that in terms of a specific individual. I mean, the growth is so multi-dimensional.
You look at the mana of a Keven Mealamu, who is just such a humble, quiet, great man. His belief system’s always been strong. But, it’s seeing his growth, and the presence, and the mana, and respect with which he’s held by all races.
I look at a guy like Liam Messam, who was like a right-hand man for me, helping to connect our people with themselves, and with the bicultural nature of this country, and the multicultural nature of society. And building a brotherhood that becomes so much stronger than the individual parts.
You look at someone like Richie McCaw. I was in the shed when he played his first test. And in the shed when he played his 148th. The thing I loved most about that was, not only did we finish with a great All Black and a great All Black captain, of most significance is that he’s a great man.
There’s just so many dimensions to the people that come through this door. And they’re enriched in so many ways, and they’re growing in so many ways.
People slip up. They have mishaps. But, by and large, we have a management team that is hell-bent on assisting growth and ensuring that these men do become great citizens and great people in the community.
Has there been one particular event that stands out for you?
There’s an old saying: Seldom is the last as good as the first.
No one moment stands out, but many rise to the surface.
There were the early days, touring really hard and trying to win a volleyball championship. We lost three finals before we won our first national final.
There was working on Kapa o Pango (the new All Blacks' haka), when the All Blacks lost an understanding of who they were as New Zealanders (in 2004, following their defeat to the Springboks). I spent a year working on that and putting together Kapa o Pango. And then unleashing that in Dunedin against the Springboks was so special.
You’ve got your grand slams. We’ve won three grand slams.
You’ve got the game in Ireland just recently. We were down 20 odd points and came back and won.
We’ve got ourselves out of so many holes.
The two rugby World Cups. The one most recently is reasonably special, because in 2011 we went from great to good. We played a semifinal really, really well. And then in the final, we just hung on. But in the last World Cup we went from great to great to great with the quarterfinal, semifinal and final.
So many great memories. And there’s some tough times too. The losing in 2007. The early days when I was cutting my own track and people thought my area was witch-doctoring and wizardry, and if it didn’t go well then it was all my fault.
You were acknowledged with the Order of New Zealand early this year. Not something during the course of your life you would’ve given much thought to, but as a tohu for your efforts, and for those who helped to nurture you and support you through your life and no doubt your work, it must have been a special moment.
Like you say, it certainly wasn’t something I sought out in life, but the moment it was received — and the impact it had on the whānau and the friends — it was just awesome. And receiving it from the governor-general, it was a fantastic honour. It was a very special occasion.
Looking ahead, what goals have you set yourself? What are you hoping to achieve for the rest of your life?
Good question. I started off as that shy, wee boy in the orphanage, thinking I was really different. And sort of being indoctrinated with the understated, underdog nature — that way in which New Zealanders live their lives. And, in the last decade especially, the work I’ve done has helped forge a confidence that I have ability, and that I can achieve great things.
I’m looking to set the bar high. I’m pretty keen on working with the All Blacks to try and lock in a back-to-back-to-back Rugby World Cup. And I want to be there for my family, to support them and their endeavours.
I’ll always chase and aim for the highest cloud, but at the same time I want to be a good father, a good husband, a good brother — and a bloody good mate.