GREEN TEA PARTY

THE ALL BLACKS CAME INTO THE PRO­FES­SIONAL ERA WED­DED TO AN AMA­TEUR CUL­TURE OF PIES, PINTS AND NEAR DIS­DAIN FOR SPORTS SCIENCE. THAT ALL CHANGED IN 2004 WHEN THE COACH­ING TEAM AND SE­NIOR PLAY­ERS IN­FLU­ENCED A REVO­LU­TION THAT HAS DRIVEN THE HIGH­EST PER­SONAL

NZ Rugby World - - Green Tea Party -

Look­ing back now, it’s easy to see how off track the All Blacks were in the first decade of pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Strangely, their big ad­van­tage in the ama­teur pe­riod was their pro­fes­sional at­ti­tude and cul­ture.

Or at least, what helped the All Blacks in that late pe­riod of am­a­teurism was that they were more pro­fes­sional than their in­ter­na­tional peers in at­ti­tude and dis­ci­pline. They trained harder, smarter and spent longer work­ing on their ba­sic skills.

But they were still largely ama­teur in mindset when it came to the wider is­sues of lifestyle and holis­tic prepa­ra­tion. And it was this that came to hurt them in the first decade of the pro­fes­sional era.

The game tran­si­tioned but in many re­spects the All Blacks didn’t. They em­braced pro­fes­sion­al­ism, but only up to a point. They re­mained in much the same mindset that they had been in be­fore the con­ver­sion.

Stan­dards lifted, just not high enough. They trained more, but maybe still not enough to stay ahead of the chas­ing pack.

It wasn’t de­lib­er­ate as such, more a con­se­quence of not fully un­der­stand­ing the ex­tent to which play­ers, coaches and

man­agers could work to drive per­for­mance higher.

The big­ger fail­ing, how­ever, was that the team and the wider pro­fes­sional rugby land­scape were still mired in an ama­teur cul­ture of pies, pints and scep­ti­cism bor­der­ing on ridicule to­wards sports science.

The con­cept of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity was anath­ema to most All Blacks. There was still this sense of en­ti­tle­ment that hard work should be re­warded with a big night on the booze. Knowl­edge of nutri­tion was limited or even if it was im­proved, many play­ers con­tin­ued to ig­nore best advice and ate what they liked when they liked.

There was no strong cul­ture of work­ing out­side des­ig­nated train­ing times. At­ten­tion to de­tail was min­i­mal and not many play­ers had any ap­pre­ci­a­tion of sports science as it re­lated to re­cov­ery and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Es­sen­tially the All Blacks were still largely abid­ing by the old rules of get­ting on the grog af­ter a win. A re­cov­ery ses­sion was down­ing a can of fizzy, scoff­ing a choco­late bar and play­ing a round of golf.

Con­sump­tion of junk food wasn’t a some­times thing, it was a sneak out and wolf it down when­ever you could kind of thing.

Strength and con­di­tion­ing coaches were to be avoided and any­one who even thought about knock­ing on the door of the sports psy­chol­o­gist would be ridiculed for be­ing a com­bi­na­tion of soft, men­tal and weird.

Why bother with that when five min­utes with a few of the se­nior play­ers would clean up any is­sues with the ubiq­ui­tous and fail­safe advice of “har­den up”.

There wasn’t a gen­uine pro­fes­sional cul­ture driv­ing the play­ers to be all they could be and that be­came an ir­refutable source of em­bar­rass­ment in Au­gust 2004.

Af­ter a heavy loss to South Africa at El­lis Park, half of the All Blacks squad had to be put in the re­cov­ery po­si­tion as they lay passed out in the gar­dens of their team ho­tel af­ter a sen­sa­tional booze ses­sion.

The shock­ing thing about that night was not that it hap­pened – heavy drink­ing was in­sti­tu­tion­alised across the game – but that there was no sense of em­bar­rass­ment or even recog­ni­tion that it was not the way for a high per­for­mance sports team to be­have.

The coach­ing group of Gra­ham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith vowed to make changes af­ter that night. Smith was so ap­palled that he said if things didn’t change, he didn’t want to be in­volved.

Once the team re­turned to New Zealand the main goal be­came to widen ev­ery­one’s un­der­stand­ing of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and em­brace a new cul­ture.

So be­gan a ma­jor clean up at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iour at the end of that year. They made it their goal to drag the All Blacks prop­erly into the pro­fes­sional age and em­power them to take own­er­ship of their life­styles.

If the All Blacks were go­ing to have a mantra of con­tin­ual im­prove­ment they had to un­der­stand what that meant.

Adecade on and the cul­ture within the All Blacks could hardly be more dif­fer­ent. There is this in­ces­sant de­sire to em­brace any­thing and ev­ery­thing that could lead to an im­prove­ment in per­for­mance.

The old days have been buried. There is no booze cul­ture – no en­demic or in­sti­tu­tion­alised de­sire to get drunk each and ev­ery time the team plays.

Sports science is seen as crit­i­cal to per­for­mance and play­ers reach out for all the help they can. Nutri­tion is taken se­ri­ously. Re­cov­ery is viewed as vi­tal and play­ers spend hours work­ing on ways they can im­prove their flex­i­bil­ity, strength and speed.

What is driv­ing this changed en­vi­ron­ment is an in­tense aware­ness that each in­di­vid­ual has to be re­spon­si­ble for their prepa­ra­tion. Bad habits will be found out and they will be found out quickly. Don’t eat well and it will show up in the skin fold test­ing.

Drink too much and ditto, plus train­ing and play­ing per­for­mance will suf­fer. Ig­nore the men­tal side of the game and it will be­come ap­par­ent in poor de­ci­sion­mak­ing.

All this ex­plains why these days there are gal­lons of green tea and berry smooth­ies guz­zled, but not so much beer.

This is the new age All Blacks where no one within the team cares about per­cep­tion or feels the re­motest need to con­form to some kind of stereo­type about what a rugby player should be all about.

At­ti­tudes are pro­gres­sive, in­clu­sive and tol­er­ant – al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies and dis­ci­plines can be tried with­out fear of stigma be­ing at­tached or a peer group judg­ing.

Yoga and Pi­lates are big favourites within the squad be­cause there is a near ob­ses­sion to main­tain and de­velop flex­i­bil­ity. Ma’a Nonu was one of the first to nor­malise yoga within the All Blacks and his de­vo­tion to it en­cour­aged oth­ers.

Beau­den Bar­rett re­vealed last year that he is a con­vert. “I’ve been work­ing on my flex­i­bil­ity, that’s been vi­tal for me,” he said. “I’m quite a stiff bloke so ex­tra ses­sions here and there have cer­tainly helped.

“It’s more a re­cov­ery thing for me. It’s great for the mind as well as the body. It’s just get­ting that right bal­ance and I’ve seen great ben­e­fits from that.”

An older gen­er­a­tion might won­der what Sir Colin Meads would make of these new age All Blacks and their green tea and down­ward dogs, but the beauty of Gen­er­a­tion Y is that they don’t ap­pear to be sad­dled with the same in­se­cu­ri­ties and need for ap­proval.

The cul­ture within the All Blacks seems to be driven to­wards ex­plo­ration of any­thing and ev­ery­thing to help per­for­mance. What works for some won’t for oth­ers, but no idea is too whacky.

“I have tried yoga and I re­ally en­joyed it but things have to fit into your plan,” says All Blacks vet­eran Is­rael Dagg. “I know a lot of the guys love it.

“But I have started do­ing a thing called float where you jump into a pod and they have 500kg of Ep­som Salts and you just lie there for an hour and switch off. That is amaz­ing.

“I do that once a week and it is good for my mind. You get away from the game, re­lax and float. There are lots of tools out there...yoga, Pi­lates...but I get about three hours of mas­sage a week and float for an hour.

“I guess there could be that stigma that if you go to yoga it is only for girls. That’s only what peo­ple think. It doesn’t mat­ter. Our body is our tool and we need it to func­tion and if you don’t look af­ter it, you won’t per­form.”

In any cul­tural revo­lu­tion there is usu­ally a fig­ure or fig­ures who end up play­ing a hugely in­flu­en­tial role in ac­cel­er­at­ing change. In re­gard to driv­ing the cul­ture of im­proved per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and re­spect­ing the op­por­tu­nity of be­ing an All Black, prob­a­bly no one did more than Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter.

These two were the con­sum­mate stan­dard set­ters from late 2004 on­wards. They had a deep and ad­vanced un­der­stand­ing of what it meant to be pro­fes­sional and just how far they had to go in all as­pects of their train­ing and prepa­ra­tion. These two were re­lent­less and metic­u­lous in the way they trained, how they re­cov­ered and how they con­ducted them­selves.

I’VE BEEN WORK­ING ON MY FLEX­I­BIL­ITY, THAT’S BEEN VI­TAL FOR ME. I’M QUITE A STIFF BLOKE SO EX­TRA SES­SIONS HERE AND THERE HAVE CER­TAINLY HELPED.’ BEAU­DEN BAR­RETT

They set the bench­mark and made it clear they ex­pected ev­ery­one else to fol­low. It was no longer cool or ac­cept­able to cut corners. There was no ad­mi­ra­tion for any­one who mocked the wider no­tion of sports science or re­jected it.

With McCaw and Carter lead­ing the way, ably sup­ported by the likes of Con­rad Smith, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn and Kieran Read, the All Blacks evolved into a gen­uine high per­for­mance team.

In spe­cific re­gard to em­brac­ing al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies, treat­ments and mi­cro man­ag­ing the de­vel­op­ment and re­cov­ery of the body, it would be Sonny Bill Wil­liams who was one of the big­gest in­flu­ences.

He has taken train­ing, re­cov­ery and lifestyle man­age­ment to new lev­els.

He doesn’t drink, says he’s “a to­tal psy­cho” about what he eats, he prays twice a day, ob­serves Ra­madan, has dab­bled with the an­cient prac­tice of cup­ping, owns a Nor­maTec ma­chine – a high end com­pres­sion de­vice that aids re­cov­ery and is favoured by ul­tra en­durance ath­letes – and is re­lent­lessly work­ing on ways to im­prove his chances of play­ing at the high­est level.

His physique – he’s 1.94m, 108kg and has less than five per cent body fat – is the ul­ti­mate proof of the lengths he goes to pre­pare him­self.

“He’s the ul­ti­mate pro­fes­sional,” says vet­eran wing Is­rael Dagg. “He’s al­ways got these new tools and is bring­ing in these new ma­chines. If you watch him he’s al­ways stretch­ing and look­ing af­ter his body. He doesn’t even lift tonnes of weights, he’s just nat­u­rally gifted and strong. He looks af­ter his re­cov­ery, food, nutri­tion, flex­i­bil­ity is huge for him – all that stuff is 100 per cent im­por­tant.”

Wil­liams’s at­ti­tude has been in­fec­tious. His work ethic is said to be a source of in­spi­ra­tion to all those who spend time play­ing and train­ing with him.

The run­ning joke is that his team­mates say they have to match his out­put to avoid look­ing puny in com­par­i­son, but there is a

SONNY BILL WIL­LIAMS HAS LED THE TREND TO­WARDS LOOK­ING AT AL­TER­NA­TIVE METH­ODS BUT I THINK A LOT OF OUR GUYS NOW ARE WILL­ING AND READY TO TRY DIF­FER­ENT THINGS TO AL­LOW THEM TO KEEP PLAY­ING FOR LONGER.’ CHRIS LENDRUM

deeper re­al­i­sa­tion that play­ers across the elite spec­trum now un­der­stand bet­ter the lev­els of hard work and dis­ci­pline that are re­quired to keep win­ning.

There is also a greater em­pha­sis placed on ca­reer plan­ning than there was 12 years ago and as such, in­di­vid­u­als have learned that if they want to still be earn­ing a liv­ing out of rugby in their mid-thir­ties, they

have to look af­ter them­selves.

“If you go back ten or twelve years there were no play­ers over the age of thirty play­ing in New Zealand,” says New Zealand Rugby con­tracts man­ager Chris Lendrum. “Now there are quite a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber.

“There is no doubt that the Su­per Rugby clubs are bet­ter re­sourced than they pre­vi­ously have been and they do more to care for the ath­letes. But if you look at a cou­ple of guys like Wy­att Crock­ett and Ma’a Nonu, say, play­ers who have had long ca­reers and played a lot of min­utes, what isn’t seen is the enor­mous amount of work they do on their own time to keep them at that peak level.

“Sonny Bill Wil­liams has led the trend to­wards look­ing at al­ter­na­tive meth­ods but I think a lot of our guys now are will­ing and ready to try dif­fer­ent things to al­low them to keep play­ing for longer.”

The new cul­ture hasn’t been con­fined to em­brac­ing just phys­i­cal ther­a­pies. Ar­guably the big­ger change within the All Blacks in the last decade is the in­va­sion and to­tal ac­cep­tance of psy­chol­ogy and men­tal skills into the daily rou­tine.

All Blacks men­tal skills coach Gil­bert Enoka is prob­a­bly the busi­est man in the man­age­ment team and can be con­sid­ered one of the high­est im­pact in­flu­encers.

No longer do play­ers with an is­sue guts it out in their room hop­ing the “har­den up’ mantra will see them through.

It’s not like that now at all. Most of the cur­rent All Blacks will see Enoka at least once a week to hone a men­tal strength­en­ing tech­nique, talk over a prob­lem or to sim­ply get some­thing off their chest that has been bug­ging them.

There is ac­cep­tance – and why wouldn’t there be – that men­tal skills are as much a part of the high per­for­mance pack­age as phys­i­cal and that there is no rea­son to dis­trust or be sus­pi­cious of those who prac­tise the art of psy­chol­ogy.

For a sport that was built on hard men and ma­cho cul­tures, it is as­ton­ish­ing now that the All Blacks sit around and talk about their feel­ings. But they do, be­cause the stigma of be­ing weak for see­ing a psy­chol­o­gist has been re­moved and for the cur­rent All Blacks, noth­ing could be more nor­mal than a ses­sion with Enoka.

“I have been for­tu­nate to have worked with peo­ple like Gil­bert right back to the early 1990s as a player and as a coach,” says head coach Steve Hansen. “I think back then ev­ery­one thought it was a gim­mick, but fool them be­cause your brain is your most pow­er­ful tool.

“It has a clear side and a dark side and if you let the dark side take over then your per­for­mance falls away. There is no doubt that hav­ing a high men­tal for­ti­tude no mat­ter what sport you play, then you can op­er­ate from a bet­ter place. By em­brac­ing it you go to places that some­times there is un­cer­tainty about, but you know you are go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. It is a skill so you can train your brain to per­form un­der pres­sure.

“As we ma­ture as a pro­fes­sional sport, ath­letes are start­ing to un­der­stand that if they want to have longevity they have got to act in a pro­fes­sional man­ner and man­age them­selves in their stretch­ing, their food in­take, their al­co­hol in­take – it’s not a mat­ter of them not drink­ing it’s how much do they drink, when do they drink?

“Rest and re­cov­ery is also im­por­tant be­cause you want to be per­form­ing to a high stan­dard all the time. I think the un­der­stand­ing of all that has got bet­ter as time has gone on.”

It needed to get bet­ter as for all the im­prove­ments the All Blacks made post 2004, they still strug­gled men­tally on the big­gest stage. They fell apart at the 2007 World Cup when the French stunned them in the quar­ter­fi­nal.

“We got to 2007 and again on the big­gest stage at the big­gest game, for want of a bet­ter word, we choked,” says Enoka.

“We didn’t get the job done and we came back and had to have a par­tic­u­lar look at me and my area. I asked why [we had failed] and went and had a look at other peo­ple do­ing other things that weren’t in the con­ven­tional area.

“That’s when I looked at hook­ing up with Ren­zie Han­ham who is a karate artist. Ceri Evans who is a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist. And we had this wee con­sul­tancy group where we would toss ideas around and talk about the men­tal game.

“Vul­ner­a­bil­ity is the base qual­ity that al­lows us to grow. It is not struc­tured. It is not a menu-driven ap­proach. We have got a process and struc­ture that works. The more times we are un­der pres­sure and the more we nav­i­gate through it, the more we know they work.”

Since 2004, the All Blacks have reached stun­ning lev­els of pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

A re­cov­ery ses­sion is an ice bath, an in­tense stretch­ing work­out and a rub-down. The day af­ter a test, the All Blacks ho­tel turns into a pop-up mas­sage stu­dio and they travel with sev­eral treat­ment ta­bles in their near 4000kg of lug­gage and usu­ally have ac­cess to a hy­per­baric cham­ber to help speed up play­ers’ heal­ing re­sponse to in­jury.

Now play­ers not only know what chia seeds are, they ac­tu­ally like them and even the tra­di­tional post-match lolly fest – there would be jars of sweets in the chang­ing room af­ter each test – has been done away with. Now there are nuts, seeds and dried fruits.

The high per­for­mance world Henry, Hansen and Smith en­vi­sioned when they be­gan their coach­ing reign in 2004, has been reached and the in­flu­ence of se­nior play­ers in driv­ing them there was huge.

THERE IS NOT DOUBT THAT HAV­ING A HIGH MEN­TAL FOR­TI­TUDE NO MAT­TER WHAT SPORT YOU PLAY, THEN YOU CAN OP­ER­ATE FROM A BET­TER PLACE.’ STEVE HANSEN VUL­NER­A­BIL­ITY IS THE BASE QUAL­ITY THAT AL­LOWS US TO GROW. IT IS NOT STRUC­TURED. IT IS NOT A MENU-DRIVEN AP­PROACH. WE HAVE GOT A PROCESS AND STRUC­TURE THAT WORKS. THE MORE TIMES WE ARE UN­DER PRES­SURE AND THE MORE WE NAV­I­GATE THROUGH IT, THE MORE WE KNOW THEY WORK.’ GIL­BERT ENOKA

TIGHT SHIP From 2004 the All Blacks be­gan to bet­ter em­brace what be­ing pro­fes­sional meant.

GRIM DAY De­feat in Jo­han­nes­burg forced a mas­sive change in at­ti­tudes.

FALSE DAWN The All Blacks were more frag­ile than they re­alised in 2003.

FLOAT­ING FREE Is­rael Dagg floats once a week to clear his mind.

MA’A NONU

BEAU­DEN BAR­RETT

STAN­DARD SET­TERS Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter were in­stru­men­tal in driv­ing higher stan­dards.

MI­CRO MAN­AGE­MENT SBW has shown his team­mates how much they can work on their body.

STEVE HANSEN

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