Nacewa aiming to ensure Auckland possess the mental resilience that defines all winners
Andy McGeady talks to the ex-Leinster star who is back in rugby as a mental skills coach with Auckland Blues
Isa Nacewa celebrates with his Leinster team-mates following victory over Ulster in the RaboDirect PRO12 Grand Final at the RDS in May. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Former Leinster favourite Isa Nacewa is settling into life back in New Zealand. Still only 31, his playing boots remain firmly on the shelf and he’s back in rugby as a mental skills coach in Auckland with the Blues. But his kids still think of Dublin as home. And what is a mental skills coach anyway?
The cold weeks approaching Christmas are some of the few memories that make him yearn for Dublin. “I didn’t think I was missing it about a month ago but, y’know, it’s just a special time of the year” said the New Zealander who retired to his homeland after the 2012/13 season. It’s not even the playing element he misses so much as “the RDS and Christmas time around Dublin – I’ve had it for the last five years”.
Nacewa, whose two-minute cameo for Fiji in 2003 made him one of the greatest one-cap wonders of all time, arrived at Leinster in 2008 from the Blues. He would spend five extraordinarily successful seasons with the province winning three Heineken Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and a Rabodirect Pro 12 title. In 2011 he became the first overseas player to be named IRUPA player of the year.
Now living with his young family just a few minutes away from their grandparents and with some TV work for Sky in the ITM Cup under his belt, all is well. But perhaps not yet perfect. With all three of his children having been born in Ireland, the four-year-old twins still refer to their house in Dundrum as their “real house” and, he said, “every once in a while they ask when we’re going back”.
“He’s an incredible young man with a huge future in our game” said his new boss Blues coach John Kirwan.
Nacewa said he had sat down with Kirwan where they talked about his success at Leinster and how he had mentally prepared to put himself in the best position to succeed every week. They have called their goal “Bone-Deep Preparation”.
“I have guys who are 6ft 4in and can run like the wind. Once you create a lot of these athletes . . . what’s the differentiator?” said Kirwan. “The x-factor is the ability to mentally prepare for a game of rugby.”
Kirwan estimates that most young players when asked what they did to prepare for a match at the weekend might say they had put in five hours in the gym, perhaps eight hours on the field. Preparing the mental side? “Nothing, or if they did it’s just scratching the surface”.
“Just like strength and conditioning work it all comes down to mastering technique and then practice, practice, practice,” said Dr Phil Hopley, former Wasps player and now a consultant psychiatrist.
He described mental skills coaches as “mind performance coaches” who “help players to develop or improve the psychological skills which enhance training and performance under challenging conditions.”
When at Leinster Nacewa said he always found himself carrying a few niggly injuries yet playing each week.
“I thought I performed pretty consistently most weeks and I think a lot of that was down to mental prep” said Nacewa. “Lots of players rely on physical talent to get them to the top. It might do that but it won’t win you championships.”
Sports psychologist Enda McNulty, who works with the Irish rugby team, has already been in touch with Nacewa a few times since he was named in his new role.
“I think he will be brilliant at it” said McNulty. “He is one of the most consistent performers I’ve ever witnessed in any sport. He was very strong in relation to his own mental preparation and was great at integrating this in amongst all other aspects of his prep.”
Not everybody will immediately understand the importance of the mental side of sport, or indeed of life. When it comes to preparing the body’s most important muscle, the Blues coach and former All Black John Kirwan certainly does understand. And much more than most.
Kirwan was first capped for New Zealand in 1984 while still a teenager and would score 35 tries in his 63 Tests. Under the surface, however, things were far from easy. The great “JK” suffered from depression.
Having sought help to deal with the problem, Kirwan became an ambassador for depression awareness and participated in a television ad campaign to highlight the issue.
“One day I was happy-go-lucky JK. The next morning I got up, looked in the mirror and there was this guy I didn’t like looking back.” went the ads. Kirwan was awarded a Meritorious Service Award by the Royal New Zealand College of GPs for his work in the campaign and in 2012 was awarded a knighthood for his services to mental health.
Young men are especially slow to ask for help dealing with anything mind-related. There is a stigma attached to it. Young male athletes, especially in an inherently “tough” sport such as rugby, are even less likely to put their hands up. The title of Kirwan’s own book, All Blacks Don’t Cry, says it all.
While it’s important that the concepts of mental skills and mental health should not be confused, they should not be seen as being completely unrelated. At the recent IRB conference in Dublin it was said they should be treated as points on the same scale.
The role of the coach in that environment is crucial. Whether a player wants help with mental prep to improve consistency of performance or perhaps needs clinically trained help at the more serious end of the scale, they need to know that either way the coach will be genuinely supportive.
With John Kirwan as Blues coach, having known at the most personal level how those inner demons can break a man, his players are in a luckier position than most. In that context, hiring a respected rugby man like Isa Nacewa to help young sportsmen tackle the mental side of match preparation seems like the most obvious thing in the world.