Chelsea bring in mental skills coach from rugby. Can he help turn their season around?


Chelsea spent £323 million on eight new players in the January transfer window, but the arrival of a barefoot New Zealander could be the Premier League club’s most important act of recruitment.

Gilbert Enoka is the leadership management and mental skills coach for New Zealand’s rugby team. The culture change he implemented with the All Blacks was instrumental in their remarkable period of dominance. New Zealand were ranked No. 1 in the world from 2009 to 2019, and they are the only men’s team to win back-to-back rugby union World Cups, in 2011 and 2015.

On Feb. 6, a week after the January transfer window had closed, Chelsea hired Enoka on a short-term consultancy deal and challenged him to trigger the same reaction at Stamford Bridge by forging a new team identity.

“Gilbert has been the glue of the All Blacks for a long period of time,” New Zealand great Kieran Read told ESPN. “He’s got a great understanding of who the All Blacks are and he cares so deeply about it. He probably transformed us. And I think, in some ways, the difference between the All Blacks not winning and winning was our mental approach to games. Gilbert was a big part of it.”

Chelsea, Champions League winners for a second time in 2021, are going through a period of upheaval and renewal that is extreme even by their standards. A consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly has spent more than £600m since taking over in the summer, bringing in 18 new players across two transfer windows. The group also changed managers in September, firing Thomas Tuchel the year after he led them to European glory, and replacing him with Graham Potter.

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The overhaul has had an effect on results, though not yet the desired one. Chelsea have won just one and lost five of their 10 matches in 2023, with Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at home to the Premier League’s bottom club, Southampton, a nadir. With the team 10th in the league and a trip to London rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, and a goal down midway through their Champions League round-of-16 tie, they are in desperate need of a turning point.

Team culture

When it was announced by the All Blacks that Chelsea had brought in Enoka, some headlines revolved around his famous “no d—heads” policy; a player could have all the talent in the world, but if they didn’t fit into team culture then they weren’t right for the squad.

“A d—head makes everything about them,” Enoka told Gameplan in 2017. “[They are] 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.

“Our motto is: ‘If you can’t change the people, change the people.'”

Brentford have adopted a similar approach, and you’ll find countless examples of other teams trying to live by a similar credo. It’s obvious enough; you don’t want bad apples to disrupt a group, but it’s fearlessly difficult to implement, and to boil Enoka’s philosophy down to that takeaway does his decades of work a disservice. While techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises are commonplace in sport now, Enoka was trying to promote high-performance in sport three decades ago; he was way ahead of his time.

After growing up in an orphanage with his five older brothers, Enoka took himself to university at age 16 and got a job as a high school teacher, where he found a love for volleyball. Having been granted a year’s sabbatical, he chose to study psychology and was drawn toward its application in sport. Enoka’s entry into rugby started in the 1980s through a chance meeting with Wayne Smith, who was then an All Blacks fly-half. The two stayed close friends, and when Smith started working as a coach, he tried to bring Enoka with him.

Smith is now considered one of the greatest and most innovative coaches in the game. He tapped into Enoka’s expertise when Smith worked for the Canterbury rugby union in the late 1980s, at a time when few others took the mental side of sport seriously. Enoka said recently that he was regarded as the “ugly duckling.” When Smith wanted Enoka to be part of his Canterbury coaching staff at a national sevens tournament, he had to register him as the team masseur.

Enoka’s reputation slowly grew within New Zealand sporting circles and that led to a greater respect for his craft. When Smith took charge of the Crusaders franchise in Super Rugby in 1997, Enoka was handed a part-time role, with the New Zealand Rugby Union recognising Enoka’s skill set. In 2000, Smith was handed the All Blacks head-coach role and he brought Enoka with him. Smith only lasted a year, but Enoka stayed on, endured the tough 2003 World Cup and was there when Graham Henry took over in 2004, with Steve Hansen and Smith brought in as his assistants. That group would mastermind New Zealand’s rugby dominance for the next 15 years.

What can Chelsea expect from Enoka?

To get a true idea of Enoka and what he will bring to Chelsea, it’s best to talk to those who have worked with him over the past two decades. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Back in 2004, the All Blacks were in a hole, a far cry from their vaunted reputation as the world’s greatest rugby nation. They had underperformed at the 2003 World Cup and were being dogged by off-field incidents. Management changed and the All Blacks ideal had taken a hit. They needed to reset. The circumstances at Chelsea are different but the challenge is the same: to set a standard and a team ethic that will drive the club forward.

Conrad Smith, the great All Blacks centre who won 94 caps, made his debut in November 2004 and was there for that transformational period.

“Even then, if any normal sports psychologist came into the camp and spoke to us, it’d gone way over our heads,” Smith told ESPN. “I’d only been in the team a few months back in 2004 but they wanted to make a lot of shifts around the culture, and so they leaned heavily on Gilbert — it was his domain. But it was teamwork, the whole management and the players came together.”

They redrew their ideology, found ways to reconnect with the Maori traditions of New Zealand and tried to rediscover their DNA. They changed personnel, shook things up, got rid of the drinking culture in the team and built a new foundation. The group made the haka — a traditional Maori dance adopted by the All Blacks — their focal point, with Enoka helping introduce the Kapa o Pango version, an alternate to their previous Ka Mate haka.

Enoka was integral to those discussions alongside the team’s leadership group of Henry, Hansen and Wayne Smith. It meant that when their 2007 World Cup ended in quarterfinal heartbreak, the foundations were sturdy enough that they only needed minor tweaks to handle the pressure and win the 2011 edition on home soil, then follow it up again in 2015.

“There are others who do what he does now, but you’re never going to have that experience because he was doing it 10 years before anyone else,” Conrad Smith said. “So I think that would explain the reason he’s been there as long as he has and through the ups and downs. Take 2007: he would say he got a few things wrong, like we all did as a team. So we learnt from that, and we evolved.”

Mindset, skill set, structure

The philosophy Enoka will bring to Chelsea revolves around three pillars: mindset, skill set and structure. On mindset, he helps players filter their midmatch thoughts, recognising which emotions and thoughts are valuable to them in that moment and which are not. Skill set refers to the mental tools players can utilise during a game, or how to redirect their attention through breathing techniques and mindfulness. And then there are the structural changes in an organisation, helping make the parts fit together to achieve the goals.

There are few more scrutinised and high-pressure jobs in New Zealand than the All Blacks captain. Read captained the team 51 times and worked closely with Enoka over an 11-year international career in which he won two World Cups and the Rugby Championship seven times and was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2013.

“I think if you talk to most of the guys, everyone would have struggled in the black jersey, and he’s the first port of call for everyone,” Read said. “That relationship’s crucial.”

On the “mindset” part of Enoka’s philosophy, Read added: “When I started out as captain, it was obviously pretty daunting and a pretty massive gig, and being able to go and have a cup of tea with Bert just kind of reset you on your own way. He found a way to maybe take some of that extra stuff you’ve got flooded in [your brain] and kind of got rid of it. This allowed you to focus on what you need to.

“I think it was crucial for me, we put some really good plans in place around dealing with all the extra stuff. I think it’s the connection that he has on an individual basis, which is awesome, and as a bloody good mate. So it’s kind of the best thing from my point of view.”

With skill set, Enoka wants players to embrace fear and turn it into strength. He focused on the now widely used sporting maxim of pressure being a privilege. Conrad Smith has benefited here.

“I guess it’s pretty common now, but I remember him talking to me back near the start of my career and he was telling me that you can deal with pressure by following a process, and it’s a skill you can develop,” he said. “That made a huge impact on me. We talked about the ‘red head/blue head‘ stuff that’s a lot more common today, but it was about recognising habits when under pressure and changing them.

“You know, some people fight, or some people get real angry, but I was never like that. But he made me understand that some people react by trying to do too much. I watched back games and saw I was just running everywhere, and it was the worst thing I could do as you try to do 100 things and in the end you don’t do any of them well. That was a huge learning. So I recognised that, and I could feel myself in a game that when things weren’t going well, I’d slow down, breathe, all that stuff, and look to the next job and do it well.

“I had a reputation during my career of not making mistakes, and one compliment I always got was that I didn’t have a bad game. Well, I did do both, but whenever I made a mistake, I realised these things happen and instead of chasing the ball, I refocused.”

And then there’s the structural change. Along with the cultural reset, Enoka can help the team adapt to any shifting issues with a constant emphasis on players being accountable to one another.

“If things ever looked like they might go off course or whatever, he has the ability to bring it back on course,” Read said. “And the connection around what it means to be an All Black has strengthened too, as he’s emphasised that you’re not just playing for yourselves but something far bigger.”

Conrad Smith remembers Enoka’s unique team meetings. Chelsea players won’t witness a PowerPoint presentation, but instead they’ll see him use four different coloured pens on a flipchart, writing down key phrases or words for the team to remember. Both Smith and Read mention how Enoka would frequently walk barefoot around the camp.

“He’s got such a connection to who he is and to the All Blacks in New Zealand,” Read said. “He always is barefoot for meetings and it’s his way, I guess, of grounding himself.”

Enoka has also worked with the Black Caps (the New Zealand men’s cricket team), New Zealand’s volleyball sides, the Silver Ferns (the national women’s netball team), Crusaders and with individual athletes such as rally driver Hayden Paddon. He has even branched out of sport to work with a New Zealand real estate firm for over a decade.

“He understands how people are different, that we all have our own story and all have our background,” Conrad Smith said. “He has his own unique story. He’s all about bringing that all together. And that’s probably why I think he’s been so good, as he brings that all together. He understood the value in mental skills and culture before others, and spent all that time mastering it.”

Now it’s to Chelsea for a stint, where he’ll be charged with helping blend their raft of signings into a team with an individual strive for excellence all under a collective ideology.

“He makes sure there’s a real clear purpose of what you’re playing for, and there’s no individual bigger than the team — that’s the case with the All Blacks,” Read said. “I’m sure he’ll be trying to connect a lot of what we call the ‘connection purpose.’ The biggest thing is if you get a group of guys working in the same direction, all connected and wanting to play for each other, then you do well. That’s where I’m guessing he will come in.”


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