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An Interview with living legend Sir John Kirwan

Lisa Tamati

Posted on February 07 2018

An Interview with living legend Sir John Kirwan

Few New Zealanders hold such a dear place in the collective heart of the country than the legendary Sir John Kirwan. A man of so many talents and exemplary qualities, Sir John is one of our country’s most prolific try scorers and a winner of the first ever Rugby World Cup tournament held in 1987. After his playing career, John went on to coach the national teams of both Italy and Japan and also lead the Auckland Blues for two seasons before stepping down in 2015. 

Beyond the sport of Rugby, John’s also been recognised for his work in mental health and advocating awareness around better, healthier living. He has been very open with his own battle with depression and has written various books about life, sport, parenting and living life with passion. Here follows my conversation with the legend.

LT: Your life has been very busy since your Rugby years. Tell us what you’ve been up to.

SJ: Well as you know, I’ve been doing a lot of work in the mental health area, which is something that’s really important to me. I’m currently working with the Ministry of Health to get a programme off the ground to support employees with mental health issues. Besides that I’m invested in a wine company that stocks some of our best restaurants and then I’m still very much involved in media work, doing Rugby commentary and other shows for various platforms.

LT: So you’ve adapted well in a post Rugby and increasingly digital world?

SJ: Sure, it’s important to adapt or you’ll get left behind. Some of the shows I do are hosted on Facebook and I do have some social media channels of my own. I think some people find the internet and the new social media world impersonal, but I find it to be a useful way to get an important message out there and reach more people in the process.

LT: Your work in mental health must give you some unique insights to finding balance in our “always-on” world. Can you tell us about that?

SJ: I think that the most important thing for anyone to do is to manage their imbalance, as I like to put it. People always talk about how important balance is but the reality is that most of us aren’t wired that way. We need to understand our imbalances and learn to work with them to achieve a healthier and less skewed way of living that invariably catches up with us all of we don’t pay heed.

It’s important to make time for our well-being each and every day. People too often overwork themselves, over-commit to too many things, tasks, meetings and what have you - and only give themselves small windows of opportunity to recoup. This is wrong; we need to give our wellness daily care to ensure we don’t end up in difficulty down the line.

LT: Agreed. It’s important to just step off the merry go round now and then. Even if it’s just to have a few quiet moments with yourself or to give your partner a hug or…

SJ: Absolutely...one thing that depression has taught me was to make time for those moments where I can check in with myself. It’s like giving yourself a moment to reset in the middle of a busy day, or when the pressure is on. For me, that’s something I look for everyday and give myself what I need mentally and physically to face the day and its challenges.

LT: In your book, All Blacks Don’t Cry, you say that someone asked you if you’re afraid that you’ll ever slip back into depression and your answer was an emphatic “No” because you have all the tools you need to be well. You mentioned a life philosophy that you stick to that helps you through really tough, or dark times. Can you share a little about that?

SJ: I think anxiety is based on pure fear and fear is based on reality or non-reality. My fears were based on non-reality. My mind had started to play tricks on me. It didn’t make the fear any less real, though. But as you know, fear is something us athletes cope with on the daily. When you’re tired, run down and can’t anymore, we know there’s always something left that you can give. Pushing harder is what we’re wired to do.

So in that context, I knew that if I had the fortitude to face the fear that I was feeling head on that I would be able to push through it and funny enough, when I started to welcome the onset of anxiety and fear, I was able to diffuse it. I was able to take its potency away and neutralise it...sort of push past it. That’s what carried me to the other side of depression - and I never looked back.

LT: What are your Zen places or things that brings stillness in your daily life?

SJ: For me, my Zen is cooking and reading. These are the two things I absolutely love doing. When I have the time to cook a really great meal and enjoy a good book, that’s what I call a good day. Then  there’s fitness of course, which is important for a health body and mind. I’ve also done transcendental meditation, yoga and other techniques that help still the mind and everyone will find what works best for them. But for me, time in the kitchen and a good read is nirvana.

LT: I recall when a colleague, Mike Warsop, and I were doing a documentary on the world’s highest marathon up in the Himalayas. This, for me, has been one of my biggest failures as an athlete. I recall how difficult it was to arrange everything with the film crew and just getting the entire project off the ground and I wind up getting a lung infection just a few days before we start. To this day, I remember the massive disappointment that was for me...how do you cope with massive setbacks?

SJ: I tend to think about failure a little in the same way I do about death. I remember my father’s passing and how I went through a rollercoaster of emotions; from shock to downright sorrow, disbelief and even anger at times. As I went through these emotions, I couldn’t see it at the time, but in retrospect, I understand that all those feelings culminate in a healing process one must go through in order to grow.

The feelings I went through when I was sacked by the Blues were very similar in many ways. I was angry for a while and then reflected on where things went wrong and eventually took the lessons from it and moved on. What I can say is that I’m both a better and stronger person because of the experiences I had - and in fact, the so-called failures I was dealt weren’t really failures. They were some of the most pivotal experiences in my life.

LT: Sure. You do have to go through the gambit of emotions to get through to the other side. I guess it's only in hindsight that we see the lessons those “bad” experiences came with. You’ve got to be vulnerable in a way to get that tough skin and face life’s challenges. And I must say that it takes a lot for people like ourselves to be that vulnerable. 

SJ: Yeah. So I wrote a book called Stand By Me, which is about parenthood. One of the best things I learnt from writing that book was that if you wanted your kids to understand life, the best thing you can do is to be vulnerable. Because when you can be vulnerable as a parent, you’re giving your kids permission to be vulnerable too. 

It wasn’t an easy lesson, as an ex-All Black being vulnerable isn’t easy. But it’s helped me be a better father and also brought me closer to my kids. And one thing that’s for sure, being vulnerable by no means makes you weak, people should get that. I think to show vulnerability shows our humanity.

LT: As a professional athlete, your identity is inextricably tied to the sport you’re involved in. I sometimes wonder who I would be when I finally stop running. How did you cope with being a world renowned All Black and reconcile that with who you really are as a human being?

SJ: I remember how tough it was, y’know, my mood would be determined by how good or bad I played on the weekend. For a young player, I identified myself solely with being a Rugby player, so who I thought I was had been skewed toward the sport. Yet, I had to go through a tough process of detaching myself from that persona, to really find myself and work towards the person I wanted to be. And that can be tough, but absolutely crucial.

LT: Having a brother who’s played in the Super 12 and for the Maori All Blacks, I have a window into the Rugby world and I must say that the younger generation have so much handed to them on a platter. The players have pretty much everything taken care of for them and yet they aren’t given the skills to cope with the lifestyle of being a professional sportsperson. I worry that this might be dangerous in terms of equipping them with the life skills for being good sportsmen and importantly life after the game.

SJ: I agree. Yet when it comes to the highest level of the sport, I get why so much is done for the athletes, because it’s about performance. In terms of the finances, it’s important for the players to make sure they have something waiting for them after their playing days are over. We need to make sure they understand the realities of life after the game as soon as possible so that they can start to plan for life after the sold out stadiums and fanfare.

Not every player goes on to become a coach or signs TV deals and if you haven’t prepared for life after the sport you’ve basically got to start over. So it’s important for the players to be guided in the early stages and throughout their earning years. Even if it’s just a qualification in a certain area, having it is a safety net you will need down the line. I think it's important that leadership within the sport assist young players in this regard.

LT: I can understand that for leadership it’s about getting the best out of the players and winning the day but surely they must be invested in the player’s well-being both on and off the field and making sure the next generation is well equipped for life in the sport.

SJ: Yeah, believe that there should be support for players acquiring skills beyond the sport. I’m big believer in getting a university-level diploma or degree behind your name. It’s so important to have that piece of paper and the skills with it to have that independence and chart your way forward. Having said that….I’m a butcher without the degree but I have an acquired skill set that looks after me just fine. 

Just ask anyone to name the 2011 World Cup team off the top of their heads and they’ll be able to name a few obvious names but will struggle to get through them all. Not everyone’s guaranteed that lifetime of limelight that some are lucky to enjoy and make a living from.    

LT: So true. I guess sports people of our ilk can also be an example to younger generations. As we both know, life gets messy behind closed doors. I remember being in a really bad relationship that caused me real trauma over a period of time; having to deal with an abusive partner while competing and keeping a positive front up at the same time - life can be tough! 

You’ve had your well-documented battle with depression and mental health and the work that you do in the field. I guess as people who live life both in real terms and as sporting professionals, the younger generation can learn heaps from us.

SJ: Yeah and for me it has really become more about the person you are. You know, being a good parent is something that’s so important to me, and everyone can get to be a great parent. That’s not reserved for an All Black or some elite sportsman or woman. Life’s about being the best you. You could be the All Black of dads, or mums or charity you know? And for us, using our public status to help others is more important than winning trophies y’know?

LT: In your book you discussed your dad extensively and what a great man he was to you. That just totally resonated for me because for me, it’s also very much about family. When it comes to my parents and brothers and close family, they’re the ones who’ll always get 100% from me.

SJ: True, and yet that doesn’t have to mean that you have to sacrifice your dreams. I mean, compartmentalising and prioritising your life helps you to take care of your family, career, passions, social and other responsibilities you have in life. 

I learnt to place my life in individual boxes and focus on each one in its time and place. Of course, you need to be able to bridge the different compartments of your life, but when you’ve got your priorities straight, you’re golden.

LT: Yeah but how do you make sure there’s anything left in the box for yourself?

SJ: I’ve got my box too! It’s just as important as all the other boxes! Like i said earlier, making the time to give yourself the quietude and the time to check in with yourself is so important. In fact, none of the other boxes will ever get what they need from you until you’re the best you that you can be…

If you would like to learn more mindset skills, how to develop emotional resilience please check out Lisa's new Mindset Academy 

Lisa's Mindset Academy

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