Welcome to Pushing the Limits, the show that helps you reach your full potential, with your host Lisa Tamati, brought to you by lisatamati.com.
Lisa Tamati: Lisa Tamati speaking. Welcome back to Pushing the Limits. This week, I have Conrad Smith, the famous, famous All Black, who many of you Kiwis at least will know, a superstar athlete. And we share information about his career, and what it's like to be in the World Cup, and lots of exciting stuff. Also, what it's like to be post-career now, retiring, some of the issues that he sees around young athletes. Really lovely and interesting conversation with the amazing Conrad Smith who's also a lawyer as well as an All Black. Talk about an overachiever.
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Now, we're going to be going over to Conrad Smith who's just been moved back to New Plymouth. I've had the privilege of meeting him a number of times and working on a couple of things. So I hope you enjoy this conversation. Now, over to Conrad.
Well, hi everyone and welcome back to Pushing the Limits this week with Lisa Tamati. I am really excited for today's conversation. I've teamed up with another amazing superstar, a top athlete for you guys to enjoy learning from today. I have Conrad Smith. Conrad, welcome to the show.
Conrad Smith: Thank you, Lisa. Thank you for the introduction.
Lisa: You hardly need an introduction especially to people living in New Zealand. A legendary All Black. You played for how many years? I think it's 2004?
Conrad: 15 years.
Lisa: 15 as an All Black, as a winger. You've been a captain of the Hurricanes. You've been, I don't know, Player of the Year and Sportsman of the Year in Wellington. Your accolades are such a huge list, Conrad. You're blushing already, I can see. But really, an incredible athletic career and you were also talented as a cricketer, I understand.
Conrad: When I was a little fella, when I was little fella. I was too little for rugby so I played more cricket, but yeah.
Lisa: And then you grew.
Conrad: I was a New Zealander. New Zealand kid back then. Yeah, then I grew up. That's right.
Lisa: Yeah. Then you grew up and you were big enough to take on the big boys. Say, Conrad, give us a little bit of a feel like where you grew up. And how much of an influence did your childhood have on what you ended up doing with your rugby career?
Conrad: Yeah. So I was actually born down Hawera. My father was a policeman so we moved around with him a little bit in the early years, and then moved to New Plymouth when I was about six. We’re a very, very close family. He gave a lot of time. My mom and dad would always make time for the kids: a couple older brothers, younger sister. Yeah, it was a great childhood. A lot of sport was played but we all did pretty well academically, which my parents laughed at because both of them never made it. They did poorly in school. Really, really supportive parents in terms of... It's funny, I probably took it for granted then, but I don't ever remember my parents either not being there or having to work.
Everything we did, we always were supported. And they were there, whether it was just drive us there, or coach our teams, or try and help us with our homework. I think that was what I've, like I said, took for granted but now, being older, I realise how important that was and why we're still such a close family, and my brothers are my best mates, and my sister is. We still meet. Yeah we still, obviously. We're all sort of have moved around the world but we're sort of pretty close together again. I suppose I try to be now with my own family like my dad was to me. Yeah, so those were the luckiest break in my head, I suppose. I always say people talk about luck, especially in sport but for me, it was just the family I was born into and the sport I had as a young fella.
Lisa: Yeah. Now, that's brilliant. And you had a couple of kids yourself?
Conrad: Yeah, yeah. Now, we've got two of them, just about to go off to school. Luca is my seven, and we had him in New Zealand, and then our daughter was actually born over in France while I was over there for four or five years. She's come back with us.
Lisa: Growing up in the... You grew up in the 80s, I grew up in the 70s. Showing my age, yeah. But I think in the 80s, it was still very much like an outdoorsy lifestyle, like that good Kiwi kid upbringing, especially in Taranaki because we both come from here. Having that being outdoors in nature all day, as kids, we never came home before dark, sort of thing. Was it the same in your household?
Conrad: Yeah, for sure and like I say to all the brothers, they were pretty influential in what I did. I just sort of hung around, tail off them but very much, we were always out. I just think of my childhood, it was all about playing sport, finding areas to play sport. You'd sort of get pushed out, and as we try and play inside, then we'd get pushed out to the garden and we'd ruin the garden or ruin the lawn. We’re just constantly finding places to do what guys do with a ball and you can do anything. Then, the wider family were farming so my dad was on the farm. He sort of got kicked off by his older brother, but that was a family farm.
So we would eat out that way and that's that Douglas from Stratford on the way there with my mom in there. That's been in the family for three or four generations and that would be where we're kids. We'd help with haymaking, we'd help with carving, we'd help all sorts. That was pretty much my favourite holiday, and the same as all of us kids would be to go spend some time there and help on the farm. That was just a childhood, yeah. You just know what friends to do and always outside, didn't matter if it was raining and cold as it often is at most parts. We just put a coat on and carry on.
Lisa: Oh, man that just takes me back to my childhood, and I often think, 'Man, I want to go back.' What happened to that simple life that we had when we were kids? You're very lucky to have such wonderful parents, obviously. It's such a cool family. You also went off into university and became a lawyer, as you do, as an All Black. A slight overachiever there, Conrad. Did you always want to be a lawyer apart from wanting to be an All Black?
Conrad: As I sort of said before, I wasn't a huge overachiever on the sport front. Well, I went to Francis Douglas; it's not a huge sporting school. We had sporting teams, but that wasn’t very much. Part of it, you were there to study, you were there to get an education, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed school. I think it is a great school, and a lot of my mates now are still from the mates I made in my school years, and yeah. So I didn't mind class and I never had a... I suppose leaving high school as it was when I was going to go to university, my brothers had both done that. That was sort of a thing to do.
Law was, yeah. It was something. I enjoyed English history. Those sort of subjects at school in Wellington wasn't too far. I sort of wanted to go down to meet my brothers down there and that was the scarfie life was. But he sort of talked me out of it just because he... I think he'd done about four years by that stage, and flying down, and getting himself back and forth was pretty tough. They sort of said, 'Well, if you have to, go closer to home.' and that was when I ended up in Wellington and I really enjoyed law and rugby.
Yeah like I say, sport was great, but it was two nights a week. It wasn't taking over my life as I know it does to a lot of kids nowadays. They make academies, and whatnot, and maybe talk about whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But yeah, I was able to finish a full law degree and luckily, that sort of perfectly dovetailed into when I started playing professionally. Yeah, it was just sort of fortunate for me in terms of the way it all worked out and the timing. That's something I was very grateful for, obviously.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Because right now, like your career, your playing career at least is over, you've got something to do. You've got a qualification. If we dive into that subject a little bit, so a lot of the young guys now are coming through and they're sort of getting picked out early along the way. What sort of dangers do you see with that system?
Conrad: Yeah, I do worry about it, and I've spoken about it before. Because it's not just in rugby. It's in all sports. There's sort of a real obsession towards identifying talent young. Then the excuses, are you giving them the best chance of success? So we're gonna do all the work with them, and specialise them, and make them concentrate on the sport. But firstly, I don't know if that actually helps them with their sport a whole lot. I think it's fine to keep a balance, and to play other sports, and to experience, just live a normal life. I think you can still excel. But the other thing is that if it doesn't work out or even if it works out, sports are short term industry. You know, I know that that's not forever, and when you get to the back end of that, if you’re purely invested in one sport when the time runs out, you got to rebuild a lot of the... Yeah and that's a real problem.
And you don't need to look far to find a lot of evidence about that. We've been afoot and looking at American sports because they’ve been professional a lot longer than we have. Some of the statistics is just shocking. And people would think that they paid so much money, the athletes in those sports in America that they should be able to live literally after... They could do whatever they want. Theoretically, they have enough money just to retire but the statistics are not that at all. You have a crazy number of bankruptcy, crazy number of rates of depression because they haven't learned to live outside of their sport. That's sort of been taken away from them because they’re placed into their sport so young, and then just cut, and there's no real assistance around that.
So yeah, that's an extreme example and we're nowhere near at that stage here with the way the academies and that are set up. I know most of the people involved are very mindful of the things I've just talked about.
Lisa: That's pretty...just open that conversation now.
Conrad: Yeah. I just think there's a lot to be said around leading young people. I look at myself and from that period of development where maybe nowadays, I'd been in an academy, I was lead to play multiple... I played cricket, I played basketball, I ran, I did, God knows, all these things, and who's to say what lessons I learned from those other sports that I actually used in rugby? Because there's so much that you can pick up and also being able to study.
For me to have a degree, the benefits that gave me to deal with injuries, to deal with all the downsides of sport because I had a background and the education. It's really helpful. You relax a lot more. You get a perspective on the sorts of things that if you're just wrapped up in a sport and you get an injury, man that's tough. You can't do what you would like to do. Where do you turn? But I think if you've had a bit of an education, and it doesn't have to be a law degree, but if you've got some other life or other opportunities and options that you can turn to in those times, and it gives you perspective and a sense of reality, and you don't get so caught up in that, so yeah. I know it is appreciated. I just think it may be still underrated by a lot of the people that are setting up these academies and things for the young sportsmen.
Lisa: Yeah, and that's a good conversation to have and just be open about. Because you're one injury away from ending your career at any time. And then, to build... that's like building a sort of a house on a foundation of saying if you haven't got something else and you haven't got the life skills, if I just look at the opposite extreme with my sport where you have... When I started, just a bunch of weirdos doing crazy stuff, right? There's no structure, and there was no support. There was no knowledge, but it taught me that I had to go and market myself. I had to go and push everything that... Even when I represented New Zealand, I had to buy my own singlet to wear at the thing. Get a little... I'm getting here and do all of the things. So you had to market yourself, present yourself, become a speaker, do all of this sort of stuff in order to... So through that, you learn a lot of life skills anyway and then it was never a professional sport, in a sense.
I managed to live off my sport for a number of years, but that was an exceptionally... That just because I found ways to do that but it wasn't a pathway that anybody could follow. But it taught me to fight. I remember having this conversation with my brother, Dawson, who I know was one of your heroes when you were a little feller. My brother, Dawson, was a Hurricanes player and Super Rugby in Taranaki and international as well. When I came back from Australia, and I came back to New Zealand, and I was raising money to go to Death Valley, which was a big race for me, he was like, 'Why are you in the media? Where you want to be? I used to hide from the damn media.’ And I'm like, 'Yeah, but you got everything given to you, mate. You got all your clothes, all your gear, you got stuff gifted to you left, right, and centre. You've actually got no idea what another sport is.’ That structure, that framework is not there. And that's good and it's bad.
When you have everything laid on for you, but you haven’t had to fight in society for your things... Because I've talked to a lot of rugby clubs actually around the country to all the younger guys. Everything is laid out for them. They have to fight. They've got a lot of pressure as far as performance and all that sort of stuff goes, but the rest of life is sort of taken care of. So it's something to be wary of. I think you got young ones and going up through this system is to just think about, 'What is the fallback option here? What else are they going to do when their career is over?' Because it can be very short, and not everybody reaches the stardom that you did. Not everyone gets to play for the All Blacks’ 94 games or...
Conrad: We talked about the bubble. They use that term a lot within sports. So you come into this bubble. When you stay in that bubble, you lose touch with reality. You're actually... I know because I've seen it, and I'd use that same terminology and say, 'Come on and talk to the guys. I've got to get out of the bubble.’ It was always a thing of because people would... And you'd see it with people that get drawn into a sporting career and if they're doing really well. And you're right. It's only in New Zealand that it's probably only really rugby. There are other sports now that get paid really well, but they have to head overseas so... You're thrown into a lifestyle where everything is laid on and you don't actually... You forget how the real people live and the real life is, and that the bubble bursts, and it all comes about, and this is what I'm saying: The more time you spend in that bubble, when it bursts, the harder it is. The fall can really take a lot of getting used to it and some people don't.
Unfortunately, even the guys I have played with, I’ve got as many stories of guys who are struggling, still struggling as the guys who fell on their feet. I don't think anyone does straight away, even myself. People will say ‘You handled it well.’ I've been retired just over three years and I knew. Everyone seemed to me it's at least two years before you even... There’s still things you struggle with it. And that was spot on. It just takes a lot of time to understand that you're never going to get up in the morning and have that same drive. You're very lucky that when you're as a sportsman or woman to have that drive. Just do the same thing. But you got to find something else, and it will never replace that and it's not meant to, but it's a challenge for everyone. Those life experiences during that sporting career are so important so that when the bubble bursts, when you come out of it, it's just a little bit easier to find your feet. Because otherwise, that is tough, and it's a bit of a worry.
Lisa: Yeah yeah exactly. Just on even from that identity of being this athlete and you had a singular purpose. Pretty much every day when you got up, it was to train and it was to be the best for the next game or the next whatever. And that gets taken away and then the complexity of life comes in. Yeah? I retired from doing ultramarathons at 48. It's a sport where you can go a lot longer, and I've got mates that are still in their 60s and 70s doing it. But what I do see often in the ultra running community is they don't know anything else so, 'I'm going to stick with what I know and I'm just going to beat the crap out of my body until it falls into the ground.' Rather than going, 'Hang on a minute. This is no longer conducive to what I really want for me.’ And reassessing. With rugby, you're forced to because physically, at 48, you wouldn't be able to keep up with a 20-year-old.
There's that whole, have you struggled? I know I've struggled with that whole identity. Like, 'Who the hell am I if I'm not that hardass athlete and I'm not able to do what I used to do?' Because I still get it in the running scene, 'Oh, a marathon must be... you must do that before breakfast.' I'm like, 'Yeah, no. That's not...' Now, a 5K’s quite long. You know what I mean? So your horizon comes back in. So I've spent decades pushing my horizon out to be able to go longer, longer, longer, bigger. Then, life happens. In my case it was mum and that was the end of the career. It was high time; it was overdue. But that whole, you just had the rug pulled out from under you, and your identity is tied up in that performance. Have you found that a struggle?
Conrad: Yeah. Yeah, I think. Like I say, everyone does. You're lying if you say people do it easy. Again, I think a lot of the work, hopefully, athletes that handle it better have thought about that work during their career and they don't... We were given some great support while I was playing, particularly, within the All Blacks, guys like Gilbert Enoka with the background. And the whole mental side of not just the game, but of life, in terms of keeping...being grounded, keeping perspective. Part of that was your identity and not letting rugby define you. We used to say that you're a person that plays rugby, you're not a rugby player. It has this other life. You're actually... I play rugby because I like playing. Maybe that's not who I am. That's what the public sees, and I think if you get a handle on that while you're playing, then you understand that when rugby is taken away but that's not part of... ‘That's what I used to do. Now, I'm not doing it anymore but I'm still the person I've been this whole way. Now, my journey carries on.’
Like I say, that's easier said than done. There’s people that become the rugby player. That's all they are, and so that's the real challenge. For me, it was about just finding other challenges. And I think anyone in terms of rugby or any sport yourself, you find other challenges, it gives you... You realise your own identity and you find other things to do that give you fulfilment. I think aligned with that is the whole... When I think of rugby players, a lot of them who find the identity in rugby, they then just go on to coaching, and this is a real problem, and it might... I don't think that's just with the sport of rugby, but you have a lot of retired players that feel like they have to coach because they think it's all they know.
The challenge, I suppose is, then of being careful not to fall into that trap. It was easier for me. I studied. I used to be a lawyer. I'm sure I could go back and do that. Maybe not as a lawyer, but there are other skills that I have. That's a really hard message, but it's a really important message to give all sportsmen. To rugby players, I'm always telling them, 'You don't have to stay in rugby, you know. You played, you finished, you don't have to coach.' There's going to be hundreds and thousands of players finishing career and they think they have to coach. But their skills are transferable to hundreds of different professions and things that will pay them well. You can keep being yourself.
Even for me, I've stayed within rugby but it's not coaching. I'm working with the Players Association, International Players Association and that suits me. That's my skill set: a bit of the law, the analytical side of me that I've always had. And I think that was important. It's sort of my process of moving away from that identity as just 'Conrad Smith, the rugby player.' It's important to find other things that challenge me and that I enjoy.
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Lisa: That's awesome and thanks for sharing that because I think that's... Being able to openly have these conversations because there are a lot of athletes in lots of different sports struggling with this whole process of... Your career is so short, and you're not a has-been. I asked myself these conversations, and most especially in the beginning is, 'You’re nothing now. You’re a has-been now. You can’t do it.' And being embarrassed about that, instead of going, 'Hang on a minute. I'm still pretty fricking epic and I do other stuff.' Now, that's freed up a huge piece of my brain and my daily power and energy to then go and attack other massive projects.
There's so many things in the world that you can take on. It's all up to you to develop a certain passion. And I think it's not even just in the sports realm. I see people who are in careers that got friends and careers, they don't want to be there anymore but they studied it, they became it, they did it. whatever it was. Now, they're like, 'Is that it?' It doesn't have to be it, no. We live in a day and age where we can actually go and retrain. In fact, we have to be adaptable and flexible in this day and age if we want to keep up because the world is changing so fast. So many jobs are going to be gone and whole industries.
As a jeweller in a previous life, that industry got destroyed, really. If you weren't in the big game with big brands and Chinese mass production and stuff like that and you're an artisan, a person who made one-off pieces, you're struggling now unless you really got the top massive diamonds and God knows what. Everyone else is struggling, so you have to go, 'Okay, that industry’s change. I'm going to have to adapt, change, go with it, overcome it, improvise, and keep developing.' I think that's the message that we're getting here is you don't box yourself in. don't just be that one-trick pony. That's not, and Conrad is now an advocate, he's a father, he's a speaker.
Whatever you decide that you want to be, you can become. And you're not just Conrad, the All Black. I think that's a really important transition for everybody to go through. Even if you're a policeman or a teacher and you don't want to do that anymore or whatever the case is.
Conrad: Yeah, and it takes a bit of courage. Like I said before, it's easier said than done a lot of the time. And that's what people just need that encouragement. Especially with finances and people suddenly are, 'I've got a mortgage on a house. I don't want to change career because there might be a layer where I'm not earning money.' But yeah, I just think that's... You come back to some questions about who you are, who you want to be, and you've got to be... You'll be happy doing what you're doing. So I just think all the help you can get from people around you, that's where you'll draw the energy, I think. If it's a conversation you're just having in your own mind, you will never get anywhere. You just need to open up about it, speak to people close to you, and I think that's generally where the answers come from.
Lisa: Yeah. I think that's gold. On that point, how big is mental health in your work? Do you do a lot around supporting mental health, and that sort of thing, and helping people transition, and all that sort of jazz?
Conrad: Yeah, absolutely. More and more, it's a complex field. When you talk about players in the game, in the sport of rugby, it's really difficult. We were starting to appreciate the pressures I think that sportsmen and women are under in these fields. It's a lot of… it draws that back on what we were talking about before. You're in a bubble and you do lose perspective and so not as the... The challenge is to help these young, these kids that are in these bubbles to speak different, and keep living, and look at sport as this amazing opportunity, and not feel the pressure. Well, maybe saying not feeling the pressure is the wrong way to put it because it's natural, but to feel the pressure and find a way to deal with that, a healthy way to deal with it.
Again, I look back on my career and you're playing for the All Blacks, you're playing World Cups, it's easy to talk about pressure. There was never times that I didn't know how to deal with it, and that was from the sport I had, and maybe the background, and my upbringing. But it was easily... You just channel that and see and look at it differently and decide. Look at the opportunity that every time you feel pressure, you get it, it's as simple as just changing the perspective of things rather than the pressure of, ‘You have to win’. ‘I'm an All Black, I want to win because…’ Whatever. ‘I've got a country behind me,’ and suddenly, it's a burden that's lifted and yeah, you flipped it and you're puffing out your chest, and you want to do it. If it doesn't come off, it’s a game. There's more important things, absolutely, around. But yeah, like I keep saying, it's not easy for everyone and there’s people that understand that better. The challenge is getting through to people of different backgrounds, and different cultures, and different ages.
Lisa: Yeah with different problems.
Conrad: Yeah. I'm saying that because I know what works for me, but I know a 17-year-old young Samoan boy who's playing rugby, I don't know for the Highlanders, I might not be able to connect with him. The things that worked for me won't work for him. That's what I'm trying to say. Or the female swimmer who's doing, training for an Olympics. We're all different, and the challenge is finding a way for everyone to deal with that pressure and to be mentally healthy through a sports career.
Lisa: I love that approach and just coming off the back of the Olympics. It was just wonderful to watch our amazing athletes doing amazing things. Lisa Carrington just blows me away. She's mentally just insane. But I love that thing of the challenge versus threat. I think this is a really important thing to do. When you're feeling overwhelmed and overburdened and like the whole world of pressure is on me, you going out and something the World Cup, were you able, even in those extreme pressure moments, to turn that into an opportunity and not a threat? Because that does change the physiology. Like when you're running on the paddock on those days, those couple of times in your life where it's just been horrifically big pressure, how did you physically and mentally cope there?
Conrad: Yeah, I think we've spent a lot of time, and everyone did, preparing for that World Cup. Again, as All Blacks, you have to spend a lot of time because you know the pressure that comes with and the expectation that comes with being an All Black in New Zealand. But even more so a World Cup, a home World Cup, when we hadn't won, I think 2011. A lot of our preparation time wasn't just being on the field with how we're going to play but was how to deal with that pressure. For me, it was just constantly turning it around so that it was never a moment I even... I can look back and think of times in the game where the team was under pressure and it would be perceived as... Even in that final hour, the team struggled a bit with the pressure, but if I'm being honest, our preparation never let us feel that way. We were dealing with that all the time.
We just were focused on doing our job. We talked so much about whatever comes our way, we were going to adapt and deal with it and that's what you just had to keep doing. You never sort of stop, and you'll notice yourself, you just don't let yourself stop and think about that. I think if you've got to that stage, it's too late. If you're having to go through a process of. 'How do I deal with this?’ It's probably too late. You've already, hopefully, got a process in place where you're just, it's just instinctively, you're just channelling that, focusing on little details. Because you know whatever the pressure, that's not going to influence you unless you need it. You just focus on the small tasks and you get through 80 minutes of rugby like that, keep a smile on your face.
Lisa: Pull your focus into the job at hand instead of the: 'Oh my god. Everyone's watching me. Everyone's pressuring. Hang on a minute I've just got to pass this ball right now.' You're breaking it down into little tiny...
Conrad: We all have little trigger words and I know we've talked about this: ‘Be in the now.’ Be in the now, which is like just what you're talking about. It's not thinking about the mistake you might have just made, the ball you drop, the tackle you missed, and it's not worrying, and you're not thinking about the World Cup, you're going to win at the end of this game. Because you can't do anything. Right now. ‘Right now. Right now, I'm going to catch this next ball.’ Look up, keep looking, keep calling, whatever it is. It's as simple as a little thing like that that just keeps you in tune with the moment and not letting you get overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Yeah, massively important, obviously. The bigger the moments and the bigger the pressure, it's the funny thing, it's the more important that you focus on the smaller, minute detail.
Lisa: I love it. I said try to forget the consequences of what you're doing. You've done the preparation. You've done the work. You've done everything that you possibly can. You’re standing on the start line, in my case, a race, then letting go of the outcome because you've done what you can do. And now, it's up to the whatever happens in the next few hours or days, in my case. So this was no longer just in your hands then. Because the gods have a thing to say about it as well. Sometimes, if you try and control the uncontrollable, then you'll drive yourself to madness, whereas if you can go, 'I've done the stuff that I was responsible for. I've put the work and I've done the preparation. I know my strategies. I know my pacing. I know whatever it is I'm doing. I got that right. Okay. I'm going to keep my eye on the ball here. But I'm going to let go of the outcome now.' Because when you let go of the outcome, then that pressure goes and you're in that...
Being in that now is a really powerful message to people. Because when you're in the past or the future, you're either worrying about the future, or you're regretting what's happened in the past, or it's a load for you to carry. In the moment, when you're under pressure, all you can cope with is that second right now. The next minute. That's it. When I was running long distances, I would break it down into: 'What's the next power pole? I just got to get to the next power pole. If I can't even get that far, I'm just gonna take one more step.' You can always take one more step, right? If you break it down into one more step, just one more, and then you just keep going and keep going. Then, invariably, that mindset or that thing that's in your head passes, and then you're back in the game.
Conrad: That's funny, you sound... because someone I remember that came and spoke to the team when we were outside joined the team in 2004, and we had Amish Carter came and spoke with the team. It was before the 2007 World Cup and obviously, that World Cup didn't end well, but some of what he said, I still remember it. He was talking about his Olympic performances, and he said, and I think one of the questions from the players was about we're talking: the nerves and the pressure. And I remember him saying that he wasn't nervous. He wasn't nervous when he got to the start line just for the reasons you said. He said: ‘Because then, I'd backed on my prep, I'd done everything I needed to do. Now, it was just a matter of going out and doing that. You can't do anymore.’
It's funny that when I looked, especially towards into my career, the only times I would feel nervous normally, on the start of a week. So if we play the game on a Saturday, and that was because I'm nervous thinking of all the things I've got to do on the Monday, Tuesday. But by the Friday, I would have this real sense of calm. I'd have a smile and I'll be like, 'Right now, it's time to do it.' It's funny because people, it's the opposite. They're not thinking about a game on Monday, Tuesday, but they were getting nervous on before a game starts thinking, 'You must be even worse.' But yeah, that was the way I could explain it is that we're really... I was nervous thinking about the game but now, I've done all that. This is the path I've taken. This is the training I've done for this game. Now, I'm ready to... I'm going to go and do it and see if it works.
Lisa: Yeah, this is the reward phase. This is actually what you've been preparing for all along, so this is the time when you actually should be enjoying it. It wasn't always that easy especially when you're doing a couple hundred K's somewhere because sometimes it’s not that pleasant. But you've done the work to get to the start line and the times where I am being nervous is when I hadn't done the work.
Conrad: Exactly. I think of some... I don't like admitting it but normally, with All Blacks, you always have checked every box but there were games, I’d go back even the Hurricanes or Club Games and that's the ones where I'd be nervous because I'd be thinking... ‘I haven't really... now this week. I probably haven't done…’ Then, you get nervous but actually the bigger the occasion, the preparation is normally good.
Lisa: You took it seriously and yeah, yeah. I've come stuck on some short races where I've had my ass handed to me because I went in with the... That's just the short race, and oh my god. Had my ass handed to me. So yeah, always respect every distance or every game. I think it's key. What's it actually like, Conrad, to be... The first time that you put on that All Blacks jersey? Because it's every little boy and now, little girl's dream too. What's it actually like to put on that sort of thing for the first time? Can you remember?
Conrad: Yeah for sure. It's pretty special. I do think I was really lucky the way it panned out for me in terms of... It happened really quickly. I'd play. I hadn't even played the Super Rugby game. I hadn't played for the Hurricanes. When it started, I had a really... I was playing for the Wellington Lions. We made the final, and then I was picked, fortunately. So the coaching staff that had come in wanted to pick some new younger players and I was one of those. That was very much sort of out of the blue. Then, I was starting the following week. So I played a final. The team was picked. We assembled the end of that following week. We flew to Italy, and then I was playing.
But that was great in hindsight because it didn't let me overthink that. It was sort of okay, and I just was like, 'Right.' Little bit like what I said before, 'I'm just going to enjoy it.' Admittedly there were people around me. Graham Henry, Ryan Smith, Steve Hansen, great coaches, and Gilbert Enoka that were giving me those messages. Just telling me, 'We're picking you in the first game. Just go and enjoy it. Just keep doing what you're doing. We love what you're doing.' So those messages for a young guy were perfect. I didn’t actually question that. Yeah, I just took the jersey. I was still sort of pinching myself how quickly it happened. But yeah, then there I was playing and yeah, it was an amazing experience.
I'm glad to say it never really diminished. I was lucky to play for over a decade, and it was always special putting on the jersey. The team does a great job, I think, of respecting the jersey, acknowledging how important it is to their country, what we mean to everyone, and staying grounded, and all that good stuff about acknowledging the connection that you have with the young men and women who are dreaming to being All Black, wishing they were there, would give anything to be in your place. So you're always aware of that, and so it never loses its glow. Then I put my jersey on.
Brian Hoyer who was a big part of the team when I joined the team, he said ‘When you put the jersey on, you shouldn't be able to fit outside the doorway.’ You grow that big. I'm not using the words and I always... For me, I was normally marking someone bigger than me or normally not the biggest in the room but I always felt that. That I have to turn sideways to get out the door but that was the sort of feeling and you hear that even today: The way you sort of, you grow in the jersey.
Lisa: You're carrying the manner and the tradition of that, and the reputation of that, and the hopes of a nation, basically, on your shoulders, which can be either a load or it can be like, 'Wow, how lucky am I that I get to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before?' Basically and like you said, 'Yeah, I can't fit through the door because I'm just filled with all that.'
Okay, just a very quick anecdote. I was running through in the Gobi Desert at one point and we were running through these slot canyons. These really crazy. It was hot. One guy died out there that day which was really terrible. I was running through there and I was chasing down this American woman who was in front of me and I was second. I'm like, 'I've got to plan something here if I want to beat this person in front of me that I was chasing down through these canyons.'
So I started singing the Maori Battalion song to myself and I started to... like my ancestors, and my tradition there, my heritage like, 'I'm going to bloody beat you, American. Yeah. I'm gonna chase you down, and I'm singing away to myself running along through this canyon.' I beat her, right. It was awesome. I just went dashing past her, and I beat her. But it was just like, 'Wow.' It's just like you're pulling out stuff that you... It's not just you. You're like your ancestors and your heritage, and they're powering you. So I imagine it's a bit the same with the All Blacks jersey.
Conrad: Yeah. It's powerful stuff. Like, and it's all about creating something bigger than you. There's no doubt the history of things or like you say, in individual sports. As soon as you can create that connection to a greater cause. Actually, in the All Blacks, it's actually easy. I say this when I talk to other sports teams around how they create the identity. But the All Blacks had it handed to them because they have 130 years of whatever it is of this amazing performance, of this history, this black jersey that this country that's mad obsessed with them, great air of success and also, this idea that we do unite. We're the flagship of New Zealand. Rightly or wrongly, that's the way we're saying and you got to embrace that.
The fact that every time an All Black teams practice, it's a culture we have in New Zealand. This great collection of men who are representing the country. You capture that in the right way, and it counts as something. The field is 00 but I always felt... Yeah, when we got it right, we're straight away. That's worth some points at least on the board. It's something special that the All Blacks do have, and to the credit of the team, the whole time, I was involved. I know that it's carrying on that the way they connect and acknowledge that, it's really well done. It's the reason that the team continues to perform well.
Lisa: And it does it empower whole generations. Like I said to my brother Dawson, my dad wanted him to be an All Black, and he wanted him to meet all those milestones along the way. I remember like... We lost my dad last year, as people know, if they listened to my podcast. I said to my brother the other day, 'Dawson,' because he went to the game up at the park, at Pukekura Park and they had the 25-year anniversary for the Ranfurly Shield because he was on the Ranfurly Shield team. He was excited to go to the Ranfurly Shield thing, and I remember that being the proudest moment of my dad's life. Of all the things that my dad got to do and see, all of their kids, I said to Dawson, 'You gave him the highest point in his life was when you came home with that Ranfurly Shield, and you're a part of that Taranaki Team. That was, for him, the pinnacle.'
That's beautiful because that is just like... Especially when you've lost somebody... And Dawson’s like, to be able to go and celebrate that Ranfurly Shield with his old mates and reminisce on those times. That stays with you to the end: those special moments that you get, and that camaraderie that comes with it, and all of that sort of stuff. He gave my dad a precious gift really by being a part of that team. Dad was just so proud.
Dawson said to me once, 'Lisa, you could run across every fricking desert in the world and it would still not mean as much as that Ranfurly Shield.' And I said, 'You're damn right, and that's okay.' Because he was right in that. It's okay because he loved rugby, and he loved rugby teams, and the rugby world. My dad played, what do you call that? Fifth-grade rugby until he was 45 and he only quit because people were telling him he was too old, and then he played touch for another 10 years. He was a legend. A legend.
You're carrying all that on your shoulders. There are five and six-year-old kids looking at you on screen like you did with Daws back then. Like, 'Oh, these big Taranaki players and stuff.' That’s just beautiful. I had that just wanting to represent New Zealand in something because I couldn't be in All Blacks because back then, we didn't have women playing rugby, much to my dad's disappointment. Actually watching the girls at the sevens in the Olympics, oh, I just fell in love with that team. They were just epic. Ruby Tui is my new bloody hero. She's just amazing. I think she's just epic. But just to watch the camaraderie of those girls and the performance that they put on, I'm glad that women now have the chance to do that tough stuff too. Because that's pretty special as well: seeing girls going there and giving it everything, just going hard.
Conrad: You speak to the Black Ferns, the women's rugby, it's growing so much not just in New Zealand, but around the world and that's pretty exciting, especially for Fifteens and the opportunity it's giving so many young women. Yeah and so for myself, that's really refreshing now with international rugby and the Player Association and we deal with both men and women's. The joy I hear working in women's rugby, seriously, compared to men's, especially men's Fifteens, it's a lot of established... Careful with my words, but it's just so hard. To put it simply, it's so hard to get things done even if you agree there's so much.
Whereas in the women's game, it's so refreshing. There's just an openness and the enthusiasm. They just, 'Yep. Let's get that done and this.' You will see, women’s rugby going to go great in the next few years, and it's because of... In the men's game, I don't like to say it, but it might not have anywhere near the same growth or evolution just because it's...
Lisa: Stayed in the old ways. It obviously breaks everything, isn't it?
Conrad: The money, the money at that level is so big that there's so much at stake. That's just what grinds along, whereas the women's game, they're not... Obviously, they’re trying to commercialise on the game, but it's crumbs compared to the men's for things at the moment. But they'll catch up at a huge rate because they're just open about... Like at the moment, they're motivated by having fun, being patient, at getting the product out, getting more and more women and girls playing the game.
Lisa: That's amazing and isn't that though that's a really good analogy for everything in the world? Like that the big old institutions or big bureaucracies are going to be struggling in the future, I think. Completely off-topic but from the governments, to the big corporations, to the big institutions are going to be struggling against these young, nimble, small, exponentially powered technology-based companies and the rate of change that's coming that these big state, old bureaucratic, not just talking about rugby here, but governments and things are actually going to be on the backfoot shortly.
I always think of that Kodak, the company Kodak that used to be the biggest player in the world and photography, right? They didn't go with digital evolution, then they went under. Because they were too busy trying to protect what they already had, they actually discovered digital photography. They started it, but they didn't pursue it because they thought, 'Oh, that's going to be a threat to our current existing business.' That mindset is when you get overtaken by the young upstarts that come along with enthusiasm and they can, on a company-wide level, they're smaller. They're nimble. They can make decisions quicker. They can move faster. I see this in all areas happening. Hopefully, in the right way it'll brush off as well, but the girls certainly are next level.
Conrad: They're great. And I’ve got to know a few of them, a few of the Black Ferns.
Lisa: Can you help me out with Ruby? I want to get in with Ruby.
Conrad: That is such great Kiwi so yeah, more than happy. She'd love to chat.
Lisa: Woohoo. Okay. I know she's pretty busy right now. Everybody in the world wants to see her right now. And the other girls, they're just amazing. Conrad, as we wrap it up now in a minute because I know you got to go, but what is it that you want to get across? So if we highlighted a couple of points now, if you were talking to your children, you've got two kids, what do you want them to do in the future? Or what would you, if you were talking to some young kids out there that want to have a life in the sporting world? What’s some last parting wisdom or for the parents of those kids?
Conrad: Yeah, I think if you're speaking to parents, the first thing is the value of sport, I think. I just worry a little bit. I know I'm working in rugby, and there's some crazy things being said about the potential harms of playing a contact sport. But honestly, I've had the benefit of seeing, digging a lot deeper into that and that is not at all as clear as it's conveyed because of the sensationalism of journalism. Kids are kids. They love playing. If I leave my boy and his next-door neighbour, they're gonna wrestle; they're gonna fight. There's no harm in playing.
But on the flip side, the harm of not playing sport, of sheltering them, of thinking, of sitting in a lounge with a Coke and a bag of lolly is better for a kid than going and playing rugby because he might knock his head. That's so far from the truth. That would be my wish for parents' young kids. Just play sport but... And then, I suppose, if it's to reflect on what we've talked about, when the kid means getting serious about a sport, it would be to keep you balanced, to not lose sight. If you’re put in a bubble because it's a performance bubble, then that's all well and good but now, it's a bubble and you need to step out of that every chance you get and connect with the real world as much as you can.
Unfortunately, there are dangers and there are risks when you are totally invested into a sport. The crazy thing is sport is a great thing. It should be enjoyed and if you're even not enjoying it, it's not hard just to talk to someone and step outside your sport to reconnect with the people in the real world. Then, that should give you back your love of the game, and then you'll go well and be like Lisa and I and have a life where you've had a sport that you've loved, and it's given you amazing opportunities, and literally meet great people, and you still come out of it, and you're still happy, and still meet people but doing different things.
Lisa: This is gold. Conrad, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I'm looking forward to doing our speaking gig together shortly and that's going to be exciting. I'm just really glad to have made your acquaintance and I think that you have such a level approach, level-headed approach to this whole thing and gave us some great insights today on what it is to be an All Black, but also what it is to come out the other side and gave us some really good perspective. So thanks for your time today, Conrad.
Conrad: Pleasure, Lisa.
That's it this week for Pushing the Limits. Be sure to rate, review, and share with your friends, and head over and visit Lisa and her team at lisatamati.com.