How to get the best out of Ma'a Nonu?

If there’s been one All Black who has gotten a lot of both good and bad attention on the sports talk back radio shows over the last ten years it’s Ma’a Nonu. Having played over eighty tests for the All Blacks and being a pivotal player in many of the wins the All Blacks have experience in his time, it’s fair to say that he will go down as one of the best All Black centres of all time. Put that magical black jersey on Nonu and he seems to step up to the huge challenge in front of him. 

While Nonu has put his stamp on All Black rugby it’s been well documented that his Super Rugby career hasn't been smooth sailing. Throughout his career there have consistently been stories about the struggles he has had within the different New Zealand Super franchises and it’s been clear to see that he hasn't hit the same high standards that he has for the All Blacks. This has gotten to the point where this year this legendary All Black has struggled to be picked up by one of the super rugby teams. How can it be that such a highly skilled athlete can thrive in one environment and not gel in others?  

A while ago I was doing a talk at a conference where Sir Graham Henry was speaking. At the final dinner I was lucky enough to be sitting next to him. I was over the moon with this as I see him as one of the great sporting coaches of all time. Henry has averaged over 80% wins throughout his whole coaching career, right back to when he was coaching high school rugby. This man is impressive! I’m sure Sir Graham gets asked a million questions about rugby every day of his life but I wasn’t about to give up my opportunity to get inside his head. I’m always fascinated by what creates human excellence and I knew that this man would have some insight to share on this. 

Early on in our conversation Sir Graham started talking about understanding the needs of the different players and figuring out how to motivate them in individual ways that would get the best out of the different types of personalities in the team. He talked about how Richie McCaw is driven to be the best player he can be, that he would motivate him by challenging him to find his next level. After talking about McCaw he said ‘But you wouldn’t motivate Ma’a like that. It’s the worst thing you could do’. He then went on to describe how cultural and personality differences meant that Nonu needed a completely different style of motivation. Obviously Henry and his All Black coaching crew had figured this out as Nonu has responded amazingly in the All Black environment. 

This insight that Sir Graham shared with me reinforced an important lesson in my life. Do the people who are put in front of you to help you grow understand how you work and how to get the best out of you?  

When we think about our manages, coaches, mentors, people who are there to help us grow, we see that they have an important role in our lives. Ideally they are their to help us progress, to guide us with the insight that they have. If these people don’t understand the best way to motivate, educate, and inspire you there’s a high chance you won’t respond in a way that is good for you or them. We often see this with workplace managers, they have a one size fits all approach to management which some people respond to extremely well while others just get frustrated and lose interest. A great manager is worth their weight in gold because they can cater to the needs of the different people they have and help them all get to the next level. 

With this in mind it’s good to start to understand what is the best way for you to be managed? What is it that you know about yourself that makes you respond in the best way possible? If you can develop a strong understanding of how this works for you you can communicate this with those who are their to help you progress. You can also look for managers, coaches, and mentors who you know you will respond to. Imagine if you where surrounded by people who 100% understood what made you tick and how to get the best out of you? 

It’s hard for me to give any opinion on why Ma’a Noun has been so successful in one area of his career and struggled in another. From the outside it does seem that at times he has been surrounded by people who understand what makes him tick, people who understand his formula for success. Like Nonu, we all need people like this in our lives.


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Bevan Eyles