Richie McCaw "You've got to be able to go to your dark places"

Publish Date
Wednesday, 17 April 2019, 4:23PM

Ex-All Black captain Richie McCaw has opened up about challenging mental moments in his sporting life, the importance of finding good mates and being one, and seeking out new drivers in life after rugby.

Speaking with Movember's Robert Dunne, McCaw shares that since his departure from the All Blacks, he's gotten into multi-sport, taking part in gruelling week-long adventure races including Coast to Coast and GODZone.

"I guess when I finished [with rugby] I needed something to keep the rust off and not blow up."

Dunne, who was McCaw's flatmate when they were younger and remains a close mate, recalls McCaw saying, "you've got to be able to go to your dark places".

"Obviously there's been some tough games of rugby ... there's got to be times when you've had no sleep, you're a couple of days in, you sort of hope you're going in the right direction, it's hard yakka," says Dunne.

McCaw agrees, explaining: "They are actually the moments you do it for - if it was all straight forward and you didn't have those then it probably wouldn't be the same feeling of achievement at the end.

"The race I did 12-months ago, it took us seven days ... but there was a leg there that was 160kms long, pretty heavy packs, and my feet had some big blisters and I really had to talk to myself about one foot in front of the other, and I was asking myself, 'why am I doing it?' It was at night. It was cold and I was going 'what am I doing here?' and then I managed to sort of reframe and go 'actually this is why I am doing it'.

"Not that it made it any easier, but I was trying to make mental snapshots going 'I'm never, ever doing it again'. But then you get to the end and go, oh actually that wasn't that bad."

McCaw also credits the team atmosphere of his new sport, adventure racing, as filling the gap in his life once taken up by rugby and giving him something to get his "boots on the ground" for.

"When I finished playing I didn't want to just stop doing what I was doing," McCaw says, adding that a lot of people asked him why he kept training at all.

"I need something to train for, for the days that are a bit tough."

Even working, now full-time, McCaw still fits in an hour of training every morning to set his day up well, allowing him to go into work with "something in the bank":

"It makes me function a whole lot better and it becomes habit so I get a bit cranky if I don't do it."

Dunne refers to the vast body of evidence that shows what a positive impact physical activity can have on mental health: "Your physical health is just so closely linked to your mental health and if you get something in the bank early in the day or in the middle of the day, you're probably going to function a lot better and make some good decisions," he says.

McCaw adds that it makes it easier having his wife, Gemma, on board with a workout routine but notes, "it's a bit harder with a baby, I must say".

Early on in his career, in his 20s, McCaw sustained a head injury which left him unable to play rugby while he recovered. It set him on a tough path where he says he "got himself into a hole."

"I was thinking, I'm never going to be able to play rugby again. You get the old negative loop. A lot of people probably understand when you get into that mindset, it's hard to see a way - how you're going to get yourself back to where you were. I was probably like that for a little while. It took a while to get myself back and focusing on getting myself fit again ... and getting back to playing.

"I remember the cloud lifting when I got myself back on the field.

"For a couple of months there I didn't know where I was at. I didn't know whether it was the head knock, or if it was just that I was in a bad space. It sort of, taught me a few lessons."

Dunne highlights that it's times like that you need good friends, and people you can have honest conversations with.

McCaw agrees, adding, "you talk about playing golf. And you've just actually got to go and do something.

"There's all sorts of things you can do to become more resilient, lift your threshold of what you can handle."

Dunne takes McCaw back to his childhood, growing up in rural New Zealand and moving to live in the hostel at Otago Boys High School where, "it's a survival of the fittest a little bit in the hostel. You find out about things in life pretty bloody quick", says Dunne.

McCaw concurs: "I think back to the way, especially teenage kids, the way you treat each other is pretty ruthless at times.

"Leaving home for the first time ... there are things that are good, things that are a bit tough, but you get on with it.

"My parents said, 'we want to send you away to give you some opportunities, so just make the most of them'. And that's the way I tried to embrace it.

"I look back now and I love all the rugby you play as a professional for the All Blacks and the Crusaders but those are some pretty cool times when you get to play with your mates that you're with every day at school."

McCaw also credits his "good bunch of mates" for keeping him grounded over his years as an elite athlete on the world stage:

"It keeps a bit of reality around things. When people start getting a bit carried away with what you are doing on the rugby side of things, there's a good bunch of boys that are really good at making sure you don't get too carried away and that's what it's all about.

"That's what I've been hugely appreciative of over the years, is having a good bunch out there."

Dunne notes the effort was never one-sided with McCaw. While Dunne was living in London with other friends for his OE, McCaw was back in New Zealand playing rugby. But often on a Sunday he'd call his mates up in the UK for a chat: "You'd always make the effort to jump on the phone and give us a ring," says Dunne. "You just kept those relationships going, and it's important isn't it?"

McCaw agrees and says "just because you play footy on TV, doesn't mean you've changed."

By the time McCaw was in his mid 20s, he found himself captaining the All Blacks, leading one of the world's best rugby teams into battle at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. When they lost in the quarter finals, he encountered massive disappointment.

"When I look back now, I had no idea what I was doing. And I don't think anyone does who goes into a role like that. You've got to learn. Yup, you may have some leadership tendencies or traits but being put under pressure and in charge of something like that, might be in a job or whatever you're doing. The big thing it made me do was reflect ... as a team - and also personally - [we] put our hands up and said, we need some help here. And that was the best thing because all of a sudden you start to learn ... and how to deal with things."

And by the time the 2011 World Cup final came round, things were different. McCaw recalls the amount he built himself up mentally, and physically to get through it - and reveals how completely wrecked he was afterwards.

"I think it was physical - I was done. But just mentally I was like 'I'm meant to enjoy this now' but it probably wasn't until a day later at the parades and all that, that I actually started to appreciate what it was. It was just relief."

McCaw notes the sheer pressure on himself and the thoughts he had as he prepared for the biggest game of his life.

"It only went through my mind once, but the morning of the final I was lying on the bed and I was like 'the reality is if I don't win today, this will be my last game as captain.'

"Someone who's been a captain at two World Cups and not won it, they're not going to give you a third go ... that was reality."

This time, the All Blacks took home the trophy, and McCaw was solidified as one of the greatest rugby players in New Zealand rugby history. While you might assume McCaw would count this as one of his best moments, it's actually the 2007 loss that gave him more.

"A lot of people have said, 'what's the worst thing you've faced in rugby?' For a while I'd say it was the 2007 quarter final. But probably now I'd say it was one of the best things that happened to me. I wouldn't have put the time and effort and work into what's happened ... I don't think the All Blacks would've been as successful over eight years as they were ... It was tough at the time, but the learnings we got out of it and the path it took us wouldn't have happened had we not gone through that."

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission