All Blacks – Learners

“great to great”

Mark Upton
Nov 1, 2015

The All Blacks victory in todays World Cup Final (over a gallant & respectful Wallabies team) sparked a perusing of my Evernote “dossier” on the Kiwis, compiled over the last few years. This contains a number of articles, snippets and notes from all manner of sources, including a couple of conversations I’ve been fortunate to have with AB staff.

So many gold nuggets and pearls of wisdom are immediately evident – where to start?! I want to provide a couple of examples that relate to learning and the concept of everyone in an organisation being a learner. This is a strong theme of ours and highly relevant given this weeks successful launching of #relearn.

Independent Learners

First up are these thoughts from Graham Henry on developing independent players…

“We’re trying to move players from being dependent to independent. On a 10 point scale, we’ve got quite a few independent players in that team. McCaw is a 15 out of 10. Carter, a 12 out of 10. Kieran Reid and a number of other high quality athletes and professional people are down that totally independent end of the scale. The youth that come in are down the dependent end of the scale, usually. And we’ve got to develop that independence so that they drive their own development, so we’re not continually nudging them to get there.”


My recent involvement in a study into some of the greatest modern sportspeople also supports the notion of “driving their own development”. So this is critical and yet not being fostered anywhere near enough in young peoples developmental experiences – in sport or education. A handful of stories and experiences were shared by those in attendance at #relearn that confirmed environments where the opposite is occuring – highly dependent young people being paralysed when the opportunity or requirement arises to act independently. These shared experiences add to our growing understanding of the dynamics preventing the emergence of independent people. These dynamics can be shifted and we will be doing our best to help those who are trying to achieve this shift in their environment.

Not Just Players as Learners

The 2nd example I would like to share comes from a day spent with Gilbert Enoka midway through 2012. We were fortunate to have Gilbert visit the professional Australian Rules Football Club I was working at during that time. I have a number of learnings from that encounter that I consistently refer to and apply.

One that really made me think “how fascinating!” was a question Gilbert posed to us regarding sustained success. Less than a year after their epic 2011 World Cup victory, they had clearly set themselves to repeat that achievement 4 years later (hence why todays victory sparked this reflection). The term Gilbert used was going from “great to great”. Steve Hansen has mentioned this during the 2015 campaign…

“One of the hardest things in sport I reckon is to go great to great because you expect things to be like they were.”


Gilbert was interested in our ideas and thoughts on how to achieve this and we engaged in a decent discussion, without being able to provide any definitive answers! This was so intriguing to me due to the circumstances. Here was a guy involved in a team that were recently crowned World Champions and arguably the most successful sports team in history. Our most recent success of any kind was finishing minor premier 7 years earlier. Yet Gilbert was curious, humble and genuinely keen to learn.

Gilbert demonstrated that it is not just players who need to be learners. In a complex and rapidly changing world, sustained success requires the whole club/organisation to be learners – to adapt. This type of learning demands greater substance than just cherry picking of ideas that align with existing beliefs or copying methods used by successful teams. It requires trust, critical thinking, an open mind, diversity of experiences and ideas, humility, courage, a willingness to let go of the past, and understanding that learning is a life-long journey with no pre-determined destination.

I’m not sure exactly what transpired in the last 3 years, but clearly the All Blacks have learnt how to go from “great to great”.

In summary, to quote from myfastestmile founder and co-creator Al Smith

“the more we talk about learning stuff, and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win”