When John Kirwan was a small boy, he’d think about rugby all the time. And when he wasn’t thinking about it, he was playing it. It’s hardly surprising: The sport is in his blood. His father and grandfather were top players, and his uncle Teddy was an All Black trialist. “I probably learned to say the words ‘All Blacks’ before I learnt to say ‘mum and dad’,” laughs Kirwan (now Sir John Kirwan). “As a kid, I slept every night clutching a rugby ball.”

But he wasn’t just an obsessive fan of rugby, he was also incredibly good at it, blessed with the skill that would ultimately propel him into the professional game’s upper echelons. After making a name for himself as a winger at club level, he made his international debut at the age of 19. His agility and finishing ability were immediately apparent. “I had size and speed,” he admits, “although I was never out and out fast. What I worked on was getting close enough to my opposition to leave them on the ground.”

It was a strategy that worked wonders, allowing him to score 35 tries in 63 internationals, the New Zealand record at the time. He was top scorer at the inaugural Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987, helping the All Blacks lift the famous Webb Ellis Cup trophy for the first time. He would later play for Italian team Benetton Rugby Treviso and Japanese Top League team NEC Green Rockets before turning to coaching, first for the Italian national side and then the Japanese team.

From the stands his life looked glorious, but Kirwan has since written two books about his battles with depression, “All Blacks Don’t Cry” and “Stand By Me.” After doing so much to raise awareness, he was knighted for his services to mental health and rugby in 2012. “We need to talk about depression much more and get rid of the stigma surrounding it,” he says.

This year he’s looking forward to returning to Japan as DHL ambassador for Rugby World Cup 2019, which starts in September. “I’m really excited about that,” he says. “It came about because of my playing and coaching relationship with Japan, and the connections I have in the country. Being ambassador is about helping guests and our Japanese hosts have a really good World Cup experience.”

Now retired from coaching, Sir John enjoys family life (his three children are all successful athletes), lives for some of the year in Italy, and keeps involved in the game by appearing as a TV rugby pundit. He also practices a mindfulness regime every day. “For example, I love cooking,” he says. “I read, too, and I enjoy surfing and working out. Part of improving my mental health was finding five or six things that I can do on a daily basis.”

As a team coach, how do you promote positive energy in negative situations?
A rugby team is judged every Saturday. Then on Monday, the players have to get up and start all over again. You have to avoid negative thinking – or “mind traps” – by coming to terms with the fact that you can’t change the past. Also, when you lose, it’s easy to focus on the negativity; but it’s important to realize what you’ve done well and what you can learn from the loss you’ve experienced. If you do that, you’ll be able to look back at the game and take a lot of good things from it. Once you address the issues holding you back, you can move forward.

You’ve been very open about your struggles with depression. Is it an illness that people are still  reluctant to talk about?
Last year, 800,000 people committed suicide around the world because of depression, so it’s a pandemic. There’s a lot more awareness around it now and I’m really proud of all the people who come out and talk about it. The trouble is, when it’s in your mind, you don’t think of depression as an illness. You think of it as a weakness. I certainly did for five years and it really affected my confidence as a player.

What was the turning point for you?
Recognizing my depression as an illness was a big part of it. When I eventually went to see a psychiatrist she said: “Rugby player, eh? So what would you do if you had a tight hamstring?” I said: “I’d stop and stretch it.” She said: “And if that didn’t work?” I said: “I’d ice it and go and see the physio.” She told me: “Well, your brain is no different.” And that really hit home. Sometimes we try to “ice” depression with the wrong thing – alcohol or self-medication – or we might try to hide it. But what we really need to do is seek out a specialist who can help us deal with it. Some of the greatest things I’ve learned in life I’ve learned from a psychiatrist.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned from sport that might be applied to business?
Be able to “agree to disagree.” As rugby players we’ll often have disagreements; but if the majority of the team want to play in a certain way, then the minority who disagree have to commit to the strategy as well. That’s important in business too. You must say what you think and make sure that people understand your opinion is not personal. But if you’re defeated, you have to get behind the majority – rather than remaining silent and then badmouthing them around the water cooler later. —  Tony Greenway 

Published: April 2019

Images: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images