What Makes Massey Tuhakaraina Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Massey Tuhakaraina was born and raised in Rotorua, a city located in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand’s North Island. Rugby is life in New Zealand, and growing up in Rotorua meant being immersed in the sport from an early age; he grew up supporting the Bay of Plenty province, and would go on to play at an elite level. 

“My earliest achievements were with New Zealand U-19’s and Schoolboys. I went to boarding school at 16, and finished my final years at Rotorua Secondary School. I went on to play provincial rugby with Bay of Plenty straight out of school, and New Zealand 7’s soon followed. I then moved to Aukland for a 4 year contract with Counties Manukau.”

“I returned to Bay of Plenty in 2006, before leaving for a stint in Hong Kong to play for a club there. Ever since then I got the travel bug and I was keen to venture off and try new things, which brought me to Europe.”

His exploits in Europe both on and off the pitch- in both a playing and coaching capacity- has brought success to virtually every club with whom he has been involved; he has established himself as one of the most innovative and exciting young coaches on the continent. 

“Coaching was always a keen interest of mine especially with my dad being a coach. He mentored me throughout my childhood and my playing career, and we would have always had those sorts of player/coach conversations. I remember he was doing his certificates at the time, and it very much rubbed off on me in terms of not only my passion for the game, but also my thirst for knowledge for the game, and the desire to have that knowledge passed on to me from my dad.”

Massey is currently based in Dublin, Ireland, and he is the current head coach of DLSP U-20’s, Belvedere College SCT, and Sweden 7’s. He was kind enough to take the time to share his insights and experiences. 

How has the sport contributed to the person that you are today? 

I think just in terms of the values of the game. In any team sport you have to be selfless, you have to be a good communicator; it teaches you about leadership, and how to motivate people. I think those traits are sort of what moulded me into the person I am today.

In life it’s no different; you carry values into sport, and your career, and your everyday life, and they pretty much become a part of who you are. Whether you succeed or not comes down to having the self-awareness to realise when things are not working, knowing how to persevere, how to be adaptable, and I think with the challenges and lessons that rugby has afforded me, I’m able to do that if that makes sense.

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

I would have been quite shy and stand-offish if I was to be honest; I would probably say that a lot of Kiwi’s come off like that. The transition of coming over to Europe to live and work, and through meeting people from different cultures sort of opened me up a bit more, and seemed to give me more confidence in terms of being able to communicate with people. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.

Just in terms of personality, I’m fairly optimistic. I always see things in quite simple terms. I’m never one to overreact in situations; I’m pretty calm really.

What’s your passion? 

At the moment, I would say my daughter. It’s always been family, family has always been first. Outside of that in terms of career, I would say rugby.

What’s your approach to the day? 

Structure is a big thing, and being efficient in what you do. I wouldn’t call it a routine, but you have to have a structure. You have your list of things to do, and you tick them off throughout the day to the best of your ability, it’s as simple as that. Efficiency is key.

My parents have passed on a really positive outlook on life, a sort of no limits attitude to just go out and be yourself, and do what makes you happy. They would say things like, “There’s no point working a 9-5 if you’re not happy”. Things like that really stuck, and my parents struggled a bit for sure, but they would have always encouraged us to go out and do great things.

In terms of rugby, what’s your approach to the game now as a coach?

I think my approach is very similar to how I play and look at the game. I’m very open-minded. I believe in playing an attractive brand of rugby; it’s important to empower your players to make the right decisions- good decisions- and that comes with developing their skill-set, physically and mentally. The psychology side of the game is incredibly important. I’m very determined, I don’t like to lose, and I’m pretty competitive.

When you take over a new team, what are some things you do to get the group to buy into what you’re doing.  

Knowing their backgrounds in terms of who they are and where they come from is something that I’ve realised over time as being very important; finding out what makes them tick as individuals and as a collective. But it’s really about establishing your values early, not only my own values but the values of the team; bringing minds together to format a game plan, a philosophy. The philosophy can begin with the core values, individually and collectively, and then we would use those values to put in place the pillars of our foundation. After the foundation is set, we would look to set some goals.

But yeah bro, I really like coming into a new team. It’s a challenge, you’re given a blank canvas. And like an artist, you get to paint your own picture with that team, paint their direction, the desired destination; it’s a visualisation process. That’s what I enjoy the most, it’s the challenge that you’re faced with when you take over a new team.

Do you see yourself as an artist? 

That’s one way of looking at it, but just metaphorically speaking, you know? But I guess I am quite creative, you have to be. I think in terms of managing people and getting the best out of them in a team environment, it is a bit like art; when it comes to delivering your message, delivering a new skill to a group, or a detail you want to communicate to a player, and not only verbally but also visually, you have to be creative. I suppose there is some art to it.

What are some standards that you set for yourself as a coach, and what standards do you expect from your players. 

I’ve got to set standards for myself in terms of leading by example, and being a role model, but the standards I set for the team would be at the level of creating a team philosophy which everyone can buy into, and establishing those core values we talked about, our goals. The standards would be monitored, and each player would have that responsibility to ensure the values of the team are upheld; the standards collectively would be fronting up and performing, and then players would have their individual checklists.

My standards are very high, but it does depend on the level that you’re coaching. If for example I am coaching an elite group of athletes, my standards would be a lot higher in terms of expectations. When you’re at an elite level, you play to win. If I’m coaching U-20 or Junior, the values of the group would always be set high, but my standards in terms of performance would be relative to things like ability within the group.

If you set high standards for the team and yourself, and the values are in place, the mental side of the game can be developed and improved upon; without having high standards on that side in terms of the individual, it’s not enough to just develop physically. You know, if you have all the physical attributes, and your mental side of the game in terms of standards and characteristics are lacking, you won’t last too long.

Attitude is incredibly important, the mental side of the game is a massive part bro. It’s something that has been a huge part of my development as a coach, looking at the player development and personal development side of things.

What gives you the most satisfaction as a coach? 

Relaying information, passing on my knowledge and experience and seeing people benefit from it. The achievements are for the team, it’s never been for myself. As a player I’ve already achieved a lot so as a coach, the buzz comes from passing on the knowledge, that’s what I get a kick out of the most.

What does success mean to you?

I think it depends on how you look at it really. In terms of rugby and in life, it’s just the small things. I could give you loads of examples, but yeah just leaving it there and saying that it’s the simple things. Sometimes success is just getting up and going to work bro. Getting out the door, you know?

Random acts of kindness are a form of success for me, it’s something I really like to do; giving back is important.

From a player perspective, it starts from just turning up. Turning up is half the battle for me. That’s something I preach to my players, just turn up. I say that because, if they do that, they can leave the rest to me. It’s something I say to my 20’s all the time, and they’re not really grasping it. If I get them there together- if they turn up- they come to realise that this is something new, they enjoy it, it’s a challenging environment. Then it’s about passing on the skills and knowledge, and they learn and grow in confidence as we progress.

But yeah it’s a good question bro, it’s a big one. Turning up, it’s huge.

I’ve heard you refer yourself in the past as a rugby teacher, what do you mean by that? 

It’s something I learned when I was in college, and when I was in Counties, and it just made all the sense to me. I remember my lecturer told us that rugby is teaching, it’s about empowering your players; you question them with something and they go away and come up with an idea, and when it’s their idea you get buy-in, they’re motivated, they process the information, they learn and get the best out of themselves, as opposed to being told exactly what to do and when to do it.

It’s just like teaching, it’s all about the questions you ask. That’s been the secret behind New Zealand coaching in terms of the systems, and how we’ve been brought up to play and understand the game- we’ve been questioned effectively and empowered to make decisions of our own accord.

But I would say on the coaching side, it’s sort of in between, it’s a balancing act. There are different styles of coaches, some can take on the role of dictator and be quite militant in their approach, and don’t get me wrong some get results that way; some coaches bark and tell you what to do and it works, players and students respond differently I suppose. I still think that when you pose questions, and adopt a more subtle approach, you’re better able to make a connection with the player. But it’s certainly a balancing act.

In your opinion, why are New Zealand consistently the dominant force in the game? 

The game is religious in New Zealand. The principles of the game in terms of how it all started is different compared to other countries; when it started it was something that brought communities together, it was a game that I think suited us in that it was a contact sport, but also the values such as camaraderie, sportsmanship, and the foundations upon which the game was built back in the day, suited us.

It was farmers, guys working in the bush, it was working class people playing the game and that’s where the values and foundations were built. Today it’s just evolved, and year after year it has grown and developed, but the grassroots, and foundations upon which the game was built, are why New Zealand are so competitive consistently.

Humility is a huge part of it too. Kiwi’s come from humble beginnings, and rugby was something that really humbled us; I’ve seen it when I went abroad, I see how some clubs are run, and it’s just like a business. I remember someone telling me years ago that to play rugby in Ireland you had to be a lawyer or a doctor, and that sort of puts it in perspective in terms of the different culture.

The game itself is a culture, it’s much more than a sport. We identify how to produce better rugby players, and it’s not just about rugby, but it’s about developing better people off the pitch. It’s a great Graham Henry quote that I love, “Great people make great rugby players”. It was touched on in the book Legacy too in one of the chapters: No Dickheads. That direction and philosophy is taking New Zealand forward, it’s humility.

I can relate too bro, and I’m sure many could. I mean, how many lads did you know growing up who were just supremely talented; a player that you and all your friends would speak of and say “He’s going to make it”, only further down the track he loses his way- he goes off the rails. We’ve got tonnes of players back home that have done that, and even when I look at myself I question some of the decisions I’ve made off the pitch, and I would have questioned certain aspects of my character growing up. I sometimes question if I had been a bit more grounded, maybe I could have gone further, so I really buy into that message. I think it’s incredibly important.

It’s the values and the culture- the grassroots- that is why New Zealand are so far ahead. You can take sports science and resources and everything else out of the equation, I wouldn’t look at it any other way.

What would you say is one of the moments to remember when you look back? 

I think hearing my name called out for the first time when I made the New Zealand 7’s team. It was almost like a relief for all the hard work you put in, in having your family support you along the way and then making them proud; it was so surreal. It’s something that every kid dreams of growing up in New Zealand, to play for the All Blacks. It was almost like a burden growing up in terms of wanting it so badly.

I can still visualise it. If I reflect back now I can see it all so clearly, I can hear my name being called out, I can see all the detail in the room, the smells and the sounds, it had that much of an imprint. It’s something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

In terms of coaching there’ve been a few. Portarlington was the first head job I took on having been involved in assistant roles up to that, so gaining promotion with them in my first year was a big one. I created history with Sweden when they qualified for the Grand Prix, which is the premier 7’s competition in Europe. That was huge. Obviously winning the Leinster Schools Cup with Belvedere was awesome too. I don’t know, it’s hard to choose one.

When I look at the achievements in coaching, it’s hard to separate them and say one was the best, because they were all special; like I said earlier when it comes to coaching, for me it’s all about passing on the knowledge and experience.

You talked about feeling relieved, and that it was as if a burden was lifted when you reflected upon being selected for the New Zealand 7’s team. What are some of the challenges you faced growing up playing rugby in New Zealand. 

Obviously it’s so competitive, you have to be incredibly consistent in your performance, but also you should always be working on improving your game. The selection process is very stringent, I mean you could get overlooked in favour of someone who has equal attributes, it could just be some minor fitness detail, like maybe he’s half a second faster than you over the 40, and you miss out. It’s that detailed, and you have to always be on top of your game. You’ve got to be disciplined and willing to work hard. You can never take things for granted, or rest on past achievement. I suppose that goes back to the humility we talked about.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

I’m not much of a book reader bro, I hate reading if I’m honest. Legacy is an immense read and that’s one I like to dip back into a lot.

Another good book I read was Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. I thought it made a lot of sense. It put life in perspective in terms of how simple it is, taking the simple pleasures and not being over-awed or over-emotional when it comes to the small things in life.

It had a lot of good quotes and stuff that stuck with me in terms of how to be a better person, that sort of thing. That’s something I look at a lot with Phil Werahiko, he’s been a really good mentor when it comes to looking at how to make our players be better people, better leaders on the pitch. It’s something I’ve sort of worked on myself too, to be better as a person and as a coach.

Have mentors played a big part in your development?

For sure. I’ve mentioned my dad, and he was a huge mentor both in terms of coaching and also throughout my life. Phil’s been a mentor through rugby, and a lot of his mentorship is based around life skills, building character, and being a better person. He talks about how knowledge is unlimited, and how it’s important to never stop learning.

What makes a good mentor? 

Someone you look up to, who you can relate to on a deep level, someone you can share openly with. It’s a tough one, because I think anyone can be a good mentor. There has to be a connection, whether it be religion, family, culture, passion, or whatever. That connection has to be there.

You’ve mentioned your father quite a bit, what would you say was the most important lesson your dad has taught you. 

He always encouraged us to go with your gut. Most of the successful decisions I’ve made have come as a result of going with my gut instinct.

What advice would you give to those who may find themselves at a crossroads in life, unsure of what path to pursue?

I’ve just had a flashback as you asked that question. I’m picturing myself at a dinner with a company I worked with back home. The deal was you do a week long course, and at the end of it you go for a dinner with all the big executives, and you get on the drink.

It was before we got on the drink, and I’m sitting down having this conversation with one of the bosses; I was at a crossroads myself. I had an opportunity to go to Hong Kong, at the time I was around 25. He said to me that he had had opportunities to travel and didn’t take them, and it was one of his biggest regrets. He just told me to take the leap.

I reckon you’ve got to take risks in life. You’ve got to go with your gut feeling, but you’ve also got to have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into, and be ready and willing to persevere in the face of difficulty. You will come up against adversity, but your outlook in terms of the decision is important; if you’re satisfied that you’re going with what your gut is telling you, then take the leap and roll with the punches.

It has to make you happy, that’s the other thing. There’s no point doing something if you feel obligated or if you’re uncertain, or for any other reason. I think when you do something for you and when it makes you happy, everything else seems to fall into place. You give of yourself more effortlessly when you’re doing something because it makes you happy; when you’re doing something you’re passionate about.

Are you happy you took the leap, Mass? 

Oh yea bro I mean, that dinner was the turning point. I decided to go to Hong Kong and I never stopped travelling after that. Yea, no regrets. I never look back and think what if. I’ve got no regrets. It’s that old expression too, life is short. It’s so true man. And every stage is different, you know? What age are you now Pad?

30

Aw man, you’re just beginning; now you’re really gonna start living. That’s something I look back and think, Fuck me, my 30’s were way better than my 20’s. Now I’m looking at turning 40 in a couple of years, and just recently bro I was thinking, I’m gonna live it up ‘till my 40’s, and see what happens. You know, just enjoy it. You’ve got to enjoy every minute.

Powerful. If you could go back and have a word with 16-year-old Massey? 

Shit, that’s a good one. You know what I’d say bro, I’d say education. It’s not something I’d rule out in terms of going back to study in the future, but yeah my advice would be to get your degrees, finish school first. That would be my advice.