Sport Rugby

Sunday 24 September 2017

'You feel so vulnerable, anger at your family, country, background' - Pat Lam opens up on bullying

Connacht head coach Pat Lam following a press conference. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Connacht head coach Pat Lam following a press conference. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Winter stalks the west coast as Connacht coach Pat Lam makes the half-hour journey to Kinvara.

He didn't know it yet but he would end up meeting a young Pat Lam there. Many of them, in fact, goggle-eyed faces staring back in a mixture of wonder and sometime worry.

Visiting schools like this one, Seamount College, has always been important for the rugby club; no more so now, as this sporting phoenix slowly announced their rehabilitation as champions, with Lam helming, so soon after near-extinction.

A recruitment job. Hand out a few bibs. Bring a few balls. Meet and greet the stars. Maybe snaffle a few of the 'gah' kids down the road.

Except Seamount, like Kinvara itself, are strangers to the sport. Like Connacht, the school nearly shut its doors over a decade ago but Iain O'Brien battled bravely, as befits folk from this often sadly sequestered province, to keep them open.

He won this battle but then lost the biggest of all; in 2012, he would submit to cancer; four years later, his son, Seán, would win a PRO12 title with Connacht.

Lam was a former teacher himself so the symbolism of the visit was obvious; and yet, it would mine even deeper than anyone may have imagined.

A week before Lam arrived in October of 2016, the father of one of the students had committed suicide; earlier in the year, the village lost another in the same way.

Lam had read a recent slew of figures relating to Ireland's suicide rates which had alarmed him. Unwittingly, his visit had become suddenly profound.

"I know it is a worldwide problem but the figures here have really shocked me," says Lam, unveiled this week as the latest inspiration for the 'Tackling Mental health' videos curated by Rugby Players Ireland.

A tearful Pat Lam breaking the news about his departure from Connacht last December. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
A tearful Pat Lam breaking the news about his departure from Connacht last December. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

"That's why I changed the focus to go into secondary schools and not just talk rugby but challenging the kids to look after each other. The difference they can make by caring and being a friend.

"Even making a difference to one person. Tell them, 'You're beautiful and you're cool.' And also let them know not to put up with things.

"If they see someone being bullied or not having a great day, just making a difference by saying, 'Hi, how are you.' Even a smile would do it."

And so that day, when he walked into the welcome hall, instead of talking about rugby, he spoke about life. It came easy for, in his eyes at least, they are one and the same. And in that audience, his eyes saw hundreds of students just like him.

Pat Lam never thought he felt different until some else did.

His family derived from Catholic stock; lots of it; his grandfather was one of 23 children. His parents were Samoan but began their family in Auckland, the epicentre of All Black rugby.

When Lam first picked up an oval ball as a five-year-old, he knew he was as good as the other boys; he was quick and big too! Rugby gave him a shared identity with others.

To others, he was still different.

"My lips were big and when I was growing up," the 48-year-old recalls. "Kids would joke. There weren't as many Polynesians then and I was in a minority.

Lam alongside his captain John Muldoon after bringing the PRO12 trophy back to Galway last May. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Lam alongside his captain John Muldoon after bringing the PRO12 trophy back to Galway last May. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"'Look at the size of his lips!' People think bullying are extreme cases, physical. But it can be people laughing at you. It happened and people deal with it differently. I was really embarrassed.

"If I got angry, I'd beat people up because I was big. But deep down it bothers you."

He was too mentally weak to change; in a way, so were the bullies.

"What made the difference, a couple of older girls passed one day and heard all this. One of them said, 'People would pay money for his lips, he has the best lips in the world.'

"I don't know if the bullies heard that but I did. After that, it didn't matter. Someone said something positive and my self-esteem changed completely.

"The other thing was that they saw what was going on and said something. They could have walked away."

Anyone can be bullied. Anyone can be a bully. Anyone can stop a bully. From that day on, Pat Lam may not yet have known what he was going to do with his life and where it might take him. But he knew now how to start. He was eight years of age.

"That was my whole world. Now you laugh at it. But you feel so vulnerable, anger at your family, country, background, you reject stuff because you are being rejected.

"Nobody is immune, that is how the world works. I knew it was okay not to be okay or for someone else to think you're not okay, preventing the harmful effects of it. Then it's about building relationships with friends, parents and teachers."

He sighs. "It's worse now," he says of the bullying epidemic. "At least then, you could hear it. Now you can open a phone in your bedroom, alone, and see it all. So that makes it more important to make connections."

His life has been about connections; they may not always last; life is like that. But when they happen, they must matter, must make a difference.

"I have an exercise with the players where I tell them that each one of them knows at least one person in the world that believes in them. And I ask them how it makes them feel? 'Confident.' 'Positive.' 'Amazing.'

"People won't start being nice to you so it's what and who you choose to focus on. So I focused on what the nice people said, not the bullies. Even when we won the league last year, people were negative.

"Usually it is about telling the individual, if you need help ask someone. But it is a two-way thing. Look after each other. That what I say to my team. That is why we have a handshake between every player every morning.

"I have seen guys lift because of the connection. I have seen it in a training session. And I have seen it in a game.

"It is all connected. It is all connection. Nobody has to feel alone when they're together."

Lam became a teacher and then a rugby coach, swapping one profession for the other. He was sacked from his local Auckland club and was a victim of racism; the lessons acquired by the eight-year-old boy allowed him to brush away the ignorance.

"I was emotional in Auckland because of my family. I told my dad stop listening to talkback radio. 'I'm flying, dad!'

It's like those personal reviews we do now in Connacht, eight per cent, or one or two people in a group of 40, have less than excellent comments and you're worried about the one or two. It's amusing."

He was an outsider when he finally left Auckland to come to Connacht too; a squad lacking belief were enabled to find it and then enrich it by playing the game with skill and a trust that it was okay to make mistakes.

When they won the PRO12 last May, they did so by making more mistakes than any other team.

As he prepares to leave, his biggest legacy is not the trophy but the changed mindset. 'An Béal Bocht'; dúnta anois. "We are good enough, we can beat anybody if we can do the work. It is not guaranteed but be not afraid, if it is on, go from it. It is okay to make mistakes.

"Fail better. As a young kid, it resonated, the worst thing you can do is being afraid to make mistakes. The biggest mistake is not trying anything. When we have a game, we give them skills and structures to go around, through and over. They still need to execute. But they do so without fear. I never tell them not to make any mistakes.

"The beauty of the average age of our team, they have gained so much experience of trying to win. The trophy was lovely but seeing these young Irish players change their mindset. There's no doubt players get influenced by negative stuff. Jack Carty had a bit of it, we put our arms around him, he is 23 and he has racked up 80 games. We had to mind him a bit.

"When you get into team sports, I've been fortunate to be in successful and terrible teams. What's the difference? The environment that fosters relationships and good friendships.

"Ask any rugby player of their memories. They will remember teams that won stuff but they will remember the friendships. Because when you are under pressure, it is the friendships that count."

He moves on now, with regret and realism tugging him; his local village will stage a family farewell; he and Stephanie are on their kids' school parents committee. Friendships will be parted but will be persistent.

There has been so much written and recorded about how Lam allowed Connacht to learn and grow and prosper; less so about how the effect was mutual.

"There is so much beauty here but the people! Samoa was similar but that is my home. This is like a home. My family have been emotionally blown away by it. I will always have Connacht with me.

"When I was a teacher, every year a new class comes in and I have to build a relationship with them, or a new principal or teachers. Every year is a different.

"My profession mirrors life, a journey from birth and death and trying to make as much a difference along the way.

"I will still support Connacht. I only knew Munster before I arrived but Connacht is more than a rugby team.

"It is the neighbours I have, all the people in the five counties. And that is why we have been able to have such a special time living in a place I had never been in before.

"If it's only about winning, what happens when you don't win? You get caught, getting your self-worth merely from a win and a loss. That's not self-awareness or looking after each other."

Which is where we came in. The Connacht community, to Lam, forms the bedrock of how mental health problems can be tackled, at the very least, as a start.

Sufferers can feel even more isolated when barracked by campaigns such as these and the associated buzzwords, often shared with sport.

Culture. Philosophy. Process. Learning. What does it mean though?

"It's hard," he admits. "Leadership can be an answer but it can also be a problem. People get annoyed about me taking about 'process' all the time but it is the same as living.

"We have wonderful professionals at the extreme end but my advice would be to come back to yourself, self-awareness, checking in.

I can tell every player all his faults in a game, I can tell an alcoholic he is an alcoholic but unless he tells himself, the message means nothing. That is why this is a great cause. And it mirrors my coaching philosophy.

"Human nature shows people will judge you so it's about being comfortable in your own skin. If you're up and down all the time, it's not healthy."

You can view his Rugby Players Ireland video at https://vimeo.com/214566988. Lam's message is simple.

"You can make a difference. The power that you have just by giving an encouraging word. A player will never be at his best if he truly belongs to a team.

"All those battle words - honesty, pride, commitment loyalty and respect only possible if player feels team is like family. You need to create a culture.

"Culture is love. Love is sacrificing oneself for the benefit of others. Building relationships. In a community, you get help, you feel valued and respected because people look after each other.

"And when you are under pressure, that's when these relationships count.

"The more time invested in these relationships, the stronger we become as people.

"Be conscious, be present and connect."

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