16 April 2015

The Big Cat Whisperer: What Elite Sport Can Learn from the Wild

Daniel Gallan

As apex predators, Africa’s three big cats have to draw on resources and skills honed over millennia. The leopard’s cunning and resilience, the cheetah’s grace and speed, the lion’s strength and power; the African plains marvel at nature’s glory. Like claws and teeth, sports stars need to keep their minds sharp and ready for any obstacle that comes their way. It’s eat or be eaten, and only the very best can stay at the top of the food chain.

A leopard stalks its prey.  Image supplied by  Lorne Sulcas. 

A leopard stalks its prey. Image supplied by Lorne Sulcas. 

It is the arrogance of man that views Homo sapiens as separate from the animal kingdom. With our developed brains and self-awareness, we strut around on two legs acting above nature. As American writer and talk show host Phil Donahue said: “Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that humans belong to the same class of animals as cats and cows and racoons. They’re like the people who became successful and then don’t want to be reminded of the old neighbourhood.”

The sports world however, celebrates our animalistic heritage with many teams affiliating themselves to a particular animal. The Chicago Bears, The British and Irish Lions, The Ivorian Elephants; countless franchises, clubs, and national teams draw inspiration from the animal kingdom.

Individual sports stars also seek to embody their spirit animal’s attributes. American gymnast and the first black women’s all-around Olympic gold medallist in history, Gabby Douglas, is affectionately known as the “Flying Squirrel” while Australian rugby player Nick Cummins coined his own nickname the "honey badger" after watching a wildlife documentary. In a hilarious interview, Cummins stated that he was inspired by the creature's tenacity and courage when fighting a lion and wanted to bring that fighting spirit out on the rugby field.

In the The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993),  from the chapter The Sacred Bee, the Filthy Pig, and the Bat Out of Hell: Animal Symbolism as Cognitive Biophilia, Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence states that: “the human need for metaphorical expression finds its greatest fulfilment through reference to the animal kingdom. No other realm affords such vivid expression of symbolic concepts. The more vehement their feeling, the more surely do people articulate them in animal terms.”

It is with this in mind that Lorne Sulcas has created an original keynote presentation that uses metaphors and real examples from the wild to encourage and motivate businesses and athletes. “Thriving in a Wild World: Success Lessons from Africa’s Big Cats” is a collection of stories and analogies that Sulcas has accumulated from over 20 years’ experience as a game ranger and wildlife photographer in game parks and reserves in Southern Africa.

“I was always fascinated with natural animal behaviour and started a research project focusing on lions, leopards and cheetahs,” says Sulcas who has a post graduate degree in behavioural sciences. “I was very interested in how animals respond to change and competition and how they consistently manage to adapt and survive. The three big cats are supreme hunters that have to actively seek out their targets. Focusing on their goals and achieving those goals is a matter of life or death in the wild.”

The same way Greek or Norse mythology uses chimeras, hydras, and sea serpents to represent ideologies, Sulcas uses the animals that he has observed and studied as a way of relating to a broad audience. He stresses that he does not want to anthropomorphise these animals but instead uses these easy-to-relate-to, yet potent stories as metaphors to illustrate principles that are translatable to the sports and business world.

Cheetahs line up for the kill.  Image supplied by  Loren Sulcas .

Cheetahs line up for the kill. Image supplied by Loren Sulcas.

“The metaphor is a vehicle that the listener can use to easily get to the crux of what we are talking about,” explains Sulcas. “Concepts like courage, leadership, skill, determination, focus; these are not new ideologies that I have discovered. All I am doing is giving someone a powerful way of looking at these concepts.” As discussed previously, sport is a mental battle. For an athlete, coach, or team to get in the zone, various cues are vital. Metaphors, particularly ones that carry romantic and idealistic notions, are easy to tap into when faced with a difficult situation such as pressure on a sports field.

In Critical Inquiry (1978), under the chapter What Metaphors Mean, Donald Davidson said: “Metaphor goes beyond the surface appearance of objects and beings to their emotional and mythic origins. It makes the listener attend to some likeness, often novel or surprising, between two or more objects.”

In a study conducted by Robert and Barbara Sommer from the University of California titled Zoomorphy: Animal Metaphors for Human Personality (2011), students in an undergraduate psychology class were asked to say if being compared to a particular mammal was considered complimentary or uncomplimentary. The results showed that the animals with the highest complimentary percentages were lion (90%), tiger (88%), fox (82%), jaguar (78%) and leopard (70%). Clearly metaphors and similes associated with big, predatory cats is something the human mind cannot only relate to, but find enjoyable as well.

Like the sports world, competition is the driving force in the wild. Competition for food, for space, for a mate; nature can be cruel and heartless to those who are not up for the challenge. In sport, there are no prizes for failure. History never remembers those who came up short. Like the big cats of Africa, success in the sports world comes down to the finest margins. Only those at the top of the food chain can hope to survive.

So which big cat do you relate to?

Leopard: Maintaining Focus in the Face of Change

“Stickenyawo was a female leopard that I had observed for a while. We could tell she was hungry but there were no impala around. She wasn’t paralysed by this. She spotted a warthog who had taken up residence in a disused termite mound. She waited for over an hour in pouring rain and changing winds, ignoring distractions such as a large male kudu who had wondered nearby. Her focus was unbreakable and finally, when the warthog came out of hiding, she pounced. Hunger is the most powerful motivator for animals and it’s the same in business or elite sport. Having the hunger to get results and remaining focussed on what you can control, regardless of ever changing variables, is what separates those at the top from the rest.”

Lionesses rest before the night's hunt.  Image supplied by  Lorne Sulcas . 

Lionesses rest before the night's hunt. Image supplied by Lorne Sulcas

Cheetah: Vision and Leadership

“I was guiding a group in Tanzania during the great wildebeest migration when we noticed a female cheetah and her cubs on the periphery of the herd. She spotted a wildebeest calf that was invisible to us and managed to separate it from the herd. She didn’t kill it. She kept it alive to teach her cubs how to hunt. She created an opportunity that wasn’t obvious and that wasn’t presented to her. I call it the concept of extraordinary vision which is what all great athletes and leaders need. She empowered her cubs by giving them the opportunity to fail and that is what leadership is about. It is not about handing out success, it’s about giving an individual the space to succeed or fail on their own terms.”

Lion: Rising to the Challenge as a Unit

“There are obvious lessons around leadership and unity that we can learn from lions. I talk about the various ways that lions work as a team and as a result are able to hunt prey that no other animal is able to. Their synergy allows them to work as a cohesive unit and rule as the mightiest of all animals. Lions preferred prey is buffalo because of the amount of meat on them but buffalos are not easily taken down. I have seen lions killed in a buffalo engagement but they faced the challenge head on. Despite the risks, focus on the goal remains a priority for lions but that goal can never be achieved in isolation.”

Lorne Sulcas has been photographing, observing, and studying Africa’s big three cats for over 20 years now. His background in behavioural sciences and training teams and organisations, coupled with his experience in and passion for the wild have culminated in his unique and insightful approach to keynote speaking. Visit his website here.