25 June 2015
EATING THE ELEPHANT: ELITE ATHLETES MANAGING TARGETS
For athletes that need to chase down massive targets, such as scoring over 100 runs in a Test cricket match, or completing an ultramarathon, knowing how to manage the process is vital for success. When an athlete breaks the target into smaller goals, and treats those smaller goals as primary objectives, the overall target seems less daunting. Hashim Amla, South African's Test cricket captain, and Caroline Wöstmann, winner of the 2015 Comrades Marathon as well as the 2015 Two Oceans Marathon, spoke to CONQA Sport about how they, in their own unique way, manage targets.
There is something that endears us to endurance and longevity in sport that makes even the most cynical and pessimistic among us stand up in adulation and applause. When a player reaches 100 caps, or a manager a decade at the helm, bitter rivals and devoted fans rise as one and celebrate an achievement that was years in the making. But, as the old adage says, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and those milestones were paved along the way with minor achievements and glories. That debut match and season had to be navigated successfully. Then another. After that, one more, and on and on those small successes and bites add up until the gigantic elephant has been devoured.
If one were to look at the carcass of the great beast, the complete achievement would appear monumental. That may be true, but what one needs to keep in mind is that the last bite was preceded by countless others.
When managing a massive target in sport, such as scoring over 300 runs in a cricket Test innings, or completing over 90km (56.1 miles) at the Comrades Marathon, it is vital to manage the overall target by organising it into achievable micro goals.
Hashim Amla, one of the greatest batsman of all time, South Africa’s Test cricket captain, and the first South African to score over 300 runs in a single Test innings, divides his targets based on matches, innings, sessions, bowler’s spells, and overs. “It’s a combination of these things at various parts of the game,” he says. “But I don’t have any set numbers in my mind before batting. It really is a matter of applying yourself as best as possible to score runs in every innings. There are times when the game will dictate the way I approach an innings.”
When planning to manage a target, the first point to bear in mind is that a plan, particularly in sport, can never be set in stone. Amla, like any batsman, would love to walk out in the middle with complete freedom and throw his bat around while scoring big. However, early wickets, tight bowling, tricky conditions, and a host of other variables will often mean that whatever plan an individual or team had before, might need to be altered or scrapped altogether.
“You have to be very careful,” says Caroline Wöstmann, winner of the 2015 Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon that sees runners race between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. “While putting in all the planning, you can’t go into too much detail. If you do, even the slightest thing that doesn’t go according to plan can throw you off completely.”
Wöstmann had planned to divide the race up according to the five big named hills: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Bothas Hill, Inchanga Hill and Polly Shortts. After she scaled each hill, the plan was to take a walking break to recharge her mind and give her legs a much needed break. However, at the start of the final and most daunting hill, Polly Shortts, Wöstmann realised that she would be unable to run the hill in its entirety.
“They had flags going up the hills and Polly bends quite a lot, so I broke the hill up into flags and bends,” says the accounts lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, who also won the Two Ocean’s Marathon in Cape Town this year. “It doesn’t matter how small you break up the main task. You can break up a marathon into steps; 100 steps, 50 steps, even 10 steps. As long as you are working towards the main target and you can manage the small mini goals you have set, then you will be able to manage the overall objective.”
Michael Bevan, arguably the best run chaser in One Day International (ODI) cricket history, in an article for ESPN’s Cricinfo, says that creating “small, achievable goals” is how you chase down a target. He says that setting targets per over is advisable and he never focussed on winning the match (his overall target), but rather focussed on what were smaller parts of the grand sum.
When an athlete tires, the prospect of the smaller tasks can start to seem daunting, let alone the broader objective. When this happens, it’s important to take stock and reset the process. When Australian Test captain, Michael Clarke, scored 161 not out in the third Test against South Africa last year, he found himself in a tricky situation early in his innings. After constantly being hit on the body and bounced relentlessly by paceman Morne Morkel (all while playing with a fractured shoulder), the Aussie skipper reduced his targets to individual deliveries. The psychological success of navigating small targets added up until a positive mind-set was achieved. He went on to complete one the finest innings Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium has ever seen, setting up an Australian series victory.
When it comes to managing massive targets, there is no such thing as a micro target that is too small. Amla says that when chasing a score, he focusses on the next 20 runs and simply aims to achieve that milestone. Former England coach, Peter Moores, used to line up plastic cups on a table or window sill in the dressing room visible from the middle. He would then knock one over for every ten runs scored in a run chase.
“I think any big task needs to be broken up into segments,” says Wöstmann. “I make to-do lists in my everyday life and when confronting a marathon I use the same process of ticking off accomplishments in a chronological order. I broke up the Comrades into days of the week. On Monday mornings I usually run for an hour and twenty minutes, so when I had run for that amount of time I said, “OK, Monday is finished.” On Tuesdays I do two sessions, so when the appropriate amount of time had passed, I knew Tuesday was done. By the time Thursday came along, I knew I would be finished with the race. It’s important to divide your goal into objectives that you know you have completed before. That way, when you add them all together, the main task isn’t so big.”
Amla and Wöstmann might not have much in common at face value, but their ability to manage enormous targets has established them both as giants in their respective sports. By breaking up massive targets into smaller chunks, elite athletes are able to achieve feats, that when viewed in their entirety, are as marvellous as they are massive.