17 February 2017

Rebuilding Confidence: Climbing Back From Adversity

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

The true test for any elite athlete is bouncing back from adversity. For the Lions half back pair of Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk, the climb up from last season’s poor showing with the national side will be an arduous journey. With high performance coach, Tim Goodenough, CONQA explores the process of rebuilding confidence to return to the top.

Faf de Klerk chases a ball for the Lions. His struggles with the Springboks contrasted with his outstanding play with his franchise.

Faf de Klerk chases a ball for the Lions. His struggles with the Springboks contrasted with his outstanding play with his franchise.

When the Johannesburg based Super Rugby franchise, the Lions, rolled into Wellington on August 6th last year to take on the Hurricanes in the final, they did so as overwhelming underdogs. It was only three years ago that they took no part in the competition entirely after eleven consecutive seasons finishing in the bottom three.

Compounding their chances of an unlikely victory was the fact that they had to travel 11 751km away from home; almost always a sure sign of an impending defeat. They did however have an ace up their sleeve. Well, two actually.

Elton Jantjies at flyhalf and Faf de Klerk just inside him at scrumhalf had been sensational throughout the season. Their enterprising style of play at the heart of the Lions team had flown in the face of the perception that South African rugby was one dimensional.

With these two mavericks running the show, the Lions cemented themselves as the best side from the Republic and finished just a single point behind the Hurricanes after the regular season. If anyone could upset the bookies it was Jantjies and de Klerk and their fearless pride of Lions.

After 80 gruelling minutes in the wind and rain, reality struck like a storm. Beauden Barrett, the future World Rugby Player of the Year for 2016, put in a man of the match performance and forced the Lions to play a game that did not suit the mercurial half back pair. Their cause was further dampened by a forward pack that lost the arm wrestle in the mud.

Barrett’s control and composure contrasted with Jantjies’ poor decision making and tactical kicking which showed the young Lions 10 exactly what was missing from his own game. In the wet of Wellington, the home side ran out a comfortable 20-3 victory to secure their maiden title.

“One sparrow does not make a summer”, and all that, and fans of Jantjies and de Klerk brushed off the disappointing final and turned their gaze towards a bright horizon as the duo were selected to partner up in the green and gold of the Springboks. Fans licked their lips at the prospect of witnessing a brand of South African rugby never seen on the international stage.

Three months and seven defeats later, the Springboks were reduced to a quivering mess. Much of the blame lay at the feat of the Lions’ playmakers with critics (rightly or wrongly) stating that they were out of their depth at the elite level. The attributes that endeared them to fans around the world and that helped catapult the Lions to unprecedented heights were blamed for their seemingly inability to translate domestic confidence into anything remotely adequate for the Boks.

Now, back with the Lions and free from the crushing pressure that the green and gold jersey brings, Jantjies and de Klerk have an opportunity to rediscover their form and confidence. This may be easier said than done.

Tim Goodenough is a High Performance Coach and author of Game Changer Protocol: Free yourself from limiting beliefs and supercharge your life (2016). He has worked with a number of elite athletes looking to regain confidence after a challenging period. He says that the first step to regaining confidence lies in the definition of the word.

“We all speak about ‘confidence’ as if we have a shared meaning of the word, but we don’t,” Goodenough says. “We all have an automatic answer to the question, “How likely am I going to be successful in this situation?” The feeling we get as an answer is confidence. He need to discover, and possibly improve, for each athlete what they base their confidence on. Is it recent performance, work ethic, social media, the health of key relationships? The list is potentially endless.

“The problem comes in when we start mixing up our sense of self-worth with that answer. Elite athletes, and many other high achievers, associate their sense of self-worth with their performances. Bad results therefore negatively impact self-worth which in turn negatively impacts confidence. For athletes to reach their true potential they need to have a process to develop their self-esteem and another separate process to develop and refresh their self-confidence. Both are important and should remain separate, however, healthy self-esteem that is independent of performance or results is far more valuable.”

Elton Jantjies ran the show for the Lions but failed to translate that form into success with the Springboks.

Elton Jantjies ran the show for the Lions but failed to translate that form into success with the Springboks.

The mixing of esteem and confidence is fuelled by the nature of elite sport. Results are all that matter. A ruthless media spurs on an unforgiving public to create an environment where the worth of an athlete is solely determined by his or her ability to produce on the field.

As Goodenough says, “If the praise and accolades that help shape the individual’s sense of worth dry up, the vacancy created is often filled with doubt.” Struggling athletes appear to have less time on the ball and second guess their decisions on the field. We saw this with Jantjies and de Klerk who went further into their shell the more the Boks struggled throughout the campaign.

It is worth commenting on the two contrasting systems that both players found themselves in. Under Johan Ackermann, the Lions’ strategy encouraged a style of play that suited both players. Sure the final wasn’t successful, and perhaps conditions should have dictated a different approach, but we saw Jantjies and de Klerk at their fluent best as a result of the game plan.

At the Springboks under Allister Coetzee, a more conservative model was adopted. This became even less adventurous when results started going against the Boks. The side’s best performance of the season was a complete return to type as the conventional Morne Steyn replaced Jantjies to kick all the points in an 18-10 win over Australia in Pretoria.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge that Coetzee failed to get the best out of the Lions duo but there can be no doubting they didn’t step up when given the chance. So how can they find their groove again? Can they return to the Lions and produce the same breath-taking performances of last season? For Goodenough, leadership will play a telling role.

“The leaders at the Lions, and the likes of Jannie Putter [sports psychologist], are great guys and will know exactly what it will take for Elton and Faf to get back to where they need to be,” Goodenough says, singling out captain Warren Whitelely in particular. “I believe Warren will already be processing and thinking of ways to inculcate his two key players back in the ‘Lions’ way’.

“Knowing the calibre of players and management at the Lions I am certain that they’ll click again. Successful teams all have a strong sense of culture and the important thing for both players will be to put aside what happened and once again show us all what they’re capable of. If they can assimilate and find their form again, we’ll all see the players we should have seen in Springbok jerseys.”

All well and good, but surely Jantjies and de Klerk will now have one eye on returning to the Springbok fold. The Lions style of play is considerably different to the Springboks style of play. Both players were found out because they appeared to be caught between two different game plans.

They neither played with their Lions flair nor were they accurate when executing the Springboks’ more conservative style of play. From a distance, it is hard to say whether the reason for this was mindset, skillset, trust in the plan or a combination of multiple variables.

“Both players need to learn the lessons of last season and use them to develop their game,” Goodenough says. “Sure, they will now be with the Lions, but the skillsets that will make them successful Springboks can still be worked on and improved. There are definitely skills that can be developed in parallel to their training with the Lions that might be more relevant in a green jersey rather than a red and white one.”

Goodenough uses de Klerk’s struggles with the box kick as an example. With the Lions he may not use this weapon much throughout the season, but that does not mean he shouldn’t be tirelessly working on it should another Bok call up come his way. On the rare occasion he might be forced to use it in a game during Super Rugby, he will then demonstrate that he is capable of producing quality box kicks for the Springboks.

Ultimately, both athletes need to acknowledge their struggles with the national side and use them to grow and develop as rugby players. The onus is on them to show that one horrendous season will not define their careers. They are unquestionably talented individuals and have all the attributes to succeed at the highest level. The biggest challenge will be how they learn from adversity and rebuild their confidence.