11 December 2015
As we head into 2016, the world has never been more connected. With high speed internet, affordable air travel, and satellite TV, there world is literally a global village, one that is shrinking everyday. The sports world, like business or entertainment, has cottoned on to this new way of thinking and more and more, athletes are representing domestic and national teams in countries they were not born in. So what place does patriotism and national pride have in all this? If we are all united by a love for sport, and ideologies such as nationalism are outdated, is there any point in international competition? CONQA Sport explores.
Football terraces around the world are breeding grounds for cynical quips and chastising chants. “Who ate all the pies?” ask the travelling away fans to the slightly overweight home captain. “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” declare thousands of pundits to the struggling opposition’s manager.
Whenever a London club visits Old Trafford, home to Manchester United, the corner reserved for away fans roar an old favourite:
“We’ll race you back to London! We’ll race you back to London”
For many football fans, the team they support is an extension of their identity and the city or town they live in. Manchester United fans living outside of Manchester have often been labelled as plastic supporters or bandwagon jumpers, choosing titles over loyalty.
When the English Premier League (EPL) established itself as one of the most popular and entertaining leagues in the early 1990s, Manchester United rose to power and their timing couldn’t have been better. Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, and playing a helter-skelter attacking game, Manchester United bagged title after title.
Fans swelled globally, aided by the international language of English and a highly competitive league. Soon people around the world were wearing the shirts of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool with Owen, Beckham, Henry and Shearer becoming household names.
As the league flourished, foreign players and managers flocked to England chasing their share of the influx of resources. These talented foreigners often left their indigenous contemporaries in their shade. An English manager has never won the EPL (Howard Wilkinson led Leeds United to the First Division title in 1992, a year before the EPL was formed) and every team in the league has since relied heavily on foreign imports. Wayne Rooney was the last Englishman to win the Player of the Season award in 2010 and you have to go back to 2000 for the last local to top the goal scorers’ list – Sunderland’s Kevin Phillips with 30 goals.
The EPL is a league dominated by global franchises marketing themselves as local clubs. Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are all massively financed by foreign companies, managed by foreign managers, field mostly foreign teams, and rely heavily on foreign support. “Race you back to London?”, as long as you stop by Lagos, Tokyo and New York first.
Modern sport grew in conjunction with national identity in the 18th century. The dividing lines that sport created reinforced powerful emotions and helped fuel rivalries between countries and cities. Before high speed communication and travel, people were mostly confined (both physically and cognitively) to the town of their birth. It is understandable why pride in one’s city has always been so heavily linked with a particular sports team.
But we now live in a global village, always connected with the rest of the world. The increasing amalgamation of cultures and identities has spilled out onto the field. It is not uncommon to find a young boy in Johannesburg who identifies more with a footballer in Spain than in Soweto.
Today, notions such as pride and patriotism are nothing more than the gloss added to the spectacle, especially in club or franchise sport. Ideologies are no longer strictly separated by lines on a map. Choosing one team over another, particularly if that team markets itself as a global brand, is more akin to choosing a favourite character in a soap opera than aligning with a unique ethos.
Players utilising their skills in foreign lands is not a phenomenon restricted to clubs and franchises. Many athletes are born in one country but have cultivated their abilities in another, like British distance runner, Mo Farah. These athletes are, for all intents and purposes, locals; their birthplace is purely coincidental.
Others, like English cricketer, Kevin Pietersen, leave their country of birth in adulthood, after accents and skillsets have been developed. These athletes often draw criticism from opposing fans. When footballer Diego Costa chose to represent Spain over his native Brazil ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he was labelled a turncoat and a traitor by many Brazilians. These athletes constantly have their loyalty questioned and are always having to prove themselves with their performances. Unfortunately, as Pietersen’s exile from the English cricket team proves, this is not always enough.
The recent Rugby World Cup shows how integrated the sports world has become on an international level. 135 of the tournament’s players were not born in the country they played for. That is a staggering 22%. Samoa selected 13 foreign born players (all from New Zealand) out of a squad of 31. Argentina was the only nation out of 20 to field an entirely home grown team.
If those 13 New Zealanders representing Samoa had stayed where they were born they would likely have never played a World Cup game. Likewise, Samoa would have been that much worse without them. All foreign born players were selected for their adopted countries on merit and improved those teams, the World Cup, and rugby as a sport and spectacle. Critics point out that foreign players fill positions that should be reserved exclusively for locals, but that argument belongs in a Donald Trump campaign speech.
That being said, there is a danger that comes with this fluidity. Countries are neither clubs nor franchises and should be treated as separate entities. This is why the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) should be a source of concern for any true sports fan.
Currently in its second year, the IPTL is a schizophrenic tennis league that can’t decide if it is a competition between nations or franchises. This five team tournament sees the Micromax Indian Aces, the Legendari Japan Warriors, the Philippine Mavericks, the OUE Singapore Slammers and the OBI UAE Royals battle it out for a lot of money and personal pride.
By attracting some of the world’s top players like Maria Sharapova (Japan), Andy Murray (Singapore), Rafael Nadal (India), Serena Williams (Philippines) and Roger Federer (UAE), the IPTL has made a bold statement of intent: it is here to stay and is changing the way international tournaments are perceived.
The IPTL blurs the lines between country and club by using the country’s name alongside that of a sponsor, something that has been done for decades with clubs and franchises. This could simply be an inevitable next step in sports marketing and branding or it could be a sign of things to come: an unavoidable progression to a true global village run by corporations.
Change is often met with resistance from those who feel an affiliation to the past. There was once a time when many prominent voices objected to World Cups, professional sport and women participation. But this is different as it diminishes the competitive desire and pride that supplements international events. These are not countries and should not be labelled as such.
As the lines that separate us continue to fade, and concepts like nationalism diminish, the world will continue to move towards an incorporated and amalgamated body. But world sport would be remiss to allow business to get in the way of true international rivalries and what they represent. It would be a sad day if World Cups or Olympic Games are reduced to domestic competitions contested by conglomerates with deep enough pockets to lure the best athletes. A bidding war should never be involved when deciding which nation to represent. That bleak dawn is nowhere near rising, but change is happening, and we’d be foolish not to pay attention.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
4 December 2015
Every week there seems to be another example of sport and politics mixing in an unsavoury fashion. Whether it is one more FIFA delegate being implicated in a corruption scandal or a star athlete accused of doping, it would appear to be a given that sports articles feature on both the back and front pages of newspapers. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. CONQA Sport explores the often tumultuous relationship between sport and politics and discovers that if history is anything to go by, these two key representations of the human identity will forever be linked.
With Bayern Munich and Barcelona hogging headlines and the small matter of the upcoming Ballon d’Or, you may have missed one of the most remarkable events to happen in football’s history: last week in Mauritania, FC Tevragh-Zeina and ACS Ksar competed for the North African nation’s domestic Super Cup. The game was stagnating, with the score locked at 1-1 after 63 minutes.
Mauritania’s President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, attended and became disinterested in proceedings on the pitch. He ordered the remaining minutes to be jettisoned as a result of his boredom and spot kicks were hastily arranged for a swift conclusion. Tevragh-Zeina went on to win the match and lift the trophy.
The Mauritania FA denied any political meddling, stating that the decision was made due to “organisational issues in accordance with the presidents and the coaches of the two teams.”
However you interpret events, this football match will go down as yet another example of politics polluting the integrity of sport.
According to Jarrod Kimber, writer for ESPN’s Cricinfo and co-producer and director of the documentary, Death of a Gentleman (2015), “it is impossible to disentangle sports and politics.”
In 2011, Kimber and fellow journalist, Sam Collins, set out to make a documentary about the state of Test cricket but ended up making a film about who controls the sport. Death of a Gentleman is one of the most important sports documentaries in recent times as it shines a damning light on the governing bodies of cricket’s most powerful boards. It speaks of greed, corruption and a reluctance to develop the game beyond the powerful grip of the “Big Three” - India, England and Australia.
The documentary opens up a broader conversation about the tumultuous relationship between sport and politics. As Kimber says, “we came in with a specific question in mind, but once we started asking more questions, we realised there were more important issues to explore.”
The documentary reveals that the decisions made in air-conditioned boardrooms have serious consequences on the development of the sport globally.
When India reduced their 2013 tour of South Africa to an abridged farce as a result of political squabbling, Cricket South Africa lost a vast sum of money. The resources from TV rights and ticket sales could have been pumped into development cricket to unearth a young batsman or bowler from a rural community. Either way, it is important to note that the decisions of a few individuals at the very top can greatly impact the future of a sport.
This extends beyond governing bodies to politicians and governments at large. As seen with Russia’s recent exile from world athletics as a result of state-sponsored doping (a throwback to the old Soviet Union’s alleged strategies), politicians are happy to step in and ensure athletes bring glory to their nation.
Throughout history, political regimes have attached their ideologies to the backs of their athletes as it is on those backs that the hopes of nations are carried. Nazi Germany imposed their concept of an Übermensch (a superior race) at the 1936 Berlin Games just as Victorian England colonised much of the world by conditioning young men on private school fields. In both cases, sport was used as a way of proving cultural and physiological supremacy.
Echoing Nazi and colonial dogma, South Africa’s apartheid government used sport as a way of subjugating the already oppressed black and coloured population. To this day, many people still associate the Springbok emblem with an oppressive regime.
A nation’s identity is often inexorably linked to the games they play. To argue this, Kimber asks people if they can name a famous Sri Lankan who doesn’t play cricket. “Most of us know about the country because of the sport,” he says. Through cricket, this tiny island nation is able to compete on a global stage against former colonial powers and modern industrial giants. The same applies to New Zealand and South Africa, whose patriotism and identity would be so different without rugby.
Four days before South Africa’s semi-final clash with England in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the president at the time, FW de Klerk, called for a referendum. After 44 years, white South Africans could vote to end apartheid. Former President of the South African Cricket Union, Geoff Dakin, told journalists, “If it is No, it will be impossible for us to continue in the tournament.” The vote passed with an overwhelming majority, but conspiracy theorists have suggested that a large proportion of the 68.7% in favour of political transformation were more concerned about the Proteas than politics.
Sport has always provided a platform for political statements. In one of the most iconic images in world history, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in a moving act of solidarity, raised their fists from a podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (at the height of the civil rights movement in the USA) in support of Black Power and Consciousness. The two American athletes were admonished by the US Olympic Committee as well as their government for bringing politics into sports. Ironically, it was the US that boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow as a result of political differences with the Soviet Union (a favour returned by the majority of communist countries four years later at the Los Angeles Games).
Kimber argues that it is not politics intruding on sport that we hate so much, but bad politics getting in the way of good sport. “People don’t like politics, they don’t understand it and it’s a messy game,” he says. “What people mean when they say they don’t want politics in sport is that they don’t want bad politics. We all want interference to come out of sport.”
On the surface, Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World has nothing in common with the murder of nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. However, both of these acts were political statements carried out with an eye on a much bigger picture. With differing motives, both Mandela and the terrorists responsible for the attacks used sport as a stage to advocate a political ideal.
Speaking ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FIFA’s secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, said, “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.” While this is not as controversial as Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone confessing he admired how successful Adolf Hitler was at “getting things done”, it does strengthen the message that sports governing bodies, in many ways, mirror totalitarian regimes. Powerful individuals like Sepp Blatter and Narayanaswami Srinivasan resemble dictators who cling to power rather than egalitarian leaders driving progress and unity.
This could explain why so many countries with poor human rights records are increasingly being granted the privilege to stage major sporting events. Nations like Russia, China, Qatar and Azerbaijan are more than happy to play host to the world while subjugating their own people. Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has now passed reforms to entice more democracies to bid for the Games, and for the first time, human rights protections will be included in host city contracts, it seems oppressive regimes are leading the race to play host to the world.
“Sport should be, at its very best, the complete opposite of politics,” says Kimber. “It’s pure and it’s beautiful and it’s an escape from politics and war and the grind of our daily lives.” While he champions the beautiful moments where sport and politics collide, he, like so many others, yearns for a world where governing bodies like the ICC or FIFA are not tainted by allegations of bribery and corruption. Like any fan of sport, Kimber doesn’t want to have to worry about steroid use, match fixing, or question whether or not the government of a nation has been in bed with leading figures of a sports federation.
Kimber calls for “sport to be sport again,” out of reach of the tentacles of fat cats and politicians. As history has shown, this is an idealistic dream. In exalted exhibitions of humanity, as well as countless portrayals of wicked ideologies, sport and politics will forever remain interlocking companions that both reflect the varying philosophies of the human condition.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
26 November 2015
Every job, no matter how glamorous, can get tedious from time to time. So then how do they do it? How do those elite athletes who reach over 100 caps for their country or compete in multiple Olympic Games stay hungry and focussed over many years in the same sport? Of course the pursuit of glory is a driving factor, and motivation comes easy when things are going well, but every athlete goes through dips in form and enthusiasm. This is when motivation can be used as a tool to set things right. CONQA Sport speaks with Professor Pieter Kruger, Performance Psychologist for the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, and debunks a few misconceptions surrounding sports psychology, and finds how motivation affects performance in elite sport.
You might not remember the first time you heard it, but you surely know that you have. Some defeated captain or star player sidles up in front of a camera, awkwardly avoids eye contact with the interviewer, and with an anxious shrug of the shoulders simply says, “They just wanted it more.”
Glib statements like this make every fan cringe and the most ardent supporter blood curdle. Doesn’t other team wanted it more, you must be joking? This millionaire athlete, representing his city, province or nation lost because he didn’t want to win? This sports star living a dream life couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to put in a committed performance? Clichés are one thing but this takes the cake.
The idea that athletes lack motivation irks us because we assume they would unconditionally strive for the perfect performance every time they compete. Though this is almost always true, it is important to note that for many athletes, certain matches or events are not deemed as important as others. In a previous article, retired Springbok, Victor Matfield, said that the matches he played for the Bulls in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby were not as important as the ones he played for his country. That is understandable as the focus was always going to be this year’s Rugby World Cup.
In a long season like Major League Baseball, where teams play 162 games before the postseason begins, athletes are physically and emotionally incapable of giving it their all each and every match. When the St Louis Cardinals, who have the best record in the 2015 season so far, are up against the struggling Cincinnati Reds, many of their athletes might have an eye on upcoming fixtures against the New York Yankees. These are still professional athletes and proud individuals who always want to win, but to expect them to approach each game with the same gusto is idealistic.
That is why both athletes and coaching staff need a lift from time to time. Job satisfaction might be an issue as all elite athletes struggle with form and consequently get harangued on social media and by the press. Perhaps he or she has become far too acquainted with the bench and grown dissatisfied with a lack of opportunities. Whatever the reason, an unmotivated athlete is not running at full tilt. Enter the sports psychologist.
Before attempting to unravel the mystery of motivation, it is important to dispel a few myths surrounding sports psychology. As Professor Pieter Kruger, Performance Psychologist for the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, says, “Most people see the role of a sports psychologist as being a motivator.” He says that any direct attempt to motivate a team would probably be less than 5% of what he does. Instead, his main aim involves implementing and monitoring performance processes which impact how a team or individual will perform under pressure.
“Motivation is a by-product of getting performance processes in place,” he says. “The performance processes will set specific performance goals, and motivation can be seen as the will to pursue these goals, with a specific direction and drive, while keeping composure.” Whenever you hear someone say, “the other team wanted it more”, it would probably be a more accurate statement to say, “the other team was better at executing their skills in a composed manner while under pressure.”
What can be perceived as a lack of motivation could be viewed as a manifestation of a lack of confidence. Confidence is paramount to peak performance and an athlete lacking confidence would understandably appear apprehensive when compared to a colleague or opponent swimming in self-belief. From a neuropsychological perspective, according to Kruger, confidence is a function of memory.
When the brain is able to recall previous situations where it has successfully executed a skill or action that is required in the moment, it is able to exude a confidence that allows for an uninhibited game. This helps executing those performance processes more effectively which in turn impacts motivation.
“True confidence comes from reviewing and reminding yourself of the work you have put in and revisiting the times when you have actually mastered the specific skill or executed it well under pressure,” Kruger says. He warns though that the problem with confidence being a function of memory is that sometimes it is not something you can easily fast track. This is where an extra little motivation can be used as a tool to help speed up this process.
This can come from a number of sources; close family and friends, senior players, coaching staff, or the psychologist himself. The challenge is filtering out all that negative feedback that invariably comes with poor performances. This is even more challenging in the modern era where any wannabe pundit or self-proclaimed expert can spew vitriol directly at the athlete or coach. As Kruger points out, in a normal work environment, a person might get one or two performance appraisals a year, and almost certainly just in the presence of their immediate employers. How would your motivation be impacted if your every move was scrutinized and criticised?
Kruger explains that in the Springbok camp, and indeed most professional teams, players are aware that the wheel turns and criticism could be directed at anyone at any time. Subsequently, encouragement can always be found from a teammate, even from one competing for the same jersey.
For players carrying tackle bags or water bottles, motivation is a variable that needs to be addressed. These athletes might not be starting, but they are competitive individuals who yearn to contribute and earn a regular place on the field. “This is one of the most difficult aspects to deal with in professional sports,” says Kruger, who was involved in a lot of the discussions surrounding team selection with Heyneke Meyer at the recent World Cup. “These are not light-hearted decisions. Not even the so-called experts on TV can agree about who the best player for each position is. I work with these players to focus on their own individual goals and make sure that they stay in the best possible frame of mind to be ready to take the opportunity if or when it comes.”
Professional athletes and coaches don’t stumble on a career path or find their way into their profession through happenstance. They are involved in a sport they love and in a field they have worked tirelessly to be a part of. When a Springbok rugby player pulls on that green and gold jersey, he does not need to be reminded of the significance of that by Kruger and his team. Apart from the pride that comes with representing one’s nation or club, most athletes crave to be the best and their relentless pursuit of perfection drives them onwards.
“Not a single professional player that I have worked with would ever run out on to the field thinking they will just go through the motions and not care about their performance,” says Kruger. “Often (when in poor form) they may even try harder, leading to overcompensation, which could lead to further mistakes.”
Sport is riddled with clichés and overused terms. Some are soul warming and endearing and stir up feelings of nostalgia. Anything referencing another team or player “wanting it more” is not one of these terms and should be scrapped from our vocabulary entirely. Every athlete and coach wants “it”. That is why they’re involved in elite sport. Instead of scratching the surface with a tired platitude, anyone interested in why a team lost or an underdog triumphed should instead examine the performance processes and attribute success or failure to a team of individual’s ability to execute them under pressure.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
25 November 2015
Sport is a business, so the old saying goes, and subsequently those involved, including coaches and athletes, are business men and women. That might not appeal to the idealistic notions surrounding the games we love, but to look squarely at the truth, cold hard cash still runs the show. Eddie Jones came and left Cape Town like a tourist, and while it is easy to lambast him for being greedy, it was a sound business decision. Perhaps it tells us something about where coaches value the international game, compared to franchise competitions.
Eddie Jones appeared at the Stormers like a cheque that has been wrongly deposited in your account. The brief high of a lucrative windfall soon cut short by the stark reality that it was never yours to begin with. You can try to spend it, but it is only going to cause more upheaval in the long run. Once all the admin has been sorted, all you have left is memories of what such imagined riches felt like.
Even for passive rugby fans, the arrival of Eddie Jones in the fair Cape brought with it a new-found enthusiasm for the striped jerseys. How much of that was on the back of his reputation, nobody will ever know. Still, that “new coach” feeling felt somewhat more intense when the little genius took over the reins. The Stormers have hardly been the whipping boys of South African rugby, but there is just something about a new era that comes with a reputation such as Jones’ that makes you tingle in places you had previously not known existed. And then, just like that. It was over.
England had been gunning for Jones since they embarrassed themselves in their own World Cup. Few thought it was possible, though. England are not exactly known for opting for foreigners to run the upper echelons of private school sport. Having an Australian in charge seemed like it would border on treason for the stiff upper-lips of English rugby. But, here we are. The Stormers are grimacing all the way to the bank after the English had to fork out massive compensation to lure Jones away. But whenever things end as abruptly as a Kim Kardashian marriage, people will be left feeling confused, even angry. With anger, comes the need to blame somebody, something which has not been made any easier by some things Jones had said not long after being appointed.
Jones, who has always talked a good game, admitted that it was a selfish decision. The irony of having said that he “wants to create an environment where players don't leave the Stormers for big European money offers,” and then left for Europe, would not have been lost on him either. But it does not stop there.
“The Six Nations is a dour affair, and is built on the foundation of not allowing the opposition to score points. On the flipside, the Rugby Championship is all about scoring more points than the opposition," Jones said in an interview with ESPN just a few days before being lured away by the Rugby Federation Union’s sterling
"The best example is to compare and contrast Italy and Argentina. Italy have been part of the Six Nations for 16 years, and their rugby has basically regressed. Whereas Argentina have featured in the Rugby Championship for four years and their game – in particular their ability and execution on attack – has grown exponentially."
Ah, poor Jones. At least he is lumped with a sack of money along with all this terrible and dull rugby he has to put up with. But, here is the thing: loyalty in sport does not exist and to paint Jones as a money-hungry traitor is somewhat foolish. He has simply done what any right-minded individual riding a wave of reputational glory would have done. Unlike the players themselves, coaching careers are not quite as short lived, but reputational runs are, and you are only as good as your last coaching gig. That is not to say he would not have had great success with the Stormers, but it is unlikely that he would have been able to haggle quite such a good deal after his tenure with the Cape Town side ended.
It is nothing personal, folks, it is just sound business.
It is probably safe to assume that Jones did it for the money. He obviously does not care much for the Six Nations, and while there is a World Cup to plan for, it is still four years away. Thus, it should bring some introspection for Super Rugby. The competition thinks of itself as rugby’s answer to the English Premier League (of Football), and while it is, to an extent, there is still much room for improvement for the prestige coaches can earn from it.
The English Premier League boasts some of the best minds in the business, and many coaches – if you asked them – would say that they will take a league job at a top team over an international gig, even if the workload is far more. The money might be on par for what is on offer internationally at some teams, but coaches still prefer the glory that comes with leading a team to a title, be that the Champions League or the Premier League. While this might not look too good for the brand of Super Rugby, perhaps it is not such a bad thing for the international game. As the sport continues to expand, players are happy to leave their countries of birth and qualify elsewhere, without a second thought of what this might say about their so-called patriotism.
That rugby’s brightest coaching minds would still take an international gig over a club gig, means that the growing monster that is franchise sport, has not yet completely devoured all the prestige of the international game.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
19 November 2015
How many of us have the confidence and self-belief to truly be a superstar? How many of us could attempt a seemingly impossible play in front of thousands of people, knowing that millions more are watching on TV around the world? The truth is, only a handful of humans go down in history as world class athletes. These champions share certain qualities; skill, a drive to win, passion. CONQA Sport explores a particular trait that is required to be the best – ego, and finds that the line between confidence and arrogance is as fine as the line between success and failure.
It takes a mere two minutes and eleven seconds into the self-indulgent vanity project that is Ronaldo for the word “arrogant” to be mentioned, and quite frankly, it’s a wonder it took that long. The film about the Portuguese goal machine runs about the length of a football match but has more to do with ego and personal glory than sporting matters.
Winning team trophies, even Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League triumph, become footnotes when compared to individual honours. Cristiano Ronaldo’s statistics, sensational though they may be, are nothing but notches on his bed post and are treated as glories in and of themselves rather than contributions to a collective achievement.
But should that change our opinion of Ronaldo? Does his ego and selfishness make him a less accomplished footballer? Of course it doesn’t. If anything it makes him a better one. He cites this perceived arrogance as a source of his power and dismisses anyone who has a disdain for his ripe self-confidence. In the film, he makes it clear that from a young age he had ambitions to be the best footballer on the planet. Nothing else mattered to him and so he worked tirelessly to achieve that goal. He was driven by an egotistical single mindedness.
Speaking on his role in the Second World War, Winston Churchill said, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been put in preparation for this hour and for this trial.” Ronaldo, in his own way, echoes Churchill’s sense of self-aggrandising purpose when pursuing and ultimately receiving the Ballon d’Or for best footballer of the year (an honour bestowed on him three times, one short of Lionel Messi, a player depicted as a rival in the film and referred to as “the other guy”).
There is almost a sense of entitlement that great athletes portray when they’re winning. Holding trophies aloft is not only the result of hard work and great skill, but is a representation of the world as it should be. Anything contrary is an abomination of nature. We all know that success is never accidental but is rather the culmination of years of sacrifice and preparation. For champion athletes, success is simply the inevitability of that process.
That is why star athletes have egos both on and off the field. They know better than anyone how difficult it is to get the opportunity to express oneself on a global stage and once they’re there, they’re not going to hold back. As Grant Downie, the Head of Performance at Manchester City FC Academy, says, “You want players to have an ego. To go in front of fifty or sixty thousand people and express yourself, you need to have a strong sense of self-belief.” Without that, no champion would ever be able to take that long range shot or execute a skilful manoeuvre. Self-doubt is the most challenging opponent any athlete faces and nothing counters this foe with more success than a strong ego.
Downie is a football man and works in a sport where self-confidence all too often reveals itself to be a strong ego. This goes a long way to explain the poor treatment of referees as well as the ongoing theatrics of many players looking for a foul. Ronaldo is not alone. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli are somewhat the norm. Players who are humble are seen as rarities.
This is not the case in other sports. The recently retired All Black rugby captain, Richie McCaw, achieved everything a player can achieve in the game, both personally and with club and country. Despite the success he remained one of the most humble athletes in the world. This is perhaps indicative of a sport where arrogance belies a sense of self-confidence, and humility is not an extra feather in one’s cap, but is instead a requirement for success.
There are thousands of books and blogs on the merits of a strong sense of self and how to build an ego when it has been damaged. Individuals will cite different reasons and sources for their confidence; a strong family base, extra hours on the training field, a solid team structure or the guiding hand of a mentor. For all athletes a strong ego is nothing without positive performances and it is through positive performances that a strong ego can develop.
This can take on a different meaning for different athletes. Sure, all champions want to win, but even winning is subjective. For Brian O’Driscoll, the former captain of Ireland’s rugby team, winning meant being involved in a collective achievement. “One thing I learnt early on in my career is that personal gratification takes second place.” What would he think off Ronaldo’s dogmatic obsession with the Ballon d’Or?
O’Driscoll is an example of an athlete who is task orientated rather than ego orientated. For task orientated athletes like O’Driscoll and McCaw, the goal is to achieve something great rather than to be great. Ultimately, the end goal is the same, but the motivation is different and this often comes through in their rhetoric. Michael Schumacher, for all his individual achievements, never failed to mention the team when being interviewed after a victory. It was always “we had a good race” or “it all came together for us”. I’m not saying Schumacher didn’t win races for himself, but his sense of a collective unit underpinned his personal ambitions.
All elite athletes, especially those at the very top, surely can’t help but feel a sense of entitlement. Reviewing Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, Playing It My Way, for ESPN’s The Cricket Monthly, Vaibhav Sharma says, “Egoism and an unshakable idea of personal destiny are the sine qua non of every sporting champion.” He argues that if you continuously remind an individual of his or her greatness (in Tendulkar’s case, godliness) enough times, eventually that message will stick.
An athlete like Tiger Woods , who has often been labelled as arrogant and who was raised to believe he is the best in the world, does not solely rely on that upbringing to fuel a positive ego. The awards, the massive salaries and the hordes of adoring fans all reinforce this message. Some might argue that it is a sign of the celebrity swamp into which elite sport is sinking, but it is that reinforcement that makes Woods believe he can win any tournament despite whatever form he may be in. All great champions believe they are great. They are then able to do great things, they then get reminded of their greatness by fans and media, and the cycle continues.
It is, however, reassuring to know that there are still some elite athletes who measure their greatness by a different standard. Team MTN-Qhubeka shook up the old establishment of professional cycling when they became the first team from Africa to compete in the Tour de France this year. Their 5th place finish was remarkable but it wasn’t their only success story. The team are changing lives in rural South Africa by empowering young people. By exchanging bicycles for community work, this professional cycling team breaks down the barrier that exists between elite athletes and ordinary people. For Head of Performance Support and Medical, Dr Carol Austin, this allows the riders to achieve positive results without the need of a strong ego.
“Ego in our team is not a factor,” she says. “Many of our riders previously never really understood the poverty that many people live with in South Africa. I’d love to see how many elite athletes around the world would change their perspective if they saw how our riders give back. Our athletes are very proud to be involved in a team where changing lives is the goal and that inspires them to perform.”
Ego and arrogance are two words that often have negative connotations, and are labels we are quick to plaster on some athletes but not others. Some believe that David Warner is arrogant while AB de Villiers is not. Lionel Messi is the epitome of humility whereas his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, is the opposite. But make no mistake, all elite athletes have planet sized egos to match their supreme skill sets. Ego doesn’t always have to manifest itself into overt arrogance but it is always needed when striving to be the best.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
13 November 2015
They say an army marches on its stomach, well then so does the future of a nation’s sporting ambitions. There is no such thing as a successful elite athlete who goes to bed hungry. Could the solution to South Africa’s transformation problem be found on the empty dinner plates of hungry children? Are quotas and government interventions providing results, or are we merely papering over gaping cracks that are indicative of an unequal society? CONQA Sport explores the relationship between transformation and nutrition and finds that the challenges we face are heavier than first imagined.
Transformation: an exhausted political buzzword or a clarion call for a better future in South African sport? Whichever way you see it, the undeniable truth is that twenty-one years after “the Rainbow Nation” was supposedly set in motion, South Africa’s national sports teams do not, for the most part, represent the demographics of the country.
To look squarely at the statistics, of the roughly 51 million South Africans, a mere 8.8% are whites of European descent. At the recent Rugby World Cup, 22 out of a possible 31 players who represented South Africa’s Springboks were white. That is 70% of the squad. Percentages are similarly disproportionate in other prominent national teams such as men’s cricket (58%) and women’s hockey (83%).
Transformation is a sensitive topic in South Africa, but that is precisely why we need to speak about it.
Some bemoan the inclusion of “quota players” and correctly point out that Bafana Bafana, the often hapless national football team, is hardly represented by any white people (less than 10%), but that neither addresses the problem, nor justifies the issue. We can sidestep and dodge the subject as much as we like, but it is not going away.
Let’s give our coaches and sporting federations the benefit of the doubt and assume they are selecting the best players available to them and do not have any racist or political agendas. There will always be controversial selections and swarms of pundits who feel they could do a better job, but let’s start by viewing the demographics of our sports teams without emotion.
83% of the national women’s hockey team is white because 15 of the best 18 South African female hockey players are white. According to the Springbok coaches and selectors, only 4 black Africans out of a population of 41 million people were good enough to wear the Green and Gold at the World Cup. Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and his staff have been criticised for their stagnant approach to transformation as well as a reluctance to show a faith in youth, but as much as one could have argued for the inclusion of an unselected player of colour, the same could have been done for an unselected white contemporary.
Transformation is not happening at a universally accepted speed. One of the main reasons for this surrounds an issue which is a concern for the country at large: nutrition.
Using rugby, the sport which has attracted more attention around transformation than any other, as a case study, the seriousness of the situation becomes evident.
As discussed in a previous article, rugby players are getting taller and heavier, and a greater emphasis is placed on the size of athletes. According to a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, a strong association exists at an elite level between the size of a team (particularly weight) and their chances of victory. Body mass and height are key variables that help predict selection of elite players. As Justin Durandt of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) says, “If there are two players with similar skill sets, a coach is always going to pick the bigger player.” But how does this affect transformation?
The Craven Week is an annual provincial rugby tournament organised for the best under-18 school boys in South Africa, and for the last ten years, SSISA has studied the heights and weights of the players. They found that, on average, black and coloured (mixed race) players were 10kg lighter and 7cm shorter than white players. The average age for all boys was 17.7 years.
There are currently quotas in Craven Week where provincial squads must have 40% black representation – nine players in a squad of 23.The tournament therefore appears to be giving players of colour equal opportunities but in fact, from a weight perspective, they are playing against athletes who are more developed and therefore in a relative older age group (this is called creating a false relative age effect). The weight of the average black player at 18 is equal to the average weight of a white player at 16. As we have mentioned before, size is one of the major factors for success in the sport and explains why many coaches are picking white players over black and coloured players for provincial and national teams.
After high school, too many black and coloured players are still playing catch up while competing in junior, club, or university rugby. Countries like New Zealand have tried to level the playing field, where young boys in some provinces have the option of playing in teams relative to their weight. This itself brings in other issues of players of different ages playing against each other and is not a proven solution to development.
Though clubs have junior structures in place, talented 19 year old black players, who are the relative size of 17 year old white players, are expected to tackle and be tackled by players who are much larger than them. The constant physical hammering they endure might be sustainable for a few seasons, but it greatly impacts the longevity and subsequent progression of these players.
According to Durandt, this discourages these young boys from pursuing a career in the sport. He believes this is a contributing factor to the lack of black and coloured players continuing their rugby journeys beyond high school.
The highly talented and overly sized youngsters might be contracted to a union where they can play in the Vodacom Cup or Currie Cup, or play for a university in the Varsity Cup or Shield, but the height and weight disparities generally persist, and so these players are few and far between.
The reason why young black and coloured players are, on average, smaller than white players, has to do with the society we live in.
According to SSISA, “The legacy of apartheid has resulted in an uneven distribution of the different ethnic groups across the various socioeconomic strata within South Africa.” The laws of the oppressive apartheid regime are no longer in practice, but the effects are still felt today. Lower socioeconomic categories contain mainly black children, whereas white children are primarily concentrated within the highest socioeconomic strata.
There is a link between the superior physical development of a child and improved socioeconomic status. Better nutrition and improved health means that early development can flourish. Research has shown that the first thousand days from conception to a child’s second birthday are the most important in terms of nutrition. An adult’s height and weight is largely formed in this developmental stage.
Durandt tells us that you don’t have to know the socioeconomic status of a country to understand how accessible good nutrition is for the majority of the population. You don’t even have to look at the GDP, “you just have to look at whether or not the height of the country has increased over a fifty year period.”
South Africa’s black population, between 1900 and 1970, had a negative growth rate in terms of height. In the same period, the white population grew taller, a trend found throughout developed countries, especially in Europe and North America. One of the reasons for this is poor socioeconomic conditions which led to poor nutrition in the critical first thousand days and early childhood.
According to Barry Bogin, in a paper titled Secular Changes in Childhood, Adolescent and Adult Stature, it could take up to 150 years to reverse the negative growth (stature) trends in a population, and that is only once socioeconomic conditions have improved.
Government has shown impatience with regards to transformation in rugby, and are not going to wait 150 years for a reversal of negative height trends. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has targeted at least 50% black participation in all domestic and national teams by 2019. This extends to representation both on and off the field including executive, managerial, and coaching positions in all unions, franchises, and national teams.
All well and good, but if size is the main indicator for success in the game, which it is, and it will take 150 years to reverse the negative height trends shown in this country, then the only solution is to improve the weight of young black and coloured players. This can only be achieved if young black and coloured children have access to better nutrition.
The Ridge School is a private primary school in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It is an all-boys school predominantly attended by white children, though all races are represented. It costs R108 969 ($7 645) to enrol a grade 7 boy (12 to 13 year old) in the school for one year. An optional additional cost of R9 750 ($684) gets your son hot lunches from the cafeteria. They range from chicken pregos to roast beef and potatoes and always include a healthy dose of fresh salads and vegetables. With school fees like that, it is fair to assume that these children are going home to financially stable households. Here, going hungry means having to wait for mom and dad to get back from work and prepare another hot meal or microwave one already prepared by Woolworths.
The children of Nooitgedacht Primary School, near Midrand, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, do not enjoy the same benefits. The cost of a child’s education is just under R4 000 ($280) a year. As a result of government pulling funds, the children are no longer fed by the school and have to rely on their parents or caregivers to feed them. When they get home, the lucky ones get a standard meal of pap (a maize porridge) and whatever accompaniments they are able to come by; some spinach, beans perhaps, the very occasional fatty piece of meat. Others are not so lucky. As one mother tells me, many children relied on that meal provided by the school. Now, these children go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and hunger constitutes a part of their daily life.
Schools like the Ridge are found throughout privileged pockets of the country. These remnants of a colonial past are mostly attended by white children. They do not exclude black and coloured children, only those from poor families who can’t afford the privilege they provide. Schools like Nooitgedacht are found in abundance in rural and urban areas and are almost devoid of any young white faces.
If you were to randomly pluck a child from each school, who do you think would have the better chance of becoming a Springbok? It’s a no brainer. Even if they were both lucky enough to attend a private high school with all the benefits of privilege, the boy from Nooitgedacht will forever be playing catch up. He will likely not be as big and as strong and will need to rely on a freakish genetic ability in order to close the gap.
It’s not just rugby that is affected. Former fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam was set to become South African cricket’s next big thing. He was young, he had raw pace, and as a black African, was primed to represent the New South Africa in a mostly white sport. It wasn’t to be. After only three Tests, Ngam suffered a succession of stress fractures in his legs. He underwent a series of tests in order to understand why his bones were so brittle. The results were shocking.
“My career was cruelly brought to a stop by not having a sufficient nutritious diet during my upbringing,” he told News24 in 2008. What was shaping up to be an illustrious career was curtailed before it ever got going, and the country was denied a bowling unit of Ngam, Makhaya Ntini, and Shaun Pollock.
“Unless South Africa transforms as a society, we are not going to see natural transformation in our sport,” warns Durandt. No matter how much a poor hungry child wants to be a Springbok or a Protea, as long as he lives in poverty and is unable to eat well, he will face an uphill battle.
Transformation is an issue concerned with race but it should be an issue concerned with the socioeconomic conditions of the country. The majority of black players like Siya Kolisi (Grey High PE), Sibusiso Sithole (Queens College), and Nizaam Carr (Bishops) who play at the elite levels in South African rugby, went to well-funded schools with established rugby programmes.
The elite schools that act as breeding grounds for national athletes are mostly attended by white children. These are the young men and women who have access to quality nutrition as well as elite training facilities and coaching. It is no wonder that the majority of our athletes in this country who are talented enough to represent on the world stage are white. As long as this disparity persists, the demographics of the national teams will remain skewed.
Earlier this year, speaking at SARU’s Strategic Transformation Plan (STP), CEO Jurie Roux said, “Nutrition is our biggest challenge. If his (the player’s) first problem is a meal, where is rugby on that list?”
SSISA has worked with SARU and a number of years ago implemented a strategy to improve nutrition in rural communities for elite under-16 and under-18 players. A porridge like Performance Meal was made available to previously disadvantaged players from each union who had been selected to join the elite training squads. Unfortunately, this programme only lasted a year. “The problem was SARU couldn’t sustain it financially,” Durandt says. SARU has created academies in several provinces to support players from previously disadvantaged areas, and even placed a number of mobile gyms in rural communities. The problem is that these interventions mostly target players over the age of 18.
It is easy to understand why government is not happy with the glacial pace at which South African sport has transformed. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has an obligation to show the majority of this nation that the oppressive past has been unequivocally eradicated. The STP makes its targets clear and the higher ups in SARU and government have stated that there will be dire consequences should these expectations not be met.
Coaches and selectors at Currie Cup, Super Rugby, and Springbok levels have been the ones to shoulder most of the blame. However, black and coloured representation is comparable throughout the tiers of elite rugby in South Africa. The Springboks will struggle to improve the percentage of black and coloured players on match day if Super Rugby teams don’t improve. The same goes for representation in Super Rugby if Currie Cup teams aren’t better represented.
“We need to be realistic about what we’re trying to achieve and the timelines need to be realistic,” says Durandt, who supports transformation. “There are so many issues that impact transformation, nutrition being a major one, and only implementing quotas is not going to fix things.”
As long as South Africa’s national sports teams do not represent the demographics of the country, the controversial issues of transformation and quotas will persist. The catch is, unless solutions are implemented at grass roots, and the crises surrounding nutrition and other socioeconomic factors for young people is remedied, South Africa will continue to use a bandage to treat a festering wound.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
6 November 2015
Athletes are more than just individuals who have forged a profession in a field they love, they are ambassadors of a nation and carry the hopes and dreams of millions. You would think governing bodies would do all they can to help them. You'd be wrong. Sunette Viljoen, the South African javelin thrower who recently won a bronze medal at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Athletics Championship, has spoken out about how the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee ( SASCOC) treats the athletes who are part of their Operation Excellence (OPEX) programme. One can only hope that she will be the first of many.
Here’s the thing about being a professional sportsperson: it’s not all fun and games. Sure, you get to travel the world and play for your country, but it comes with a myriad of caveats. These caveats can range from how you are expected to behave by the public to what you are allowed to say in press conferences. Cricketers, for example, can’t criticise umpires without evoking a storm of wrist slapping.
South African athletes, it turns out, can’t speak their minds about the way the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) treats them. Sunette Viljoen, a bronze medallist at the recent World Athletics championships, found this out the hard way recently. Vijoen penned a blunt column in the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport calling out SASCOC for the way they treat the athletes who form part of their Operation Excellence (OPEX) programme.
Operation Excellence is a not worth its title as there is very little excellence about it. To be an OPEX athlete requires top performances time and time again. Failure means getting booted, but even being on that list means little in terms of what the athletes get back. The athletes who rely on the Opex programme have to wait weeks before even their most basic costs are covered. There isn't even a stipend for nutrition, one of the most important parts of being an elite athlete. Nor is there assistance for big medical expenses, should athletes no longer have funds available from their medical aid.
As Viljoen says, there is not a single athlete in the world who’ll put their body and income at risk for a few thousand rands a month. It is simply not worth the effort. Viljoen claims that, despite her achievement, her employers (SASCOC) have not uttered a single word of encouragement or congratulations to her.
Since writing her column, SASCOC have responded and have 'red-flagged' Viljoen for speaking out. CEO Tubby Reddy called Viljoen "ungrateful" in an interview with The Citizen and threatened that her contract could be terminated since she had disregarded the “rules” of her contract.
Silencing athletes about their concerns or reprimanding them for overstepping is nothing new, but this takes things to the next level. That Viljoen – and the rest – are not allowed to voice their concerns about SASCOC publicly is abhorrent. The secrecy in which SASCOC tries to shroud their OPEX programme shows that there is something seriously wrong with the way Reddy and the rest of the fat cats at SASCOC run the organisation. It shows that SASCOC is nothing more than a bunch of navel-gazing bullies whose only real interest is themselves and hogging the glory of South African athletes who put their blood, sweat, tears and sometimes life savings into their careers.
One of the biggest problems with the OPEX programme is that SASCOC only starts supporting athletes once they have achieved some sort of success. And as VIljoen points out – if you slip up, you’re out.
Of course these are tough economic times, but that SASCOC have the audacity to call athletes ungrateful when they are riding their coattails of success is an insult to the hard work these athletes put in. While Sascoc has had some funding troubles, they only have themselves to blame. Corporations are not going to get involved with an organisation with a tainted reputation.
What Viljoen has done is extraordinary for many reasons. Firstly, she most likely knew what the consequences would be for speaking out. Yet, she still did it, selflessly putting her income at risk, the very income that allows her to compete internationally and which will allow her to take part in the Rio Olympics. This is not the action of an athlete being untruthful, simply the action of somebody who is clearly frustrated. Viljoen insists that she did what she did to help other athletes. Considering her contract is now on the line, it’s hard not to believe her.
More importantly, perhaps now that one athlete has blown the lid off the disaster more will feel comfortable in speaking out. The more players speak up, the better the chances are of a forensic audit of SASCOC and the way they spend the National Lottery Board money they receive. When that happens, perhaps South Africa can finally start achieving the glory of which the country's wealth of talent is capable.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
29 October 2015
Sports fans are a fickle bunch. They'll heap praise on their team, players, and coaching staff when they're winning. Accolades and plaudits flow in abundance as long as positive results are doing likewise. When things go bad however, the well of well-wishes dries up and a flood furious anger washes over the once loved heroes. No one is at the mercy of this turbulent climate more than the coach or manager. They’re the ones holding the wheel, they’re the ones making the play, and when things are going badly, they’re the ones standing where the buck stops and the hard questions start. Using Jose Mourinho and Heyneke Meyer as examples, we explore the risk and reward of sacking a coach.
When the final whistle signalled the end of South Africa’s 2015 Rugby World Cup, after defeat to New Zealand in the semi-finals, coach Heynecke Meyer closed his eyes and sat motionless for a few seconds. On the evidence of his reaction to Springbok tries and victories in the past, no one loves the Green and Gold more than Meyer, but there was something else visible on his face apart from the pain he felt for his favourite team. Like the sword that hung over the head of Damocles, the Springbok boss must have been aware of the impending doom that now looms over him as the man in charge.
It’s hard being the coach or manager of an elite sports team – uneasy rests the bum in the hot seat. This is a good thing. It’s reassuring to know that someone can’t simply walk off the street and win a World Cup or Champions League. It takes a supreme knowledge of the game and an iron will to join the ranks of Sirs Alex Ferguson, Clive Woodward, Dave Brailsford, et al. They’re the ones holding the wheel, they’re the ones making the play, and when things are going badly, they’re the ones standing where the buck stops and the hard questions start.
Luckily, this is sport, not a dictatorial regime, and when things aren’t going as expected (or demanded), owners and stakeholders have the prerogative to find someone who they feel can get things back on track. The merry-go-round of elite coaching has been, and always will be, a ceaseless ride.
Another elite coach feeling the pressure is Chelsea Football Club’s Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager is one of the best in the world, with a trophy cabinet decorated with two Champions League medals, as well as fifteen domestic league and cup titles from four different countries. Despite that success, Chelsea are struggling in the English Premier League, languishing in 15th place after losing 5 of their opening 10 matches, and have just been knocked out of the Capital One Cup. This is not the form of defending champions.
Like the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the decision makers at Chelsea have a tough choice to make. Stick with the current coach and trust (or hope) things improve, or pull the trigger and task someone else with the job. Both options have elements of risk and reward.
Both Meyer and Mourinho are quality coaches. Both have been criticised for their overly defensive approaches to their respective codes, but both have won trophies and earned their places at the top on merit. We’ve already spoken about Mourinho’s record, but Meyer also has a few medals hanging on his wall. Were it not for regularly going up against the sport’s greatest ever team, in the form of this generation’s All Blacks, he would probably have a few more.
Sticking with a coach during tough times instils a confidence in him to try and get his team out of a hole. It tells him that although things aren’t working now, he didn’t win a raffle ticket to get here; try something new, things will click. Chelsea won the league last season and is still one of the best sides in Europe. With the players they have it is surely a matter of time before they find their groove.
For Meyer, he has a core group of young players who are no doubt going to go on and become Springbok legends. If he had the chance to work with the likes of Handré Pollard (21), Damien de Allende (23), Lood de Jager (22), and Jessie Kriel (21) for another four years, there is every possibility that he could mould them into something great. Critics point out that he has been defensive and one-directional in his tactics; perhaps he has been hamstrung by aging players that simply couldn’t learn new tricks.
Keeping a coach in charge of the national rugby team after an unsuccessful World Cup has proved to be the right decision on two separate occasions. Both Sir Clive Woodword (England - 2003) and Sir Graham Henry (New Zealand - 2011) won the World Cup four years after losing it. On both occasions there were calls for their heads but they were allowed the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and have another shot at the title. History vindicated these decisions and proved that continuity was vital to their success.
Football managers aren’t generally afforded the same patience given to rugby coaches. Chelsea have had 10 managers (including both Mourinho stints) since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Even winning trophies hasn’t been enough to keep the job as Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto DiMatteo, and Rafael Benitez all found out.
Ferguson is widely regarded as the greatest ever football manager, but it could have been so different had Manchester United gone through with sacking the Scot after four seasons. Chelsea could learn from their northern rivals and show some faith in their manager.
That trust that is given to a struggling coach filters down to the players. It tells them that they are allowed to make mistakes and that their place in the side does not hinge on a handful of results. Job security does wonders for job performance.
But this is elite sport where results mean money and prestige. Despite whatever feel good meme you might read, or heartfelt interview you may see, no one, least of all those at organisations like the Springboks and Chelsea, are in elite sport for anything other than winning. Winning is everything and if you’re not up for it, move on.
Sacking a coach lets everyone know that you mean business. It tells fans and members of your staff that no one is safe and that poor performances won’t be tolerated. Fear is a remarkable motivator.
Getting someone new allows for a fresh perspective. Often a coach runs out of ideas, becomes tactically stagnant, or simply loses that bit of magic that made him an enigmatic leader. Handing someone else the reins, especially someone with pedigree, often provides that little bit of fire that is needed to ignite a team.
A new coach is often brought in because things aren’t going well and so is given more freedom to experiment than a coach holding on to his job. If he tries something and fails, he can scrap it and try something else. If a battling coach tries something audacious in the hopes of returning to winning ways but fails, the failure is amplified and will surely be his final act in charge.
Before sacking a coach, an organisation needs to look at the availability of suitable replacements. For the Springboks, no one can really put their hand up above all others. Johan Ackermann has just won the Currie Cup with the Lions, winning every game in the process. He has shown faith in youth, something Meyer has failed to do, and his brand of rugby has been entertaining and attacking. He is still relatively inexperienced, but if SARU sack Meyer, Ackermann seems the best option from a limited pool.
For Chelsea, ousting Mourinho mid-way through the season will not solve their problems. This is a man who has won a domestic league title 8 times out of a possible 13. He knows how to win trophies and although Chelsea is an enticing job for Europe’s top managers, they would be short sighted to look elsewhere. He has stated that he loves the club and there is no doubt that he will be doing his best to rectify the situation.
Sport is about progress and improvement. If a coach or manager is not able to take a team and make them a better one every day then he is not the man for the job. South African rugby under Meyer has stagnated. They have lost to Japan and Argentina for the first time in history under his tenure and have routinely been beaten by Australia and New Zealand, winning 5 out 14 matches against the Southern Hemisphere giants.
Sacking a coach is never an easy decision to make. There are so many variables that determine whether or not an individual is suited to the position. Often success is hardly a factor as SARU proved when failing to secure the services of Jake White after he won the 2007 Rugby World Cup. If results are all that matter, both Mourinho and Meyer will be shown the door. If they can convince the higher ups at their respective organisations that they can turn things around, we all might look back on this time and marvel at their resilience and determination.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
23 October 2015
Remember your first day at a new job? Were you nervous? Were you eager to impress straight away? Now imagine that you had the world’s eyes fixed firmly on your every move. Every decision you made, every experiment you attempted was scrutinised by millions of strangers. Now you get a sense of what Jürgen Klopp, the newly appointed manager of Liverpool FC must be feeling. To understand what challenges the new coach at a prominent team faces, CONQA Sport spoke with Gary Kirsten, former head coach of the Indian and South African national cricket teams.
Jürgen Klopp made his debut as Liverpool Football Club’s 20th manager last week and was quick to dispel any notion that his arrival was the second coming of a football saviour. Contrasting Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s comments in 2004 that he was the “Special One”, Klopp stated that he was the “Normal One”, downplaying suggestions he would swiftly return The Reds to their former glory days.
These humble comments will do little to ease the pressure on the German. Make no mistake, despite Liverpool’s lack of success in recent years, their fans and owners expect the former Borussia Dortmund boss to change their fortunes.
Things were neither spectacular nor disastrous in the 0-0 draw at Tottenham Hotspur and so we are no closer to predicting with any certainty whether or not Klopp will shine or flop. What is certain is that for all his experience, character, and guile, one of the most likable managers in world football will be feeling the pressure of being a new manager at a massive organisation.
One man who understands what Klopp must be feeling is Gary Kirsten. In 2007, the former opening batsman for South Africa took up one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in world sport – the head coach of India’s national cricket team.
There are 1.2 billion people living in India and you’d be hard pressed to find one that isn’t a fan of cricket. Supporters worship their heroes like gods when they’re winning but burn effigies in the streets and attack their idols’ homes when they feel they’ve let their nation down. No one loves cricket more than the people of India and for a foreign coach, it can be a hostile environment.
“You have to win people over from the start,” says Kirsten, now coach of the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League. “You have to establish yourself as the leader as early as possible, and the most important thing is figuring out how you are going to build credibility amongst the stake holders of the team.”
Aware of this, Kirsten opted for a bullish introduction. With a lengthy powerpoint presentation, the normally quiet Kirsten was going to wow the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni into believing that he was the man that was going to turn things around. His plan failed spectacularly and the future World Cup winning coach learned a hard lesson on his first day in charge.
“You kind of get the feeling that you want to make a play straight away as the new coach,” says Kirsten. “But before you can do anything in a new environment, you have to understand the dynamics of the team. Patience is important and I made the mistake of trying to move things too quickly. You can’t do that as a new coach. The presentation flopped as this was not something that these guys were interested in. It was a massive wake up call.”
Klopp will be all too aware that Liverpool FC is more than just a club. It is a proud organisation with a history that is the envy of most teams in Europe. What Klopp needs to do is ignite the passion in the players that has appeared absent recently. After the departure of talisman Steven Gerrard, no one has really stepped up to become “Mr Liverpool”. As the new man in charge, he must reinvent the club that was stagnating under former boss, Brendan Rodgers.
His gegenpressing, a high tempo pressing game that suffocates the opposition’s ball player, might just prove to be the shot in the arm that Liverpool need. In Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, James Milner, and Philippe Coutinho, he has an experienced and potentially well organised midfield that can adapt and implement a new strategy.
What he needs is time. As Kirsten says, “In sport, you don’t have a lot of time,” and the English Premier League can be a very unforgiving environment for a manager trying to find his feet. Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal called it a “rat race” and shifting the way a team plays can be a lengthy process.
Klopp will need results to go his way while he is establishing his own philosophy. “Very often, the reason a new coach comes in is because things weren’t going well under the old coach,” says Kirsten. That is why a shift in strategy is needed. Unfortunately, there is a chance that the new coach will be trying to fit square pegs in round holes and mistakes will be made. No coach, no matter how many titles he has won, is going to come into a new team and find the perfect formula immediately. It is in these moments that big players need to help the new coach or manager as he tinkers with the way the team plays.
According to Kirsten, star players need to put in outstanding individual performances during a manager’s early teething stage. Liverpool lacks a genuine superstar. Daniel Sturridge is a quality striker but his fitness is a worry. Coutinho has shown that he can pick a pass and score the occasional spectacular goal, but these are not players who are going to single-handedly steer Liverpool to a Premier League crown. The odd game here and there will require something special from an unlikely source and Klopp will look to the next transfer window to bring in star quality.
This is why Klopp, like all new managers and coaches, needs to manage the expectations of the club, owners, players, and most importantly, the fans. Realistic goals will keep morale high during this transitional period. Kirsten advises that focus should be directed to the way the team plays rather than results on the field. Unlike cricket, football is a low scoring sport and one moment of magic or mayhem can undo 90 minutes of hard work.
Would it be more favourable, for Liverpool to win a match in the dying seconds after playing poorly for 90 minutes, or have defeat snatched away from them after showing signs of improvement? For impatient fans a win is the better option but sustainability and marked improvements in performance are what all new coaches should be striving for.
If Liverpool were to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League this season, it would be a remarkable coup for Klopp. The truth is that Liverpool are in a league where the teams above them have better resources and players and a top four finish seems unlikely. A more realistic target would be fifth or sixth while laying a foundation for future seasons.
“People often expect a quick turnaround whenever someone new comes in,” says Kirsten. That expectation is exacerbated if the incoming manager has had success in the past. Kirsten felt this extra pressure when he was appointed as head coach of the Proteas after winning the World Cup with India. Though World Cup glory eluded him, he was able to cement South Africa’s spot at the top of the world Test rankings.
When Klopp took over at Dortmund in 2008, they had just finished 13th in the league. Three years later they won the Bundesliga and followed that up with a domestic cup and league double. But it took time and patience and those are two luxuries he must be afforded at Liverpool.
It is also important to realise that the German Bundesliga is less competitive than the English Premier League with Bayern Munich being the only club with huge financial muscle.
The big four of Chelsea, Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs, United and City, are a level above the chasing pack in terms of funds and their ability to attract big names. While we heap praise on Klopp for his work with Dortmund, the task he faces with Liverpool is more difficult.
Sure, it wasn’t that long ago that Liverpool were challenging for the title, and the Merseyside club aren’t a mid-table team like Dortmund were, but as Paul Wilson wrote for The Guardian, “For all of Klopp’s undoubted qualities, he’s not going to bring back (Luis) Suárez, is he?”
Kirsten cites three main attributes any leader worth his salt must possess: credibility, humility, and presence; Klopp clearly has all three. His pedigree can’t be questioned and has proved that he can turn a struggling side into one that wins trophies.
Like any new coach, Klopp will be establishing himself in his new environment while stamping his authority on a club that has a proud tradition. He has the backing of the owners and fans at the moment but there are no guarantees in football. Should too many results go against him; the new manager will soon find this honeymoon period short-lived.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
21 October 2015
In the closing stages of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Scotland, it appeared, against all odds, that the brave Scots were on their way to be the Northern Hemisphere's only representative in the semi-finals. It was not to be. Minutes later, South African referee Craig Joubert awarded Australia a penalty that Bernard Foley duly kicked over to give the Wallabies a dramatic victory. Since then the rugby world has been divided into those who are calling for Joubert's head and those staunchly defending the ref.What is not up for debate is that the sport needs a good long hard look in the mirror as this could have easily been avoided if players had the power to review a decision.
If you were watching the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia, you most likely experienced a wide range of emotions and ultimately disappointment if you, like everyone who isn’t Australian, don’t like Australia.
A penalty decision was awarded to Australia as the clock started ticking towards closing time. The kick went over and Australia snuck into the semifinals, slightly by crook. The decision was hotly debated.
World Rugby later issued a statement saying referee Craig Joubert made the wrong call in applying Law 11.7 and penalising Scotland’s Jon Welsh, who had played the ball following a knock-on by a teammate, resulting in an offside. The sport's governing body said that after a review "it is clear that after the knock-on, the ball was touched by Australia’s Nick Phipps and Law 11.3(c) states that a player can be put on-side by an opponent who intentionally plays the ball".
South African referee Jonathan Kaplan weighed in on the debate, saying: “I have regularly expressed deep concern that the laws of the game are too complex, not only for the public, but for the players too. To have this much conjecture is not good for anyone, least of all the integrity of the game. There are laws in the law book that we knowingly and willingly don’t apply and there are addendums, or whatever you want to call them, to help clarify what is stated in the law book. Is this good for the game?”
He makes a valid point, but there is also the issue of technology. According to World Rugby, Joubert could not refer the decision to the television match official (TMO). What he could have done, is asked for the decision to be replayed on the big screen, but he didn’t.
But this brings us to the crucial point. Why is there not room for interference in a situation as crucial as this one? Yes, mistakes happen and there have been many mistakes in the past, but isn’t the whole point of using technology in sport to avoid mistakes at all costs?
While it is certainly not practical to allow for it in all cases, because you might as well get rid of the on-field referee in that case and replace him with a robot that speaks in Nigel Owens’ voice, it is surely manageable in crunch matches? In situations where a decision could decide a game, surely the TMO should be allowed to intervene and relay to the on-field umpire what he has seen?
If that sounds far too complicated then perhaps a simpler solution is in order. Why not allow captains to review certain decisions? It is perhaps the one instance in which rugby can actually learn from cricket. As with the decision review system (DRS), why not allow captains one review per game – for any decision – to solve problems like this? The system has been tested in South Africa’s Varsity Cup competition with moderate success.
Through the middle of the season, the white card had a 41.18% success rate. Of the white cards used at the time of the Varsity Cup, 57% overturned a foul-play decision, meaning dangerous and early tackles are being clamped down on thanks to the use of technology. But the system was not without its challenges. Each team was allowed two challenges per match, one in each half, but it was found that these reviews often slowed down the game quite significantly as players reviewed decisions somewhat haphazardly. But it’s import to note that these things will happen in the teething stages of a new system. We saw it when cricket first introduced the DRS and we are still seeing it to some extent – sometimes players use the system strategically when they are desperate in the hopes that they’ll bag a 'get out of jail free' card. Limiting the number of reviews will help curb this 'willy nilly' approach by players. Tennis, too, allows for a challenge without too much fuss. Yes, rugby matches can feel too stop-start, but surely officials will want the correct decision to be made at all times?
Rugby has a pretty good track record when it comes to implementing and trusting technology and it is streets ahead of other sports like cricket and soccer. If ruby truly wants to embrace the wonders of technology and its effectiveness then it has to be all or nothing – chance should simply not play a role.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
15 October 2015
No one loves cricket more than Indians. The same could be said of New Zealanders and rugby. Ditto for Canadians and ice hockey. Certain nations have forged a part of their identity around a particular sport that it's impossible to mention one without the other. But how would a new sport wriggle its way into the psyche of a population and forge its own identity in a community besotted with a particular pastime? CONQA Sport explores this conundrum by finding out whether this is done through success in competition, the formation of a community, social upliftment, youth development, or an amalgamation of different variables.
Diego Maradona’s Hand of God is the most famous act of cheating ever seen in competitive sport. In the 1986 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal against England, the diminutive genius outjumped goalkeeper Peter Shilton and nudged the ball into the empty net with his hand. The goal stood and Argentina would go on to win the match 2-1 on route to their second World Cup triumph.
After the match, Maradona said that the goal was scored, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. 12 years later, a group of devout Argentine football fans took those sentiments to heart and formed the Iglesia Maradoniana, or, the Church of Maradona. Today, over 120 000 members worldwide worship the retired athlete like a deity.
Football in Argentina is literally a religion and is ingrained in the collective identity of the Latin American nation. But it wasn’t always so. The game was introduced to South America in the late 1800s by British workers who came to the continent to drive industry during a time when Britain was the great trading nation of the world. By 1870, 40 000 British expatriates were living and working in Buenos Aries. They set up English style schools and sporting clubs and in 1883, Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish school teacher, formed the Argentine Football Association.
What started as a pastime for foreigners and the local elite soon became a part of the identity of the masses. Today, the sport is synonymous with Argentina itself.
In exploring how a sport becomes part of a nation’s identity, we spoke with Matthew Hawkins, former captain and coach of the United States rugby sevens team, and Eugene Minogue, Chief Executive of Parkour UK, who hold contrasting views on this subject.
For Hawkins, “it is very difficult for a sport to establish itself in America without having a national team that is winning.” He adds, “Americans are supposed to win all the time, every time.”
According to Hawkins, without success, there is no fan base. He sees the strategy as complex but straightforward, “create a development platform that drives identity, youth participation, and a fan base.” And yet, with these structures in place what remains vital is winning.
Minogue has a different perspective. “I’m not sure what competition has to do with sport,” he says. “I don’t think they’re intrinsically linked.” Relative to rugby and other traditional sports, parkour is a young sport which has only been around for thirty years. Consequently, the sport has adopted a modern philosophy based on non-competitive principles.
Minogue is adamant that “if you look at traditional sporting structures, they are built on fundamental principles that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, and a lot of those are moribund now. “ For Minogue, forging an identity is all about community and recognising that it is so much more than a sport: “it’s an art, it’s a discipline, it’s a dance, it’s play.” By broadening the definition of what parkour can be, Minogue challenges the conventional wisdoms that Hawkins typifies.
For a sport to take hold of the psyche of a large proportion of the population, a sense of community needs to be established. Within that community, individuals need to feel a sense of belonging and share a unified vision or goal. Traditional sports like rugby or football drive communities along linear lines in tournaments and leagues where winning is the desired outcome. The success or failure of the team is felt by the fans who identify with the athletes and team they follow.
Hawkins’ theory on the growing enthusiasm of soccer in America has its roots in the success of the women’s national team. 24 years ago, the US won their first of three FIFA Women’s World Cups and brought glory to a nation that demands success on the world stage. Subsequently there was a massive rise in youth participation in the sport. That youth grew up with an affiliation to the game and today, Major League Soccer (MLS) matches are sold out shows featuring some of the biggest names in the sport.
The US sevens team achieved the nation’s first significant victory in any form of rugby when they won the final leg of the 2014-2015 Sevens World Series in England in May. Though Hawkins is optimistic for the future of rugby in America, that success hasn’t translated as yet to the 15 man game. The US have won one match in the last three World Cups, losing all four games this year. Hawkins is certain that with sevens rugby included in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio next year, the sport will enjoy more attention, but is once again adamant that success is vital.
Without a World Cup or Olympic participation at the sharp end of the sport, parkour has been able to market itself without the burdening weight of expectation. Parkour UK drives programmes and initiatives that use the sport to tackle crime, antisocial behaviour, and mental health issues. In impoverished housing estates where parkour has taken hold, results have shown a 69% drop in youth crime and antisocial behaviour.
Minogue argues that whenever a non-traditional sport tries to establish itself in a new environment, it is easy to get distracted by competition. He says that sport is about changing communities and giving people something to participate and belong to. “All the things that are intrinsic to sport are often forgotten when we try and market it and package it,” he says. “So many people are put off by sport and we have identified a new demographic and appealed to them in order to grow our community.”
Social media is a massive driving force behind this. Parkour’s rise in popularity has gone hand in hand with the growth of social media and the ease with which content can be shared. YouTube videos shared on Twitter and Facebook expose the sport to a global audience. Young people are not engaging with the world around them through TV and mainstream media like generations before them and parkour has tapped into a new demographic that hasn’t shown an interest in traditional sports.
But that is not to say that a non-traditional sport cannot win new fans that already identify with an existing traditional sport. As Hawkins says, sports fans love sport, and there is no limit to how many disciplines an individual can identify with. Hawkins himself is both a fan of the National Football League (NFL) and rugby and believes that all it takes to create new fans is exposure.
He says it is important where you place a non-traditional sport and it is vital that you don’t compete with existing traditional sports. He cites the way Japan has developed the game of rugby as an example. “The Japanese league has found a void in the calendar so their players can play in other competitions around the world and so their audience is not being drawn away by other more established sports and leagues.” This has driven enthusiasm and in four years’ time, Japan are set to become the first Asian country to host the Rugby World Cup.
Creating an identity around a sport takes time which is why driving young people towards the sport is vital for sustainability. Parkour, with its strong ties to social media and the fact that there are set no rules and regulations, has managed to create an avenue where young people can forge an identity. Rugby in America however, struggles to bridge the gap between young people participating in the sport and adults who have no outlet. Athletic youngsters gifted in an array of sports will almost always choose a traditional sport such as baseball or basketball over rugby. College tuition is expensive and the allure of scholarships offered to athletes in traditional sports is often too enticing.
“In America, there is no professional league,” says Hawkins. “I have no team to support, I have no massive stadium to go to, there are no star rugby players playing in this country.” There are roughly twenty Americans who play in foreign leagues, but when the ceiling in the country is set at college rugby and a small amateur club league, creating a national identity becomes extremely difficult.
What matters is the product. No one is going to try a new sport and go so far as making it a part of their identity if that sport is not entertaining and enjoyable. This year’s Rugby World Cup has been one of the most enthralling sports events in memory and has no doubt paved the way for a multitude of new fans. The US's victory on the Sevens World Series can't be ignored and might prove the catalyst that is needed. Parkour as a spectacle is breath-taking and documentaries and videos demonstrate the captivating acrobatic ability of professional practitioners. This video has over 7 million views. In fact, parkour and freerunning videos had over 200 million views worldwide and the numbers continue to grow.
Certain nations and communities are so inexorably tied to the games they play that it is hard to imagine how a new sport could penetrate their collective psyche. We take it for granted that Indians love cricket, that Canadians love ice hockey, or that New Zealanders love rugby. But there are so many ways to find an outlet in this world and so many people looking for something new. All it takes is a sense of community, a level of success, and a willingness to try something new.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
9 October 2015
"In rugby, men are missiles," so said sports journalist and sexologist Ernest Crawley in 1913. If only he could see them now. As the years have gone by, particularly after the injection of professionalism in the late '90s, those missiles have become nuclear warheads. Monsters crash into monsters for 80 minutes and the pace and force of the game has become relentless. And we love it. But what are the ramifications of the ever increasing forces rugby players exert on each other? Should we, as sports fans, be concerned? CONQA Sport speaks to Paddy Anson, Head of Strength and Conditioning at Gloucester Rugby, and explores the negative impact of expanding athletes. How has it affected the way the game is played and is there a warning from the NFL that rugby should be taking seriously?
The 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa was a fairy tale, and for fans of teams other than New Zealand’s All Blacks, it had a villain. A giant brute of a man who brushed off would be tacklers like a dragon would knights. At 1.96m and 126kg, this behemoth ran the length of the field like a train off its tracks. If anyone was unlucky enough to come between him and the try line, he simply ran them over. Englishman Mike Catt found that out the hard way in the semi-final between New Zealand and England at Newlands, Cape Town. Giants don’t bother with sidesteps.
His name is Jonah Lomu, and at one point in rugby’s history, there was not a man alive who didn’t fear this colossal Kiwi.
After the match that saw Catt become a sports quiz answer, English captain Will Carling said of Lomu, “He is a freak and the sooner he goes away the better.” It wasn’t just his size that made Lomu freakish, but his ability to combine it with pace, acceleration, and explosive power. This was no lumbering ox, but a rampaging rhino and the world had no answer.
At least it didn’t before professionalism took off around the turn of the millennium. Improved training regimes, controlled diets, strength and conditioning experts; the game could become more selective in the type of athlete it wanted. If the type of athlete wasn’t available, coaches and trainers could create one.
Players got bigger, faster, and stronger until every team had a freak. At this year’s World Cup, Fiji has a freak of their own on the wing. At 1.96m and 130kg, Nemani Nadolo is slightly bigger than Lomu was in his pomp. Yet the Lomuesque 30m runs peppered with tackle busting strides have been absent from this year’s showpiece. As Paddy Anson, the Head of Strength and Conditioning at Gloucester Rugby, told CONQA Sport, “If everyone in the game is a freak, then no one is.”
Part of Anson’s job is to create bigger and stronger rugby players for his English Premiership side, and coaches, fans, and the media love him for it. Rugby people love big hits and big athletes. TV shows create segments around the biggest tackle of the week and stadiums fall silent then erupt in applause whenever a player is waylaid by a monstrous collision.
“It’s one of the reasons why we love rugby,” says Anson. “We love the ferocity. We love to see these incredible athletes smash each other. What we often don’t realise is that these hits are causing damage. If we don’t address the way players are tackling and the way they’re getting bigger, we could face some serious problems.”
At the 1987 World Cup, the average weight of a forward was between 90-100kg. Today, many backs tip the scales at over 100kg with forwards expected to comfortably reach three figures. France’s Uini Atonio weighs 145kg. The increase in mass hasn’t slowed players down; in fact, the explosive ability of players has increased. That means that the force involved in each collision has increased over time.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion states that Force = Mass x Acceleration (F=MxA) and research has shown that the average force in a tackle involving a combined mass of 206kg is 1197N. Put another way, Dr Simon Foster, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London, has equated the modern forces involved in a rugby collision to being hit by a fridge freezer dropped from a height of 2 metres.
With increased fitness levels, and the ability to replace half a team with fresh recruits, the number of tackles that each player is making per game has increased over the years. At the 1995 World Cup, the average number of tackles per game was 111.7. That increased to 186.7 in 2003 and 197 in 2011. In the recent match between England and Wales, 210 tackles were made between the two sides with Dan Lydiate personally making 15.
After Japan’s historic win over South Africa, coach Eddie Jones warned that rugby was moving in a “dangerous direction” and called on the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, to increase fatigue in the game to reduce the number of collisions. “Rugby is now a collision sport,” he said. “Something needs to be done to make it more fatiguing. Players are getting bigger and stronger and faster and the field is staying the same size; the problem is that the power is there the whole game.”
Teams have become a lot more even in terms of fitness and strength. As a result, tactics have changed and space is seen as a luxury that is not vital for success. With the laws favouring the side who manages to hold the ball up in the tackle after a maul has been formed, defenders are taking a leaf out of rugby league’s book: one tackler goes low to stop momentum and bring the ball carrier down, but barring that, a second tackler goes in high to prevent the offload and keep the ball off the ground. There are now 3 players involved in a tackle instead of two. This has resulted in more concussive and whiplash injuries, often inflicted on the second tackler.
“The way Eddie Jones and the Japanese have tackled in this World Cup has been revolutionary and the rest of the rugby world has taken note,” adds Anson, referencing the chop tackle, where a defender targets just below the hips of the ball carrier while keeping 13 men behind the ball at all times. “When you have a 17 or 18 stone athlete colliding with another player at 6 or 7 metres a second, there is bound to be some damage. If we made it a law that everyone has to chop tackle, which would really help smaller players, we would make the game safer for everyone.”
The National Football League (NFL) in the Unites States has started hiring rugby union coaches to teach the chop tackle to defensive units. No longer are large athletes using their heads as battering rams. Anson is certain this will see an increase on the 3.3 years that is the average length of an NFL career.
“It would be a terrible thing if rugby careers were so short,” says Anson. “I’ve coached players who retire in their late thirties and have become legends of the game. These are real people with families and livelihoods. Coaches and trainers need to treat them with respect.”
Lieutenant General Bedford Forrest, of the Confederate Army, said that war was about, “Getting there firstest with the mostest,” and like war, rugby needs the strongest on the front lines as soon as possible. This arms race has put pressure on strength and conditioning coaches to create the perfect athlete in as little time as possible. Anson himself admits that although that can heighten the risk of injury, “strength and conditioning coaches would be out of a job if they failed to create stronger athletes than a rival club or nation.”
Unfortunately this mentality creates casualties as rugby players are grown too quickly. Their tendons and ligaments can’t keep up with their increased musculature and as we’re seeing more and more in the game, injuries occur.
“We need to understand that each player has a limit and we should never push him beyond that,” says Anson. “Science helps us understand those limits and professionalism allows us to tailor a programme for each athlete. It might take a little longer for naturally smaller athletes, but pushing a human body beyond what it is capable of can cause damage.” Not only that, but bulking up a player too much can actually negate his agility, explosive power, and speed, resulting in a less accomplished athlete.
But the perception that bigger is better is still prevalent. As the game grows in popularity, so too do the big hits and big players. Owners, fans, and the media all desire a bigger athlete and recent results (the Springboks upset to Japan the exception) have shown that bigger teams generally come out on top. In a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, results showed that post-match fatigue is lower in larger players, despite having greater internal and external match loads. Over the course of a season, larger players are more equipped than their smaller contemporaries.
Anson believes that by changing the rules, the game might not only see fewer injuries, but might open the field up and create a more exciting product.
“Why not make it a rule that only one player can tackle the ball carrier?” asks Anson. “That way the side step would come into play more, there would be more offloads, and the skill set required to be a successful rugby player would increase.” Anson is certain that a more open game would change fans perception of the game. This would not only alleviate pressures on athletes to be as big as they can, but also on strength and conditioning coaches who often have to choose between pushing a player too far and risking injury, or playing it safe but fielding a weaker team.
This year’s World Cup has brought teams closer than ever. Australia’s 65 points against Uruguay is the most scored by any team in a match so far, a long way off the 145 New Zealand scored against Japan in 1995, or the 142 Australia managed against Namibia in 2003. Defences are more organised and are filled with athletes that are as strong and fit as any attack they face.
But it is important to consider the ramifications of growing rugby players. Sure, big hits and tighter matches are two variables that we’re after as rugby fans. But if the price we pay is a war of attrition between athletes that are only able to perform at the elite level for less than 5 years, perhaps something needs to change.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.
25 September 2015
Cinderella stories, fairy tale results, no-hopers inspiring hope; whenever an underdog manages to upset a much better and accomplished rival in sport we can’t help but get romantic about the games we love. By its definition, an upset takes us all by surprise and throws egg on the face of so-called experts and allows the few that somehow managed to predict the result to say, “I told you so.” But can we draw any parallels between famous upsets and if so, can we use these common themes to predict future upsets? CONQA Sport explores the blueprint of a sporting upset.
Before the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, South Africa’s Springboks had a better win percentage than any other team at the tournament since its inception in 1987. Since the Boks joined in 1995, they have won 2 of the five World Cups they have competed in and 25 of their 29 matches for a win rate of 86.2%.
The Boks had never lost their opening fixture, and were certainly not expected to do so in Brighton last week against second-tier minnows, Japan, a team that had only won once in the history of the tournament, against Zimbabwe in 1991.
Coach Heyneke Meyer fielded the most experienced Springbok team in history, with 880 Test caps, against the Brave Blossoms, and played like a side who expected to bag an easy victory by merely showing up. They lacked imagination on attack and were out-muscled by their smaller opponents on defence. Japan lived up to their name and pulled off an astonishing 34-32 victory that no one could have honestly predicted. This was not merely rugby’s greatest upset, but arguably world sports.
Meyer and his Springboks have been labelled as arrogant and technically poor, while others have chosen to shower Japan and their coach, Eddie Jones, one of the greatest minds in world rugby, with plaudits and adulation. Whether you choose to attribute this result to the brilliance of the Japanese players, the poorness of their South African counterparts, or a combination of the two, you’ll have to admit that this result will go down in history as a colossal victory for the underdog.
But can we draw anything from this result that might explain why upsets like this happen? By its very definition, an upset is something that is not expected and throws conventional sporting wisdoms out the window. Upsets are one of the reasons we love sport, as scripts are torn up and the drama of the human condition ad libs its way to an astonishing crescendo. But by looking at other upsets throughout history, there are some interesting parallels.
Whenever an upset occurs, we are always reminded of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. David, a small shepherd boy, slew the giant Goliath with a sling shot against all odds. Goliath, like the Springboks, assumed that his size and strength would be enough to overcome his smaller opponent. The arrogance of Goliath was his downfall and for any upset to occur, the favourite almost always underestimates the weaker opponent.
Japanese based Springbok scrumhalf, Fourie du Preez, said he tried to warn his teammates that Japan were not to be underestimated. He told News24 that, “they were probably better prepared than us, they had a lot of focus areas where they targeted us. They outsmarted us.” It is simply unacceptable that a team like South Africa would need to be warned of an opponent’s ability. It shows a lack of professionalism and respect for the occasion.
When England made their FIFA World Cup debut in 1950, they were the self-proclaimed “Kings of Football” and were 500-1 favourites to beat the semi-professionals of the USA. Shockingly, they lost 1-0 thanks to a first half goal by Joe Gaetjens. Entitlement is all well and good if transferred into confidence, but disdain for preparation on the assumption of victory, and the arrogance of assumed superiority, meant the Boks, like the English of 1950, were found wanting against an opponent who wanted it more.
The Japanese did indeed outsmart their more illustrious opponents. Eddie Jones is a master tactician and targeted the Springboks strength of powerful athletes and turned it into a weakness. They were especially dominant at the breakdown and in the tackle, positioning their bodies low down and supporting the tackler effectively, resulting in seven turnovers and five penalty goals for the brilliant fullback, Ayumu Goromaru.
They kept the game narrow, a ploy that might seem to favour the larger forwards of the Springboks, but condensed them between the 15m tramlines and created a bottle neck where they were unable to find space. This sent ripples throughout the South African pack who suffered the indignity of conceding a rolling maul try. Japan’s ability to move the Springbok pack around the park begs for a comparison to the Japanese martial art of jujutsu where your opponent’s strength is used as a weapon.
It was a bold strategy by Jones and shows that for an upset to occur, risk is required. Speaking at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference, ESPN’s Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner explained how they have been able to predict, with some accuracy, an upset in NCAA basketball. They state that one way for an underdog to achieve victory is to increase their points variability.
On average, better teams score more points than their weaker opponents. If that is the case, it is often worth smaller teams increasing their chances of getting a thumping if they also increase their chances of victory. They could play it safe and hope for the best or they could conclude that losing by 50 or losing by 5 is still losing. Rather take that risk than be left wondering.
By fronting up to the Springboks physically, and keeping the ball narrow, Japan could have simply been swept away by South Africa’s forwards. They weren't, and were therefore able to stick to a plan that few saw coming.
Another important theme prevalent in most upsets is that the underdog played up their status as the weaker force. It is important not to overplay the underdog card as a negative mind-set will most certainly result in poor play, but athletes often run on bravado and the chance to prove doubters wrong can be a strong motivator. Jones talked up his players before the tournament and even stated that his side were capable of reaching the quarterfinals. Not many people took this seriously and, though we can only speculate, it's a fair assumption that Jones and his coaching staff fired up the Japanese players and used the opportunity to prove the world wrong as a great motivator.
When the New York Giants faced off against the New England patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl, almost no one gave them a chance. The Patriots were chasing a perfect 19-0 season and were trumpeted as one of the best teams the sport had ever produced. They also had superstar quarterback Tom Brady dictating play. The night before the game, the Giants replayed journalists’ and pundits’ predictions on who would win. Not one expert backed the Giants and this fired up the alpha-males in the room. As Giants linebacker Zak DeOssie said, “Having that chip on your shoulder, as the mentality of an underdog, will allow you to fully commit to whatever game plan is put in front of you.” When an athlete is backed up against a wall, knowing that there is no expectation to succeed can be liberating.
The Patriots were chasing a perfect season, just as the Springboks were looking to maintain their perfect record in opening matches of the World Cup. Another theme that Keating and Brenner touch on is the concept of a vulnerable giant. Famous upsets often accompany a favourite chasing a particular record or winning streak. When Serena Williams lost her US Open semi-final to unseeded Roberta Vinci earlier this month, she was chasing a Grand Slam triumph of winning all four Majors – having already won this year’s Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon – a feat not matched since Steffi Graf achieved it in 1988. She stumbled at the penultimate hurdle despite being in the form of her life. Success breeds success but it can often breed expectation. In elite sport, nothing should ever be taken for granted.
The beauty of sport is that we can never fully predict what is going to happen. It’s why we watch and love it. It’s why thousands of armchair pundits often accurately guess the results and established experts get it so wrong. These are real humans and the variables are infinite. Sure, over time, the cream rises to the top, but in a once off encounter, underdogs are able to pull off an upset.
In what is one of the greatest upsets of all time, a group of college students and no-namers from the USA took on the seasoned professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics for the gold medal in ice hockey. No one gave them a chance and yet they won 4-3 in a match that will forever be remembered as the “Miracle on Ice”. An upset like the one the Japanese were able to pull off is without doubt a sporting miracle. That’s why we love sport and why sports fans offer a glimmer of hope to rest of the world. We believe in miracles, and have proof that they exist.
17 September 2015
Every day, scientific breakthroughs change the world we live in and the only way to stay ahead of the competition is to stay ahead of the ever steepening curve. Elite sport is a cutthroat and competitive environment where only the best survive. As a result, sports technology is proving to be the difference in many close contests. CONQA Sport speaks to Mounir Zok, the Senior Sports Technologist at the Unites States Olympic Committee (USOC), and finds out that it is still the human element that ensures success in a world hurtling towards to the future.
The Jetsons was an animated sitcom that first aired in 1962 and ran for 75 episodes before it’s finale in 1987. The series was set in the year 2000 where the creators of the show envisioned a utopian future where mankind used space-age technologies such as robots, holograms, and flying cars to improve everyday life. The cartoon followed in the footsteps of events such as the World’s Fair and whimsical notions like the Kitchen of Tomorrow. Humans have always been fascinated with what the future holds.
According to Moore’s Law, every 12 to 18 months computers double their capabilities and so do the information technologies that use them. What that means is that for the length of three back to back European football seasons, humanity is doubling its technological abilities. In 10 years’ time we will be a thousand times more advanced than we are now and on that curve we will be a quadrillion (one thousand million million; 10 to the power of 15) times more advanced by the year 2065.
Futurist and scientist, Raymond Kurzweil, predicts that humanity will reach technological singularity and create artificial general intelligence (strong AI) sometime around the year 2045. Perhaps the whimsical fantasies of the Jetsons were only 45 years premature.
With this in mind, we spoke to Mounir Zok, the Senior Sports Technologist at the Unites States Olympic Committee (USOC). Like the creators of the Jetsons, we had futuristic dreams of streamline suits, shoes that would help sprinters run faster, or special breathing contraptions that improved endurance and stamina.
Of course, sport is moving parallel to the rest of humanity and there are technological advancements every day. Elite cycling, Formula 1, and a host of other sporting codes are constantly changing the game with new technologies that both improve performance, such as featherweight bicycles and KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), and divide opinion, such as goal line technology in football or hawk-eye in cricket. But that is not why our interview with Zok left an impression. What stood out was his answer when questioned on what the athlete of the future will look like.
“The athlete of the future is a more aware athlete, just as the coach of tomorrow is a more aware coach,” he said. But that’s not really what we were after. We had visions of Cathy Freeman in a one-piece suit at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. We wanted to hear about the 2050 RoboCup where scientists are hoping to pit robots against humans in a football match, advanced GPS tracking devices, or about the National Football League’s (NFL) virtual reality helmets that quarterbacks have started using to recreate in-game situations during training.
Zok brought us down to earth and reminded us that technology is merely a tool that is used to enhance the performances of both athletes and coaches.
“Technology is moving at light speed right now but that doesn't mean the core principles of athletic competition have changed,” says Zok. “In Olympic sports, and indeed most sports, new technology is just a better tool that athletes and coaches use to make informed decisions; it helps them better understand their bodies and what they are capable of under certain conditions.”
Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” success with the Oakland A’s in Major League Baseball was perhaps the first time the use of technology and data analysis entered mainstream consciousness in the sports world. Many wondered if technology, and the ease with which it allows players and coaches to analyse performances, would ever replace gut-feel coaches and the instincts that come with experience. Zok is adamant that this will never happen.
“Good coaching is a mixture of art and science,” he says. “Coaches and athletes have always tried to use cutting-edge technology to make better decisions. Technology for technology’s sake never works. Everything the coaches or athletes do requires it to be a function of one of the objectives that they are trying to achieve.”
USOC uses a human-centred design approach when it comes to new technology. Coaches and athletes are included in every stage of development and whatever ends up in their hands is driven by them. Before an end product is used, an array or working prototypes would have already been relegated to the scrapheap.
That is why no stone is left unturned when an organisation like USOC searches for the next big thing in sports technology. They pay close attention to other sectors, such as healthcare, agricultural, telecommunications, and motor industries, and regularly attend conferences and seminars where inspiration might be found. Any parallel that can be drawn with elite sport is explored. Who knows, the secret to the next gold medal could be found in the latest smart phone.
“My first role is to help the athletes and coaches dig deeper and understand what exactly they are trying to achieve. Are they trying to get faster, stronger, or fitter? Is it about improving leg speed? Is it about improving the body’s movement? The hardest part is asking the right question. Once you have the right question, you can then move towards finding the answer.”
Understanding that technology is simply a tool, and that the correct mindset and application is still required in order to use it successfully, is reassuring. Many sports around the world tend to reward the teams and individuals that spend the most amount of money.
If the best technologies and the benefits they bring were only available to those with financial muscle, Olympic committees from poor nations would be left behind; not exactly in keeping with the Olympic ideal of fairness and the true spirit of competition. Zok, who it must be said, comes from one of the best funded organisations, does not see this being an issue moving forward. He sees a disparity emerging, not between organisations who spend more and those who can’t, but between those who use the technology available to them effectively, and those who blindly follow technological trends and are not clear in their objectives.
“Today, in 2015, you don’t need economic resources to work well with technology,” Zok reassures us. “What you need to do today is be very careful about identifying what your goal is, as there are so many products out there and different variables that you have to be aware of.”
Variables such as the culture surrounding the sport, geographic location, the physical parameters of the sport, the needs of the particular athlete; there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution with sports technology. At USOC, individuals, even in team sports, have technology catered with them and for them to achieve their specific goals.
By using very short cycles in technology development and adopting lean start-up principles, USOC has been able to create a fluid model that allows mistakes to be made, but ensures there are no “could-haves” or “should-haves” come competition time.
With wearable technology becoming lighter, smaller, and less intrusive to the athlete, and with coaches and managers able to collect data during competition, technology is helping athletes understand their bodies better and are therefore able to make decisions that impact their performance in the slightest way. A foot adjusted a few centimetres in a cricket bowling action can have a profound impact on a match. A rugby union loose forward’s understanding that his back is too high when making a tackle can turn an average player into a great one.
Athletes and coaches are constantly improving and what we considered the ceiling a mere 5 years ago in terms of performance has already been surpassed. As records keep tumbling, and marginal gains are sought, it is reassuring to know that technology will never propel anyone to greatness that would ordinarily be ordinary.
“I always tell my team at USOC that we are helping the best get better by helping them become better at what they’re best at,” says Zok, the self-proclaimed “luckiest man” in sports technology. “Technology will never be the answer, but for those who know which question to ask, it can help them find the right path to take.”
With the Rio Games less than a year away, the scientists at USOC will be hard at work trying to gain that extra 1% in performance for their athletes and coaches. For an organisation that deals in 4 year cycles, Zok and his team are exploring every avenue to success.
25 August 2015
Subtlety and precision, or raw power and force of will; if asked to associate these attributes with either ballet or elite sport it would appear to be an easy match to make. Ballet is the prance of the aristocrat while sport is the everyman’s pastime. And yet, crossing the divide might provide a way for inhabitants in both camps to improve their already impressive attributes. Caryl Becker, Physiotherapist for the Royal Ballet Company, explains how her background in elite sport has helped improve the conditioning of dancers, and what ballet and the art world can teach elite sport.
Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo is perhaps the most iconic emblem in world sport. A silhouetted Jordan has his legs spread out and an arm outstretched in what appears to be the apex of one of his famous dunks. The logo has been emblazoned on countless sneakers, caps, shirts, and kit bags, and has earned Nike over $5 billion. What many people don’t realise is that Jordan was not performing a slam dunk, but rather a grand jeté, a traditional ballet manoeuvre.
Removing the thin superficial crust of machismo, it’s very easy to understand why ballet and elite sport can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Attributes like balance, strength, and agility, are all basic requirements needed at the elite levels of both sport and ballet.
Steve McLendon, the 1.93m, 147kg, nose tackle for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that ballet is physically more challenging than anything else he does. McLendon took up ballet as a way of improving his football and aiding injury prevention. It is a concept called “transferable skills” and allows attributes gained from one situation to have a positive impact on another.
First Soloist for the Royal Ballet Company in London, Alexander Campbell, told Jonathon Agnew on BBC’s Test Match Special, that his background and love for cricket has had a positive effect on his ballet. The Australian said, “I developed all sorts of skills - hand-eye coordination, timing, sharpness, explosiveness, agility – that perhaps wouldn’t have developed in the same way had I just been trained as a dancer.”
Whether you associate a Piqué with a raised pointed foot or a Spanish footballer, it’s easy to appreciate the physical ability that dancers demonstrate. Sure, ballet is not exactly a contact sport, but the strength and agility required to perform at the elite level could, in many ways, rival a professional rugby player.
“What these dancers do with their bodies every day is simply astounding,” says Caryl Becker, Physiotherapist for the Royal Ballet Company. “The control, the strength, the agility; these dancers rival anything I have seen in elite sport.”
Becker would know. Her introduction into elite physiotherapy started at Yorkshire County Cricket Club before she became the Chief Physiotherapist for the British Olympic Association from 2001 to 2013. In those 12 years, Becker worked with a variety of athletes and was exposed to a vast array of injuries and body types. She could be treating a petite gymnast’s swollen ankle in the morning, a robust weightlifter’s pulled bicep in the afternoon, and cap off the day soothing a sprinter’s strained quadriceps before closing time.
By immersing herself in a variety of sports, Becker was able to accrue an eclectic understanding of not only the injuries associated with each sport, but with the cultural nuances that permeate throughout each discipline.
“The core skill for any sports practitioner is how quickly you can understand the culture and be accepted within the culture,” says Becker.
The human body is a variable that both ballet and elite sport share. An injured metatarsal remains an injured metatarsal whether its origin is a mistimed slide tackle at Wembley Stadium, or a poorly executed entrechat quatre at the Bolshoi Theatre. It is the culture surrounding the injury that dictates how you deal with it.
A variable that is not shared in elite sport, at least one that is not a requirement, is the aesthetics of the performer. Shane Warne, arguably the greatest ever Test cricket bowler, was, at the height of his ability, hardly a candidate for the cover of Men’s Health magazine. That did not matter. Australian selectors and terrified opposition batsmen alike could not have cared less about the state of Warne’s midriff. All that mattered was his ability to dominate opponents and take wickets for his country.
Not so with ballet. “Ballet is more about the show than elite sport,” says Becker. “How did it look to the audience? Did it get a standing ovation? That has added a whole new dimension to the way I do my job.”
George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, liked his dancers skinny. In a fantastic piece for the Huffington Post, Elizabeth Kiem notes that Balanchine liked his dancers, “young, tall, and slender to the point of alarm. He liked to see bones. He liked to see ribs. He liked hyperextension and strength that was mechanical yet lithe. It is Balanchine’s obsession with the impossible “structure” that is often blamed for the destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world.”
Though ballet has (somewhat) progressed beyond the cognitive limitations of the 20th century, Becker still has to take into account that some aficionados might turn their noses up at muscular legs and rippling torsos.
“It makes it harder for me to do my job to be honest,” admits Becker. She tells us that an injured dancer was reluctant to start a particular rehabilitation programme that involved squats as she was afraid of the increased muscle mass that might occur. “We’re like a big family and one comment like, “Wow! Your legs are looking bigger” can cause a ripple effect throughout the company. There is certainly an element of education within the ballet world that is challenging.”
But that doesn’t mean that ballet isn’t willing to learn. Becker’s appointment is a testament to that, and her desire to act as a bridge between the two worlds offers the rest of us an example of how expanding our knowledge beyond the confines of our environment can only prove beneficial.
If Becker could bring anything over from sport, it would be the way dancers’ loads are monitored and quantified. Because sport is ultimately a competition, it has created an environment where marginal gains are scientifically measured and sought after to the nth degree. The way physiotherapists and managers mitigate against stress fractures, overuse injuries, and general wear and tear, straddles the latest advancements in modern medicine. With this thinking, choreographers and managers would be able to understand the precise physical requirements of a particular role within the production.
But it is the freedom from competition that allows ballet to remain true to its aesthetics. Without competition, ballet shouldn’t be called a sport at all. Ballet is an art, but that does not mean that sport cannot incorporate aesthetic lessons from dance.
“Because dancers are so focussed on how they move, their attention to detail on the minutest part of their body is to be admired,” says Becker. “Athletes could learn a lot about body control.” In a sport like golf, where a small movement of the head can have a domino effect on the rest of the body, a heightened sense of physical self-control could be crucial.
Though no studies (at least none that we could find) have attempted to find a causal link between the attractiveness of an athlete’s movements and injury, it is tempting to assume that what is pleasing on the eye might be pleasing for the body.
Take Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for example, two of the greatest male tennis players of all time, with 31 Grand Slams between them. Federer is gliding liquid on the court, each stroke of his arm and racquet a thing of poetic beauty. Nadal is a warrior, chasing down lost causes to the point of exhaustion. His game is often brutal to watch; a test of endurance and will power. Nadal turned 29 in June and has played 1017 singles matches, and after 14 years, that V8 engine that drives him onward seems to be showing signs of erosion. Conversely, the recently 34 year old Federer, with 1320 matches under his belt, continues to ooze seemingly effortless class.
Simon Barnes, on ESPNcricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly, asks if sporting beauty is a moral virtue. He questions; “Is there a moral obligation to play sport in a manner that entertains? Should a professional try put on a show?” As he rightly points out, “sport, in any pure sense of the term, is only incidentally entertaining.” Watching a beautiful solo goal by Lionel Messi might be more pleasing on the eye than a bungling own goal in by a no-name right back, but they both count the same on the scoreboard.
The world of ballet might be the dark side of the moon for many grunting athletes, but it is as marvellous to behold as anything found on any court, field, or pitch when performed at the highest level. In an age where information is shared with the click of a mouse, the margins that separate those at the top and those at the bottom are being reduced every day. When it comes to improving your own performance, either as a dancer, an athlete, or a physiotherapist, perhaps the answer lies in the last place you thought to look.
6 August 2015
We spend so much of our lives sleeping and the effect it has on us is so profound. Despite this, elite sport is still in its infancy when it comes to sleep research and its impact on performance. CONQA Sport speaks to some of the world’s leading experts on sleep and recovery to discover why so many athletes struggle to sleep at night, how they can improve their sleep, what behaviours they should adopt and discard, and why, in a world where marginal gains could mean the difference between winning and losing, the field of sleep is still relatively unexplored.
Following the success of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, rugby union launched itself out of the sporting Dark Ages and into the world of professionalism. Though this was met with some hostility in Europe, particularly the Home Nations of England, Wales, and Scotland, the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses welcomed the change.
In 1996, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, at the time the only nations to win the World Cup, formed SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) and sought to create the most competitive domestic rugby tournament in the world.
After the formation of SANZAR, Super Rugby, as the competition became known, morphed from 10 to 12 teams. It grew to 14 in 2004 and then to 15 in 2009. Clubs from Japan and Argentina will join next year meaning teams could potentially play matches in Buenos Aries one week and then Tokyo the next, covering a distance of 18 390km and 12 time zones.
Travel has always been a major criticism of the competition with many South African teams lamenting long tours and distances, blaming them for poor results away from home. A closer examination of the numbers indicates that over the course of the 2015 season, the Australian conference winners, the Waratahs (40 225km) travelled more than the South African conference winners, the Stormers (35 611km). However, it is the crossing of time zones and the effects this has on sleeping patterns that is the main concern for South African teams.
Desynchronosis, or more colloquially, jet lag, is a physiological condition that occurs when the body’s natural circadian rhythm is out of sync with the time zone it is in. Anyone who has travelled across time zones has felt the effects of being unable to sleep at night while struggling to stay awake during the day. Now imagine having to train like an elite athlete for a game in hostile territory in a few days’ time.
“The biggest challenge with jet lag and resynchronisation is with training, as the intensity of performance is significantly reduced,” says Dr Jason Suter, the Medical Director at the Western Province Rugby Union. “As a coach, you have to manage the loads to protect your players because they are subpar.” As a result of irregular sleeping patterns and the difficulty of staying awake, training hours are lost. That time could have been spent on conditioning, skills acquisition, and team cohesion.
“What we’ve started doing is trying to take that traditional 10 day resynchronisation period and halving it,” adds Suter. “An important part of that is improving the sleep hygiene of the players as sleep is often ignored but has a major impact on recovery and performance.”
The reason why sleep is so important for athletes is that during deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep, the human growth hormone (also known as HGH) is released which is vital for muscle and tissue recovery, injury prevention, and inflammation reduction. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (also known as dreaming sleep as this is where most of our dreams take place) occurs in a lighter phase of sleep and is also important for athletes as this where memory consolidation (including muscle memory) occurs. As psychologist and sleep expert, Jason van Schie, says, “Deep sleep is where the body repairs itself physiologically and REM sleep is where the brain repairs itself psychologically.”
When athletes are at the height of training, either before or during competition, the proportion of their sleep that is spent in deep sleep is increased. This shows that the greater the intensity of training, the greater the need for deep sleep and the benefits it provides.
Missing out on a few hours here and there might not seem like a big deal, but the accumulated sleep debt can severely impact no only physiological recovery, but also sporting performance. “Losing up to two hours of sleep a night from stress, poor sleep habits, or jet lag, over the course of just seven days can show visible drops in reaction times, coordination, and general performance similar to the effects of a blood alcohol limit of 0.10,” van Schie says.
A major deterrent to healthy sleep is the technology that we love and surround ourselves with. Laptops, TVs, tablets, and phones all emit blue light. What that means is that the devices that we stare at throughout the day and well into the night replicate sunlight and can inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for drowsiness and sleepiness.
Before electricity, when the sun set, our world naturally got darker, temperatures dropped, and our body and mind prepared for sleep according to a natural circadian rhythm set by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (better known as the body clock). With all the technology at our disposal, melatonin is not being produced at a natural hour and as such we are finding it more and more difficult to fall asleep and achieve good restorative sleep.
According to van Schie, a study conducted in 2012 found that, “People who were looking at an electronic device for 2 hours before bed time had an average of 22% reduction in melatonin production over night.” This led to sleeping problems, a reduction of time spent in deep sleep and as a result, people experienced increases in day time tiredness. It’s important to remember that it is not necessarily the quantity of sleep that provides the benefits, but the quality of sleep.
Most athletes are under the age of 30 and many are still teenagers. Trying to get any young person to turn off their phone or tablet is difficult enough. Try telling a multimillionaire jet setter to turn off his or her phone and go to bed. Not likely. Coupled with the stress that elite athletes face and the demands from their managers, organisations, fans, and the media, it’s no wonder why so many athletes have trouble sleeping. What is a wonder is why such an important part of the human condition is only recently getting the attention it deserves in an industry that prides itself on leaving no stone unturned.
“I think it’s fair to say that 30 years ago the demands that athletes face today just weren’t there,” says Nick Littlehales, a renowned sleep recovery coach and consultant. “We’ve never adopted good sleep hygiene but we were able to cope with it, we just didn’t know why and never bothered to find out.”
In the 1990s, Littlehales was the sales and marketing director for an international bedding company. His job was to sell mattresses, pillows, and beds, and wanted to expand his knowledge on sleep and the way the human body responds to it. He figured that elite sport, with all its data and analytics, would prove to be a wealth of information. He contacted the nearest club to his offices, which just happened to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. What he discovered astounded him.
“What elite footballers, trainers, coaches, and managers knew about sleep and what their athletes were sleeping on, was no different to anyone on the high street,” says Littlehales. “Once I realised that these guys knew nothing about this field, I stepped in to help and I’m still amazed at the lack of knowledge that the elite sport industry has with regards to sleep.”
Littlehales has since worked with some of the biggest names in elite sport with Real Madrid, British Cycling, The National Rugby League, and a host of other organisations and teams learning from the retired salesman and golf pro. “I have always focussed on elite sport simply because elite sport focusses on me,” he says.
What Littlehales focusses on is the environment that the athletes sleep in. The human brain loves consistency and routine, especially when it comes to sleep. What Littlehales does is educate athletes and organisations on how best to replicate the optimal environment that promotes the physical and mental recovery of the athlete. As he stresses, sleep is nothing more than the natural restoration of the body and mind, and anything that hinders that process needs to be removed. In fact, Littlehales insists on calling bedrooms “sleep recovery rooms”, as that is their primary function.
Littlehales also educates athletes and organisations about identifying their individual chronotype. Van Schie divides chronotypes into “owls”; people who prefer to go to sleep later and are full of energy later in the day, and “larks”; people who are early risers, but drop off soon after the sun has set. It’s important to know what category your athlete falls under. For example, if two footballers have the same ability to convert a penalty in an all-important shoot-out late at night, understanding which athlete naturally has more energy at a specific time of the day could be vital.
It is also advised to shift one’s thinking from the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night to 5 nightly cycles of 90 minutes each. That amounts to 35 cycles per week as a target. “8 hours, in today’s world, for the majority of individuals, is simply unattainable,” says Littlehales. “Instead, focus on 35 cycles per week. You probably won’t get it, but anything near 30 is fine.”
By breaking the sleep cycle into 90 minute chunks, an athlete is able to manage his or her expectations on their perceived value of sleep. Need to attend a late night meeting? Have a dinner plan that extends past your bed time? It’s not a problem provided you are near 30 cycles per week, keep a regular pre-sleep routine, and have a positive perceived value on your sleep and recovery.
“Sport tries to make everything academic and scientific,” says Littlehales. “You now have sleep pods that cost around $2 500 and special products and mattresses that cost thousands of dollars but it’s all not necessary. The truth is, if you can’t replicate the same environment wherever you are, then all the products and processes are going to be counterproductive.”
If it seems a little too simple, that’s because it is. What Littlehales does is provide clubs and athletes with information on how to create a consistent environment, which is vital to establishing a healthy and regular sleep pattern.
Using thicker curtains that block out light, removing technology from the bedroom, having a hot shower before bed to raise body temperature before entering a cool room and bed, finding a pillow that suits your body’s needs, staying in hotels that provide appropriate light levels at appropriate times; simple and minor alterations to one’s sleep routine can have profound effects once a pattern has been established.
In order to establish a routine that can be replicated on long distance plane trips, Suter and the Stormers management encourage their players to use a product called Sleep Spec. Developed by Dr Robert Daniel, these amber glasses block out blue light and allows the user to use their phones and tablets before bed without the negative effects that would normally entail.
So far, the results have been anecdotal, but Suter is positive that the regular use of the glasses, and the production of melatonin that they encourage, have contributed to the Stormers being the most successful South African team in terms of games missed through injury. Suter also reports that the players that regularly wear the glasses on plane trips are less affected by jet lag and are therefore able to train at 100% much sooner than those who do not wear them regularly.
Elite athletes have amplified stress and expectations that, despite their often exorbitant salaries, many of us simply can’t relate to. Whatever can aid their physical and mental recovery should be explored. A well-rested athlete is always going to outperform someone who is fatigued or injury prone. It is these margins that relegate potential champions to the footnote of someone else’s glory.
30 July 2015
Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to stand head and shoulders above others in a particular sport? Rasmus Ankersen, CEO of Danish football club FC Midtjylland, travelled across the world to answer that question. He recorded his observations in a book called The Gold Mine Effect: Crack the Secrets of High Performance (2012) and identified certain ingredients that talent hotbeds around the world share. Using the same theories, CONQA Sport explores how a high school in the middle of South Africa can stake a claim as being the most productive gold mine in world rugby.
The annual circus that is the international football transfer window is well under way, and it hasn’t failed to deliver on hyperbole. The gargantuan figure of £49 million that Manchester City paid Liverpool for the 20 year old, Raheem Sterling is just one deal that is enough to make your head spin.
With other dizzying numbers being thrown around for household names such as Sergio Ramos, Angel Di Maria, and Arturo Vidal, you’d be forgiven for missing the transfer of Simon Kjær to Turkish club Fenerbahçe. The 26 year old Danish centre back was sold for the comparatively measly £5.42 million by Ligue 1 side, Lille. With 50 caps for his national side as well as a wealth of European experience, Kjær is a solid professional, but hardly anywhere near a Ballon d’Or candidate.
But this story is not about Kjær’s standing in the global game. Rather, this is about the idea that his football passage inspired.
“When Simon was at the academy at FC Midtjylland, I never thought he would make it at all,” says Rasmus Ankersen, who is also the co-director of football at English Championship side, Brentford FC. “Even today, I probably wouldn’t think so compared to some of the talent we have. But I was wrong.”
Kjær was sold to Italian club Palermo in 2008 for £2.83 million (a healthy return for the Danes at the time) and won Danish Footballer of the Year a year later. Ankersen was driven to understand why such potential came as a surprise to him. What is talent? How do you identify talent? How do you grow talent? These were some of the questions he wanted to answer.
Ankersen’s journey took him all over the world to hotbeds of sporting pedigree. He studied long distance runners in East Africa, sprinters in Jamaica, rising female golf stars in South Korea, and many other areas renowned for their ability to produce production lines of talent in particular sports.
“The purpose of the book was to really make people think differently with regards to talent,” says Ankersen. “It’s not that I found a recipe on how to create a gold mine. I rather went to where the existing gold mines are and discovered ingredients that each one shares.”
One thing that they all share is a history of success that drives future generations forward. As Ankersen points out in his book, an early morning run in a small Ethiopian village might include Olympic gold medallists. This has a tremendous impact both physically and psychologically. By rubbing shoulders with greatness, young athletes are able to push themselves further and hold excellence to a higher standard. They can also clearly envisage a path to greatness as their heroes have walked the same path they’re on.
For a sport to take a hold on the culture of a nation, it needs role models that young athletes wish to emulate. Growing up in Sherwood Content, Jamaica, Usain Bolt was destined to be a sprinter. He flirted with the idea of becoming a fast bowler in cricket, but was inspired by a culture that was swept up with sprinting and would go on to dominate the sport for years to come.
“It’s not that there are no Usain Bolts in England or Germany,” says Ankersen. “They’re just playing football.” If Bolt had been born in America, can you imagine what a devastating wide receiver he may have made in the NFL?
Ankersen stresses that he does not believe that a particular race or region produces a breed of human that is perfect for a particular sport. What The Gold Mine Effect postulates is that genetics only creates a gifted athlete; what athletic journey that athlete embarks on is guided by the culture that has shaped his or her life.
Grey College, a prestigious school in Bloemfontein, South Africa, is arguably one of the most fruitful breeding grounds for rugby union talent on the planet. Of the last 200 Springboks that have worn the famous green and gold, 20 are a product of this illustrious school. Paul Roos Gymnasium in the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape may have more Springboks overall (48 to Grey’s 45), but recent history firmly establishes Grey as the dominant rugby talent factory in the country.
Piet Viljoen is the Head of Sport at Grey and suggests that celebrating that success encourages young athletes to strive for similar glories. “We encourage our old boys to come and share their success with the learners,” says Viljoen. Included in that list of old boys are Ruan Pienaar, Heinrich Brüssow, François Steyn, and the du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismark. “That success is visible with Springbok jerseys displayed and boards listing the achievements of our old boys. Our learners can feel that success in the halls of our school.”
Bloemfontein is situated in the Free State, a province in the centre of South Africa that predominantly relies on agriculture and mining. Many young boys are exposed to physical activity from a young age, helping their families with chores. This would go some way to explaining why so many rugby players that are raised in the Free State are strong, tough athletes.
Grey is also an Afrikaans medium school. Rugby is considered a central pillar of Afrikaans culture and values a physical approach to the game. Playing outside in all weather conditions (often barefoot) encourages young boys and girls to exert themselves physically. The Springboks of today all spent many hours running around with their friends and siblings as young children. You’d be hard pressed to find a young Afrikaans boy living in the Free State who doesn’t dream of one day becoming a Springbok.
But culture can only provide an environment for talent to flourish. By understanding the context of the individual’s talent, a scout or manager can make a measured call. Talent, after all, is an investment and putting faith in young athletes is never a guarantee.
Ankersen explains; “You have two sprinters; one is running the 100m in 10.2s, the other in 10.6s. If I ask which is the better athlete most people will automatically say the 10.2 athlete, but that is not the whole picture.”
The 10.2 athlete may have had the best coaches, a strict nutrition programme, and an encouraging environment, whereas the 10.6 athlete may have struggled in life or been forced to train alone. The point that Ankersen makes is that an untrained 10.6 has the potential to be better than a trained 10.2. With the right environment, training, role models, and structures, the untrained 10.6 could become an Olympic gold medallist.
It is important to remember that creating and encouraging a culture passionate about a sport with raw athletic potential is not enough to create champions. While South Africa regularly produces some of the best rugby talent in the world, its football pedigree has dramatically fallen. Not since the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations has Bafana Bafana (nickname for the national football team, meaning The Boys) won a major tournament.
Football is the most popular sport in the country with a much larger talent pool to choose from compared to rugby and cricket. Role models exist as do past glories and yet the national team languishes in 70th place on the FIFA World Rankings. South African youth teams regularly compete and often win international competitions while the senior team consistently struggles. Clearly something is going awry between the raw talent stage and the implementation of that talent at the elite level. The best ingredients in the world still need to be crafted by an experienced and talented chef to create a gourmet meal. In South Africa, the talent is found in abundance but is only crafted with world class skill in particular sports.
Identifying talent and nurturing it in an environment that has a history of success in a particular sport is how you create a gold mine. Any nation or organisation that has any sort of sporting pedigree has the potential to expand on that and become a super power in another sport. The USA has the potential to become the best rugby union nation, India the best footballing nation, or Jamaica the best at basketball. All that is needed is a prospector that can find that first trace of gold, and then, with the right guidance and management, the rush is sure to follow.
23 July 2015
For most people, running away to join the circus might seem like a desperate attempt at experiencing an alternative lifestyle, but for elite gymnasts, it offers a continuation of one they love. Of the roughly 1 200 artists and performers on Cirque du Soleil stages around the world, a third have a history in elite sport. CONQA Sport explores how the largest theatrical organisation on the planet paves the way for young athletes to prolong their passion after they are deemed too old for the sport to which they have given their life.
In 2004, Svetlana Khorkina retired as the greatest female gymnast from Russia. In her comparatively eternal 10 years in the sport, she achieved 2 gold medals from 3 Olympic Games (1996, 2000, and 2004), as well as 9 golds at the World Championships and 13 golds at the European Championships. She was only 25 when she left the sport.
Gymnastics is notorious for the impossibility of longevity. By gymnastics standards, Khorkina was a veteran. Although age requirements were increased from 15 to 16 by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (International Federation of Gymnastics – FIG) in 1997, the sport remains a young person’s game.
Gymnasts generally peak by the time they’re 16. Puberty is a big factor as increased bone and muscle mass doesn’t lend itself to the flexibility and manoeuvrability that is required at the elite level.
With such a short career span, many gymnasts are forced to find alternative ways of earning a living after retirement. The catch is many elite gymnasts have dedicated their entire lives (albeit their still brief lives) to the sport. The only skills they possess are rooted in a sport that no longer has a place for them. This is why so many athletes are running away to join the circus.
“We offer a very logical continuation of a career,” says Pavel Kotov, a former Russian gymnast and currently the Casting Director for Cirque du Soleil, the largest theatrical organisation in the world. “Many athletes are not conscious of the fact that they already have a profession and can continue their career once their competitive days are over.”
Of the roughly 1 200 Cirque artists and performers on stage around the world, a third have a history in competitive sport. Many are former gymnasts but Cirque also recruits from synchronised swimming, acrobatics, diving, and a variety of extreme sports.
“We have a network of contacts and scouts from various sports,” says Kotov. “We have a good relationship with the FIG as well as other federations and organisations. The FIG allows us official privileged access to all World Championships as well as access to training rooms.” There are informal booths set up at various competitions around the world that display the pageantry and glamour of Cirque as well as provide information on how to join once competition is no longer an option.
Cirque has a strict code of ethics and never attempts to lure an athlete away from his or her chosen sport while still competing. “Our discussions are mainly with the coaches and the federations,” says Richard LePage, the Director of Coaching and Performance at Cirque. “We very seldom talk to the athlete, unless he or she has applied directly to the casting data base of Cirque du Soleil. Then we check that they are in fact done with competition and whether or not they fit with what we are looking for.”
Cirque artists and acrobats perform gravity defying stunts and highly skilful and athletic manoeuvres. However, just because someone was an Olympic gold medallist, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a successful performer. Former Olympians are expected to dance and sing on stage, often wearing intricate costumes and outlandish makeup. “It is important for the person on stage to go beyond being a great acrobat,” says LePage. “We get a lot of acrobats that need high end performance training. The best gymnasts aren’t always the best on stage.” Former athletes are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, away from the rigours of elite sport. They need to abandon their innate drive to win that made them champions and channel that energy in a more creative and open minded manner. “Outside of the main acrobatics, the artists are on stage between 30 minutes and an hour,” says Kotov. “A lot of the time they’re performing not as acrobats, but as dancers, singers, clowns, actors and characters on stage within a broader narrative.”
Apart from the artistic adjustment that is required to make the transition from elite sport to Cirque, many athletes also need to align themselves with the pace of circus life. “The structure of Cirque is drastically different from sport,” says Kotov. “We follow very different calendars in the sense that athletes in sport prepare for an event and present themselves to win, and for us, every show is just as important as the last.”
Elite athletes will plan their year according to major events such as the Olympic Games. They will cycle through programmes allowing for peak performance during competition while tapering off and resting immediately after competition. Cirque performers cannot do this. “In that sense we’re more like a team sport than a sport for individuals,” says LePage. “The mind-set is different and that is why not all the best champions are the best artists.”
An individual performer may be on stage over 400 times a year, often performing the exact same routine with the exact same efficiency. “Many athletes get bored by the repetition,” says Kotov, alluding to the fact that gymnasts will continuously alter their routine. “They can also get too focussed on technique and many struggle to reveal themselves artistically. For the ones who can, and love what they do, there is an opportunity to have a career with Cirque.” There are veterans in the organisation who have been performing for 15 years. The sports that they have come from do not offer the same longevity.
And that remains a major pull for so many athletes. Terry Bartlett, a former Olympian and British gymnast, told Geoffrey Fowler of the Wall Street Journal, that dressing up as a clown and performing is, “Better than having a real job.” Beyond coaching, there are very few opportunities for athletes to remain in their sport. Cirque offers them a continuation of their passion.
Craig Lowther, the Head National Coach of trampolining, tumbling and double mini trampoline (DMT) at British Gymnastics, is a strong supporter of gymnasts making the transition. “My role as a coach is taking this 8 year old gymnast into adulthood,” he says. “I have 14 athletes that have made the transition into becoming artists for Cirque and I am very proud of all of them. When I watch them I feel proud that I have done the best for them and that they will go on to the next stage of their lives, still involved in what they love at a world class organisation.”
Very few of us can relate to the elite athletes who are forced to succumb to the limitations of their age. Fewer still can understand what that feeling must be like for gymnasts in their early 20s. Luckily, thanks to Cirque du Soleil, the show must, and does, go on.
16 July 2015
Elite sport is a cut-throat business. Hard work and effort is commended and admired, but the age of the gentleman amateur is over. Winning at all costs and ensuring success is all that athletes, fans, owners, and sponsors care about. Focussing on one's strengths is one way to do it, but there is another, more ruthless avenue to glory. Preying on your opposition's weaknesses might seem low, but it is a tactic that has proved successful for centuries. Tim Mahon, the High Performance Manager for Shooting Australia, speaks to CONQA Sport about Manoeuvre Warfare, and how this military concept can be related to elite sport.
“Iron” Mike Tyson may have retired from professional boxing in 2006 after consecutive losses against Danny Williams and Kevin McBride, but his status as one of the hardest punchers in the sport’s history ensures his name is synonymous with intimidation and raw power. The self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” was ferocious in the ring. At his peak, no man alive could stand up to him. As he reveals in this video, his reputation and the fear it brought often meant he had won the fight before a punch was thrown.
“Most guys were pretty much intimidated. They lost the fight before they even got hit,” says the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. “I knew how to beat these guys psychologically. I walk around the ring but I never take my eyes off my opponent. Once I see a chink in his armour, then boom! One of his eyes made a move then I know I have him. He’ll fight hard for the first two or three rounds, but I already know I broke his spirit.”
Intimidation was a tool that Tyson used as a means of beating his opponent, but intimidation is not limited to physical dominance. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, was notorious for his smack talk and theatrics. Chris Webber, another NBA legend, tells of a time Jordan, while playing in Washington with the Chicago Bulls, walked into the opposition’s locker room to boldly ask, “Who’s going to check me tonight?” This challenge and bravado added to the already held perception that there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.
There is another method to psychologically damage your opponent, one that does not rely on brute strength or verbal manipulation. It’s called manoeuvre warfare, and is a military term that has been used for centuries in combat.
“Manoeuvre warfare is a state of mind bent on shattering the enemy morally and physically by paralysing and confounding him, by avoiding his strengths, by quickly and aggressively exploiting his vulnerabilities, and by striking him in a way that will hurt him the most,” says Tim Mahon, the High Performance Manager at Shooting Australia. In Mahon’s sport, physical contact is not a factor and verbal interaction between shooters is prohibited. That doesn’t mean that “psychological warfare” doesn’t exist.
In layman’s terms, manoeuvre warfare focusses on the opposition’s weakness rather than your own strengths and uses the element of surprise in order to catch the opposition off their guard. It is a high risk, high reward strategy, and because of its decisive and shocking nature, is extremely demoralising should it work.
“The point of manoeuvre warfare is to be the aggressor with mind games as well as a bold strategy,” says Mahon. “It’s not merely about beating them; it’s about crushing them psychologically so that they remember the beating you gave them.” By asserting yourself as the aggressor, the balance of play will almost always mean that your opponent needs to become the defender. The psychological position of being on the back foot can be destabilising and inhibit creative and fluid play.
There are a few ways to do this. Mahon uses former Polish shot putter Władysław Komar’s interesting tactic in the 1972 Olympics as an example. In sports like shot put, most athletes start off with smaller targets and work their way up to their best. Komar bucked the trend and planned to surprise his opposition with an outstanding performance in his first try. The plan worked and Komar took gold with a personal best of 21.18m. Silver medallist George Woods couldn't match the Pole, even though during training he had passed 22m. Because Komar’s strategy was unexpected, it had a direct impact on the performance of his opposition.
Former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.” Sport is a cut-throat business where hard work and effort are commended, but winning at the elite level is what matters. Finding the competitive advantage often requires bold strategies. Many athletes and teams might not have realised it, but manoeuvre warfare, and the element of surprise that it brings, has been implemented in sports throughout history. Staying ahead of the field requires a constant shifting of strategy and implementation as the teams that remain stagnant are left behind.
“In manoeuvre warfare, there is only a small window of opportunity where you can be successful,” says Mahon. “Once the opposition have caught on, that element of surprise is no longer applicable.” In cricket, reverse swing bowling is a phenomenon when an older cricket ball swings towards the shinier of the two sides rather than towards the rougher side. When this occurs, the ball either swings away from its initial movement creating an ‘S’ trajectory, or a later, more pronounced swing movement in the same direction. When the Pakistan fast bowlers of the 1990s brought this technique to the international stage, batsmen around the world feared it. This fear crept into the minds of the opposition, and even if the ball didn’t start to reverse, the threat of it doing so was enough for it to be effective. Today, reverse swing bowling is a staple of cricket and the element of surprise is no longer a factor.
The perception of a dominant technique or opponent can have a direct effect on one’s own ability. “One of our shooters is a guy called Michael Diamond,” says Mahon. “He’s a duel gold medallist and one of the best shooters of all time. When Michael rolls up to competition, other shooters have told me that they had already resigned themselves to the fact that he was going to win. They were merely competing for second place. It doesn’t make sense because in our sport it’s just you versus the target, but Michael’s presence meant that others didn’t back themselves to perform at their best.” History is littered with athletes that exuded an aura of dominance such as Michael Schumacher, Serena Williams, and Michael Phelps.
The same happened when Tiger Woods was at his prime. The brash American seemingly won every tournament he competed in during his 683 cumulative weeks as the number one golfer in the world. How many majors and trophies did he win with his presence alone? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the roar of Tiger coming from behind must have had a psychological impact on many golfers. Now that his hold on the sport has dwindled, there has been a more even spread of champions.
There is a risk when attempting something as bold as manoeuvre warfare in sport. “It’s a no guts, no glory approach,” says Mahon. “But if I’m competing I want to be winning. It’s about working backwards from the end goal which is winning. Sport is a very shallow business in that sense.”
Like a boxer targeting a cut eye, or an opposing manager or owner putting down his opposite number to the press, focussing on an opponent’s psychological or physical weakness might lend itself to the more sinister side of sport. However, in a world that celebrates champions, gaining that extra competitive edge is all that matters.
9 July 2015
There are some special athletes around the world that seem impervious to the touch of Father Time. These men and women not only refuse to let the advancing years hinder them; they embrace their age with wisdom, skill, and invaluable experience. One such athlete is Victor Matfield; the imperious South African rugby forward who is not only the most capped Springbok of all time, but at 38, is still one of the most indomitable sportsman on the planet. CONQA Sport explores how older athletes maintain excellence, how they adapt their game, and the emotional maturity that is needed in order to remain at the top.
"Back, back to the days when boys
Were men, still hopeful, and untamed.
That was then: a gay
and golden age ago.
Now in vain, domesticated,
Men try to be boys again."
- Excerpt from Rugby League Game by James Kirkup
Jason Gillespie, a retired Australian cricketer and one of the most successful Test bowlers during the early 2000s, claims to be a patriotic, true-blue Aussie. But after recent comments concerning his countrymen ahead of the current Ashes Test cricket series against England, one might start to doubt that.
“They’re Dad’s Army,” the head coach of Yorkshire told the Mirror last month. “I’d be thinking, ‘let’s keep them in the field. Let’s get them tired, they’re old blokes. We can put these guys under pressure’.”
Australia won the last Ashes series 5-0 early last year with much the same squad as they’ve taken to England this time around. It’s easy to understand why captain, Michael Clarke (34), and wicket keeper, Brad Haddin (37), didn’t take Gillespie’s observations to heart.
“There is a long list of people who have criticised this team. Might just add Dizzy (Gillespie) to that queue of people,” said the Baggy Greens skipper. When asked about the age issue, Haddin joked, “We need to get the coaches to mash up our food sometimes, because we’re old, but mate, that’s just how it is.”
The average age of the England side for the first Test is 27.3 years, with the Australians averaging 30.9 years between their 11 players. That is a difference of 3.6 years per player; hardly a massive gap, but at the elite level of sport, even the smallest margins are amplified.
“There is a perception in most professional sports that when a player gets into his thirties, then he is over the hill,” says David Milner, Physiotherapist at reigning South Africa Premier Soccer League champions, Kaizer Chiefs. “It’s a perception that needs to change because so many players are given the impression that they’re not good enough because they’re getting older and it simply isn’t true.”
Competitive sport is one of the few professions where entering one’s thirties is seen as approaching old age. Ryan Giggs, Wayne Gretzky, Paula Radcliffe, Brett Favre, and many others, have proved that age really is just a number if you’re able to retain a high level of competitiveness and excellence.
One player who can be mentioned in the same breath as these timeless legends is South African Springbok rugby player, Victor Matfield. The towering lock turned 38 in May and remains the most influential line-out practitioner in world rugby today. He says there are no short cuts when it comes to fitness and that as an older player he has to work even harder than his younger teammates.
“You need to train harder the older you get,” says the most capped Springbok of all time, with 121 appearances in the famous green and gold. “There is a risk with older players that if they don’t work even harder than the younger guys, they’ll fall behind from a fitness perspective.”
However, the reality is that the body’s ability to take knocks and exert force does diminish as it gets older. According to Milner, “there is a natural attrition of muscle strength. From about 26 we find there is about a 1% decrease in muscle strength annually.” Matfield is 38 which equates to 12 years of decreasing strength that he has had to manage.
Yet, he is captaining his country against a combined World XV this weekend and, barring injury, will most certainly be an instrumental member at the Rugby World Cup in England later this year. His inclusion is not based on sentiment or his ability to encourage and motivate others. In rugby, there is no place to hide weak or physically inept players, and Matfield remains a force on the field. How has he been able to do this?
“The most important thing for older players and prolonging a career is recovery time,” says Milner. “It’s all about having the correct plan and knowing when to rest players because the higher the intensity during training and matches, the more recovery time is needed.”
Matfield retired after the 2011 World Cup but returned after a two year hiatus with the sole goal of playing in this year’s showpiece. “All my preparation has been completely focussed on the World Cup. It’s all come down to this tournament.”
For older players, knowing when to peak becomes crucial and understanding one’s body is a skill that develops naturally over time. Milner points out that, “Older players become more street smart and are intuitive to their body’s needs.”
“I’ve lightened my weights at the gym,” says Matfield. “But I’ve upped my reps so I can still work on my speed and fast twitch fibres.” As mentioned before, whatever work is put into training and on match day needs to be balanced with sufficient rest. By reducing the weights that he pushes, but upping the amount of times he pushes them, Matfield is able to control how much energy he exerts while still giving his body enough time for that crucial rest period.
Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects when ensuring longevity in sport is the professionalism of the individual and the emotional and mental maturity of the player. All the great athletes with long careers have had to work harder as they got older. “When you’re young, your only focus is centred on playing your sport,” says Matfield. “When you get to my age, you have a family, kids, maybe a business that you’re involved in. Now I have to focus on so many things which means when I focus on rugby, I need to give it my all.”
For older athletes, maintaining a healthy lifestyle becomes crucial. Matfield admits that when he was younger, his diet was not something he paid too much attention. As he’s gotten older, he’s needed to encompass a standard of living that lends itself to his rugby career.
Older players also need to adapt their game as they get older. Milner uses Giggs as an example of a player who adapted his game perfectly. The Welshman started his career as a speedy winger who used his raw pace to ghost past opposing fullbacks. Towards the end of his career, former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, moved him into a central midfield role. He used his intelligence to take up clever positons on the field and used his distribution skills that he honed over the years to great effect.
Matfield has done the same. “As you get older you start to become a bit smarter with your game,” he says. “You figure out how to put yourself in positions where your strengths come into play and you reduce the scenarios where your weaknesses are highlighted.” Milner tells me that Kaizer Chiefs once used Shaun Bartlett, an out-and-out striker, as a centre back for a few games a couple of seasons ago. “Coaches will always have an influx of young, strong, fit, and fast players,” Milner adds. “What he will always crave is an older, experienced player who is able to adapt his game. The truth is; the older players who are unable to do this become irrelevant.”
When Matfield first started training with the Blue Bulls from Pretoria, older players like Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Krüger were two players who were always leading the team and pushing themselves harder than anyone else. “I remember being very tired at a practice session early in my career and those two came down hard on me,” says Matfield. “They told me, “If you want to play here, you have to work as hard as everyone else”. They showed me that the older players are the ones that have to lead by example. I’ve found that the older you get, the tougher you get. Older players are able to push through pain barriers that younger players can’t.”
Lastly, an older player needs to find the motivation to work hard. He or she might already have achieved fame, success, and wealth, and must therefore still be driven by passion in order to succeed. Both Milner and Matfield agree that the older athletes who are able to achieve longevity are the ones that want it.
“They also have to feel wanted,” says Milner. “I wish we could change the perception that older players aren’t good enough because it affects so many of them. There are so many people that give them a hard time about their age that they eventually start to doubt their ability, even though their skills have actually improved and their knowledge of the game has increased.”
When it comes to age, a shift in perception is indeed needed. Sport is all about functionality. A player’s role and influence should be determined by what he or she achieves while on the field. Yes, a younger player may be able to cover more ground than an older player. That’s not important. What is important is what that player did in the ground that was covered.
2 July 2015
The Pygmalion effect, or the Rosenthal effect, is a psychological phenomenon whereby the expectation placed on individuals and groups dictates the way they perform. Tell an athlete or team that they have a particular attribute for an extended period of time and they will soon adopt that attribute. Team identity is an abstract concept and yet some teams just exude a certain personality. The way they play, the fans that support them, the players they recruit; every facet of their being embodies an ethos. We explore the identities of two of the greatest sports teams on the planet; Real Madrid CF and the New York Yankees and find out whether team identity can be translated into success.
In Steven Spielberg’s biographical crime drama, Catch Me If You Can (2002), Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale Jr, a young man who successfully conned millions of dollars by posing as a pilot, a doctor, and a parish prosecutor, all before the age of 21. Early in the film, his father, played by Cristopher Walken, asks him, “You know why the (New York) Yankees always win, Frank?” Frank replies, “’Cause they have Mickey Mantle?” His father shoots back, “No, it’s ‘cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.”
What he was alluding to was not the iconic uniform that the Yankees wear, but rather, what that uniform represents. The aura of ruthless dominance that the most successful team in Major League Baseball (MLB) exudes is so ingrained in everything that they do, even their uniform embodies their identity. Their 27 World Series titles, 16 more than the second best team, the St. Louis Cardinals, are inseparable from the clothes that the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter have famously worn.
“The identity of the New York Yankees is purely a championship calibre club,” says Chris Passarella, the Associate Director of the Mental Conditioning Department at the Yankees. “It’s that simple.”
But merely being a team that wins trophies is not enough to understand the identity of the New York Yankees, or any other championship team for that matter. What we want to know is: How does a team’s identity drive performance and lead to titles?
“Identity is wrapped up in attributes,” says Steve Gera, Professor at the Real Madrid Graduate School, Universidad Europea. “Attributes lead to specific behaviours and those behaviours drive performances. Coaches talk ad nauseam about culture but all they’re talking about is the glue that holds the team together, and that glue is made through stories and a team narrative.”
For both the Yankees and Real Madrid, that narrative is soaked in history and triumph. Real have won the UEFA Champions League 10 times, 3 more than Italian giants AC Milan, and have won the Spanish La Liga 32 times, 9 more than bitter rivals FC Barcelona. It is a history that is celebrated not just for its longevity, but for its unrivalled success.
“Honouring the history of the club creates a winning mind-set because it leads to an expectation that only the very best is accepted. Good, in our mind, isn’t good enough,” says Passarella. Gera agrees, “Identity is tied to the historical players that have come before. If you’re playing at Real Madrid in the same position as legends like Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, or Zinedine Zidanne, you know you have to live up to the standards they set. That’s important from an identity standpoint for the players because they know what is expected of them.”
That sense of history is a great motivator for players. Teams like Real Madrid and the Yankees don’t recruit or sign players that they deem mediocre. Both clubs view themselves as the best in their sport, and the titles and legends that have come before are a testament to that. New players are motivated to carve out their own piece of history at their club. It is what drives talent identification at championship sides. The best players in the world thrive off the prospect of being mentioned in the same breath as the icons that decorate the walls at the cathedrals of Yankee Stadium and the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
“It’s impossible to ignore,” says Gera. “There are cultural artefacts all over the stadium and various parts of the facilities. The best players thrive off that and don’t need to be reminded about what it means to be walking in the footsteps of giants of the game.”
For Passarella and the Mental Conditioning Department at the Yankees, the history of the team is used as a tool to help players who are struggling either personally or professionally. They remind the player that a team like the Yankees wouldn’t have drafted or traded him into the “Yankee family” if he wasn’t an elite ball player. "An important focus for the players is there isn't a day to day that goes by playing for the Yankees that isn't part of their own personal career and Yankee history," Passarella says. "From their first day playing for the Yankees they are part of baseball history."
History, and the identity of championship teams, also brings a weight of expectation. Real and the Yankees are not held to the same standards as other teams. The media attention that they receive is heightened and for young players stepping into the spotlight, it can prove daunting. Passarella has seen many young players come to New York and struggle with the pace and lifestyle of the city. Many of those players had never been east of Colorado, or had only played ball in Texas. It’s hard enough moving to a city like New York. It becomes even more challenging when the world’s eyes are focusing on your every move, just waiting to pounce on any failure or mishap.
“Only the strongest and the best survive at Real,” says Gera, highlighting the ruthless attitude that Real Madrid has adopted. Carlo Ancelotti was sacked this year after a trophy-less season for Los Blancos. The fact that the Italian manager finally brought the club their much coveted “La Decima” (10th European championship) the season before counted for nothing as one of the most respected managers in the game was still shown the door.
Real lost the title last season to Barcelona, their oldest and fiercest rivals. The two giants of Spanish football are perhaps the two greatest on the planet. Both have spent millions on foreign exports, both, in their own way, embody the identity of the cities they represent, and both believe that only success is acceptable. On the surface, they would appear to be quite similar. “If you look at them closely, Real and Barca are pretty similar teams,” says Gera, pointing out the fact that many of their top players came at a huge price and that making it from the youth teams to the senior teams in both clubs is extremely difficult. “It’s the narrative of the rivalry between the two that has perpetuated the differences. The story of Real Madrid would not be as strong without the story of Barcelona.”
Gera calls it the “Hero’s Journey” and uses it as a metaphor when translating this message to coaches and players. He says that every team’s journey needs a juxtaposition of their identity and that comes from a rival. For Real, it’s Barca and city rivals Atletico Madrid. For the Yankees, it’s the Boston Red Sox. For both sets of fans, players, coaches, managers, and owners, all differences are highlighted and commonalities are minimised. This way, an enemy is created, and every team needs an enemy. Derbies always elicit the greatest passion amongst the fans and the best managers and coaches are able to translate that passion to their players in order to bring the best out of them. Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, always said that the first fixtures he looked for when the calendar was released were the two games against bitter rivals Liverpool. Before a ball was kicked, the old rivalry was highlighted. No great team or athlete in the history of sport would be the same without a nemesis to contradict ideologically.
“It’s the Pygmalion effect,” says Gera. “The teams adopt the identities that have been placed on them and run with them to their own advantage.” Real Madrid is known as the ‘Galacticos’, a collection of the greatest stars football has to offer, assembled in one team for a lot of money in order to achieve greatness. They play a fast paced, aggressively clinical brand of counter attacking football that overwhelms and out muscles opponents. Their rivals, Barcelona, famous for their academy and development of players, have branded themselves as "Més que un club" (More than just a club). They are the intimate Catalan team and as such their brand of short, intricate passes known as “tiki-taka” is a physical representation of their ethos. It is home grown, and very often the most beautiful football to watch. Both Real and Barca have embodied an identity with a style of play.
“The way a team plays and the identity that it adopts are so intertwined that they are inseparable,” says Passarella. “When a player joins the Yankees, he knows the way he should play the game because it is the Yankee brand of baseball. That means confidence and it means championships and though every other team in the League deserves respect, as a Yankee, we have to always strive to be better.”
That confidence often borders on arrogance and it is something of which both Real and the Yankees have been accused. As such, many opposing teams, not just traditional rivals, often have a negative perception about them. There is a popular saying in Boston: “I support two teams; the Red Sox, and whoever beats the Yankees”.
“Managing the high standards of performance, the expectations, and the media attention that follows the Yankees is stressed from day one,” adds Passarella. “The end goal for our players that develop in our system is to be mentally and emotionally prepared to a level that can flourish in the professional baseball setting and most importantly, in New York City. Players are focussed and resilient in the approach - so much so that visiting other stadiums, hostile fans, and opponents doesn't distract them off course."
It’s important for the players to disconnect slightly from the narrative at times; otherwise they can become consumed by it. In modern professional sport, star athletes are often accused of being mercenaries, merely chasing their next paycheque. Many athletes will play for a number of teams throughout his or her career whereas fan loyalty often resembles religious fanaticism. “For the fans, the team’s narrative is at the forefront of their minds, often because they desire so badly something to latch on to and that resembles their own narrative,” says Gera. Meanwhile, as Passarella says, “Elite players go into every game wanting to win, but they have to maintain passion over a long season.” Players often can’t share the same level of intensity as the fans because it simply isn’t sustainable.
Having said that, the best teams in the world are the ones that have created an umbrella of identity that encompasses everything that they do. The way they play, the uniforms they wear, who they’ve identified as their rivals, the targets they set, the fan base they have mustered; everything needs to represent and embody an ethos that is synonymous with the team. “It’s vital to get everyone on the same page,” says Passarella. “Every individual in the Yankees, from the owners and general manager, through to the coaches, the players, and even the fans, comes from different experiences and backgrounds. What makes the Yankees successful is that we all identify with an ethos and that really helps in high pressure situations when the margins are small.”
But an ethos is an abstract concept. Identity is not a real thing. It is merely a metaphor, a fairy tale that we can neither touch nor hold. “What you can touch and hold however, is the story,” Gera concludes. “The identity of a sports team is merely the raw material of the story. It’s the components of the story that we’ve crafted for ourselves. Stories are what bind people together.”
That is why we love sport. It is the mythology that keeps us coming back. The stories our parents told us will be shared with our children. Our heroes today will pass into folklore. The narrative is ever changing but the emotions it provokes are omnipresent. The New York Yankees and Real Madrid will mean different things to different people. One thing that is undeniable however; their stories are about champions.
25 June 2015
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.
18 June 2015
With two Rugby World Cups, a Cricket World Cup, Formula 1 race wins, golf Major titles, as well as championships and victories in a host of other sports such as netball, football, hockey, tennis, and water polo, Dr Sherylle Calder is arguably one of the most successful individuals in world sport. Her innovative and highly successful programme, EyeGym, has improved the performance of thousands of athletes across the globe. By improving how the eye sees and understands the world around us, the cognitive process of seeing and doing, and then effectively and accurately responding to what is being seen, elite athletes are able to separate themselves from the competition.
Throughout South Africa’s isolation from the rest of the sports world during apartheid, countless talented athletes were left in the doldrums. With their gifts and abilities confined to the southern tip of Africa, many left their homes and loved ones in order to forge a career in the sports they loved.
In 1987, a young Sherylle Calder packed her hockey gear and travelled to Europe; playing anywhere she could find a game. Her talent was duly noted and many clubs around the continent, most notably in England, Germany, and the Netherlands, clamoured for Calder’s participation. Her ability to pick a pass was unrivalled and her uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time was a gift from Africa. She would later go on the represent her country 50 times.
While playing in England, a teammate’s father commented how Calder was the only elite hockey player he had ever seen that didn’t run on the field. That wasn’t true, as no elite player can get away with an idle work rate. What he meant was that Calder appeared to get around the field effortlessly. Think how footballers like Andrea Pirlo and Xavi have a similar trait.
“That was the switch on for me. I ran like crazy but his perception was that I didn’t,” says Calder, from her base at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. “I realised that there must be something different in my game. I was determined to find out what it was.”
She began a process of backtracking and sought to figure out why she had an apparent natural ability that others didn’t. From a young age, Calder was constantly comparing herself to others and analysed the way she was brought up. Through her studies (which included a PhD in Sport Science from the University of Cape Town in 1999) on her peripheral vision and her reaction to what her eyes focussed on, Calder reduced the process to three steps: see with your eyes, cognitively process what you’re seeing, and then act as quickly and accurately as possible to achieve your goal. Thus, EyeGym was formed.
“The process is not a natural ability that some people have, but rather a trained skill that many people don’t even know they have been training,” Calder says. “This skill could have been developed from simple tasks such as climbing a tree. When you climb a tree you have to put your body, your hands, your feet, in the right position and you learn to coordinate accordingly. It could have been developed from playing games with friends or having an older sibling that challenged you on a sports field.”
Calder has found that all the athletes that she has worked with have a common trait that could explain a perceived natural ability. She says, “I’ll ask (the athlete) about some of their background and how they grew up and I’ll always find a correlation between them. There is a causal relationship to what we perceive as a natural ability and a particular conditioning at a young age. They don’t even realise they’ve been training a skill their whole life.”
Calder started EyeGym in 1996 and has since worked with thousands of elite athletes. Calder and the EyeGym team have perhaps the most impressive résumé in world sport. They have two Rugby World Cups under their belt after working with England in 2003 and then South Africa in 2007, as well as a Cricket World Cup triumph with Australia in 2003. 2012 British Open winner, Ernie Els, is a client, as are pro golfers Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Branden Grace, Robert Karlsson and Justin Rose. Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas identified the benefits of EyeGym back in 2012, while still a GP3 driver, and drove several hours to have a meeting with Calder when she was working with McLaren in his home country, Finland. Since working with EyeGym, the young Finn has become a GP3 champion, earned a permanent seat in an F1 car with Williams, and is widely regarded as a future world champion.
The list of athletes that Calder and her team have worked with and improved is as impressive as it is vastf. “We’ve worked with English Premier League teams, international hockey teams, Grand Slam winners in tennis, Olympic teams, international and domestic rugby and cricket sides, volleyball, water polo, netball, surfing, canoeing, umpires and referees, you name it,” she says. “If you play a sport, and you use your eyes, EyeGym can improve your performance. If you haven’t trained specifically, you’re underperforming.”
The first step involves using your eyes to see what is happening on the field. The eye is a muscle and needs to be trained as tired eyes can have a negative impact on performance. When Justin Rose worked with EyeGym in 2003, his first session resulted in tired eyes. When your eyes get tired, the brain automatically gets tired and sleepy. As a result, the muscles in your body get sluggish and your reaction time and ability to make quick decisions is reduced. “We train the eyes to maintain their strength over the duration of the task,” adds Calder. “If your eyes are going to be slow, the body will be slow. The eyes lead the body and the body cannot go where the eyes do not tell it to go.”
Former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje was one of the fittest athletes in the country when the Proteas worked with EyeGym in the late 1990s. However, he struggled with certain eye exercises as he had never trained those particular muscles. This reinforced the idea that this is not simply a natural ability that fit and talented athletes possess.
The next process involves another muscle, perhaps the most important muscle; the brain. Studies have shown that the brain can be developed and actually grows in mass through training and conditioning. As a beginner, a ten minute session at EyeGym would see you making roughly 500 – 800 decisions based on things you have never seen before. Imagine what it is like for Bottas, hurtling through the streets of Monaco, having to make split-second decisions over and over again throughout a race. Being able to see something new and then adjust accordingly is a skill EyeGym trains.
“When Bryan Habana scored an intercept try in the 2007 semi-final against Argentina, many pundits and experts celebrated what a natural talent he was,” says Calder. “I knew that his interception, and many others during that period, was a result of many hours Bryan put in with me at EyeGym. It didn’t happen by accident.” Habana saw his opponent make a move and in a fraction of a second made a judgment to step out of line and go for the intercept. He responded to a brand new situation as the result of hours of training at EyeGym.
Os du Randt, one of only six players to have won the Rugby World Cup twice, was impeccable with his tackling during the 2007 campaign. In his final tournament, will power and a desire were cited as reasons for his accuracy but it was due to Calder’s work with the big man. Since du Randt was able to see the correct line that he needed to run in order to make the tackle, he was able to cover less ground on the field. Any large player, in any sport, will tell you how metres saved means energy saved. “If you’re 30cm off a tackle, you won’t effectively make that tackle,” says Calder. “In all sports, a few centimetres can make all the difference and being able to accurately see those centimetres and react to them is what we train.”
It’s important to understand that EyeGym does not train eyesight. It is seeing what needs to be seen and then acting on that. Bottas hasn’t improved his eyesight. He has improved his ability to differentiate between what he needs to concentrate on and what he needs to ignore. By doing so he is able to identify, to the centimetre, the correct line he needs to take into corners. Retired Springbok Guthro Steenkamp told Calder that he had seen more in one match than he had during his whole career, when he left the field during a match in 2005 after working with Calder.
It’s incredible to think that the same programme can improve the performances of athletes from all codes. Golf and F1 couldn’t be further apart in terms of speed and reaction times needed but EyeGym has improved athletes in both sports. Of course, generic programmes need to be modified the closer you get to the apex of the pyramid, but then again, so does any fitness or skills regime.
EyeGym has also recently partnered with Discovery Insure, a branch of one of South Africa’s leading insurance companies. Truck drivers who drive long distances have benefitted from EyeGym. Studies have shown that drivers on the programme are involved in fewer accidents than those who are not.
EyeGym have also branched out to disadvantaged communities in South Africa, showcasing the potential of the programme. Almost 1 500 children from rural communities around the Breedekloof Valley have started with EyeGym in collaboration with Du Toitskloof Wines, and the results have been astounding. “We’re changing people’s lives,” Calder says. “Since they’ve started, the speed and accuracy of their reading has improved dramatically. Not only that, but their ability to process the information and use the information has improved. Their academic results have opened so many more doors for them.”
From the dusty streets of Rawsonville, to the glitz and glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix, EyeGym’s impact on countless lives is felt worldwide. With Calder and her team improving on their programme every day, and new technology pushing the ceiling higher and higher, there is no telling how many more lives the programme will change. All the trophies, all the titles, all the feel good stories can be traced back to one English father and his passing comment about an inquisitive, competitive South African girl.
EyeGym is based at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. You can visit their website here for more information on their programme, testimonials from elite athletes, as well as stay up to date with future research papers from Dr Calder herself.
11 June 2015
Team Unity vs Unrivalled Talent: it’s an age old debate that selectors and managers have had to grapple with. Do you select the gifted, yet troubled, genius with sheer natural ability and determination who can win you matches all on his own? Or, do you opt to leave the outspoken troublemaker out of your team in order to maintain team cohesion and a unified philosophy? Newly appointed Director of Cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board, Andrew Strauss, had to make a tough decision over the selection of Kevin Pietersen. Strauss chose team cohesion over individual brilliance and denied Pietersen an England call-up. A brave choice, and one that poses many questions.
With England drawing their two Test match series 1-1 with New Zealand recently, and the first ball of The Ashes less than a month away, one of cricket’s most controversial and dramatic issues doesn’t look like dissipating any time soon. In fact, it looks set to become a recurring theme in every conversation, interview, or article concerning cricket’s most iconic series.
Kevin Pietersen, the South African born, flamboyantly gifted batsman, who has England’s crest tattooed on his left shoulder, has polarised opinion with his recent omission from the Three Lions’ squad. This came after former captain, Andrew Strauss (also born in South Africa), was appointed as Director of Cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Bizarrely, Pietersen was offered an advisory role for the One Day International (ODI) team in the same meeting that he was told of his exclusion.
“The truth about Kevin is that he is a phenomenal cricketer,” Strauss said shortly after the announcement. “But over months and years, trust has eroded between Kevin Pietersen and the ECB. While there is no trust between Kevin and the ECB, it is our opinion that he cannot feature in our short-term plans. Long term, who knows?”
This breakdown in trust came to the fore in 2012 when Pietersen sent former South African captain, Graeme Smith, a text message concerning Strauss and how to bowl to him. Pietersen was dropped for the next game, England lost the series, and Strauss retired from all forms of cricket.
With Strauss gone, and England’s batting line-up lacking both aggression and experience, all was forgiven as Pietersen returned. His reselection was vindicated with a swashbuckling 186 against India a few months later (one of his finest knocks), and a gutsy 113 against Australia to help save the third Test of England’s victorious Ashes series in 2013.
His form, as form often does, dipped, and England were beaten 5-0 in Australia in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer later that year. He averaged just 29 in the series with a top score of 71. Though he was England’s top run scorer over the 5 matches, many believed he failed to step up as a senior batsman and his 6 runs off 10 balls in the second innings in Sydney were his last in Test cricket.
Strauss has been accused of making his decision based on personal issues. He publicly told Pietersen to return to England’s county cricket system and make runs before he would be eligible for selection again. He did that with a score of 326 not out for Surrey in May but was still not selected. Though one big score is not a sufficient sample size, his omission was seemingly not based solely on cricketing reasons.
French football manager Aimé Jacquet came under heavy criticism before the 1998 FIFA World Cup when he left out both Eric Cantona and David Ginola from his squad. He cited cohesion and team unity (or the lack thereof) as the motive behind his decision. France won the World Cup and he was justified.
Didier Dechamps, France’s manager during their disastrous 2014 World Cup, was not so lucky when he left out gifted youngster Samir Nasri, for similar reasons. He said: “It’s not necessarily the 23 best French players, but it’s the best squad in my eyes to go as far as possible in this competition.” They never left the group stages and questions were raised over selections.
A talented maverick has the ability to turn a game on its head with individual brilliance, but any team is more than the sum of its parts. Strauss and captain, Alastair Cook, will argue that Pietersen will create an environment that will see the team suffer as a whole. Cricket is a team sport comprised of individual battles, but if those individuals can’t operate at their peak performance because of one man’s arrogance and reluctance to be a team player, his expulsion is justified.
Strauss also needs to be commended for sticking with his gut feel. Anyone in a managerial position has to make tough decisions that might go against popular and conventional wisdom. Stars like Shane Warne, Geoffrey Boycott, Kumar Sangakkara, and others criticised Strauss on Twitter with many labelling the former opening batsman as petty and selfish while #strausslogic became a trending topic. However, Strauss needs to select a team that allows every individual in that team to perform at his best.
Ethically, Strauss deserves more commendation, as Pietersen is clearly a man who does not subscribe to traditional codes of team morale. This was evident during the SMS debacle as well as his constant public criticism of England’s current batsmen. Stuart Lancaster, head coach of England’s national rugby union team, was praised when he stuck to a strong ethical code and dropped Manu Tuilagi from his World Cup squad, after the star player was found guilty of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver earlier this year. Tuilagi’s sacking had nothing to do with his ability to play rugby and England will no doubt miss his physical presence at their home World Cup later this year. However, Lancaster was clear that his players need to be role models and hold themselves to a high moral standard.
Then again, isn’t it the job of the coaches, managers, and captain to tame the renegade? Pietersen, the player, is no doubt an exceptional talent. If Pietersen, the man, needs winning over, then it is it not up to Trevor Bayliss (newly appointed England coach), Strauss and Cook to convince him to align with their philosophy? If it is unity and team cohesion they’re after, then perhaps they are the ones that need to make it happen. Sir Alex Ferguson has long been heralded as a fantastic man manager for his ability to win over troubled stars. Cantona, Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane; the list of players that the Scot was able to tame and turn into superstars is as long as his list of honours. A talented athlete needs to be on the field and every step should be taken to ensure that he is. If his ethics or personality are an issue, measures should be taken to rectify them.
Every team has a host of backroom staff dedicated to the psychology of the game. Social media experts are a phone call away and with the amount of money thrown at sport, surely some could be spared to help Kevin Pietersen with whatever mental and social problems he might have. If Strauss let bygones be bygones and stood up as the bigger man, perhaps Pietersen would have felt compelled to excel and develop a character that is worthy of his undoubted talent. Wouldn’t Strauss rather regain The Ashes than let a personal issue hamper his nation’s chances of victory? Pietersen’s runs would go a long way towards that.
But what message would that have sent? Betraying his teammates and adopted nation by divulging information to the opposition’s captain was not enough to banish him. England’s higher ups appeared weak and desperate when they allowed him back. Finally, a line in the sand was drawn and Strauss as a strong leader will likely stand by his convictions.
If England managed to defy the odds and win back the smallest trophy in world sport, the Pietersen debate will be relegated to a mere footnote and Strauss and co. will have been proved correct. But rest assured, should England lose the first match, and their middle order crumble under Aussie pressure, rumbles for a recall will resound from the pro-KP camp. Talent vs Team Unity: it’s a theme that will endure as long as sport.
4 June 2015
The Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA), despite being a successful organisation, has a unique challenge in world sport. They are an international team whose players speak multiple languages. Clubs and franchises around the world can relate, but not many nations can. Multilingualism exposes individuals to different cultures, but when coaches and managers are trying to unite their players under one ethos, it can prove challenging. Murray Richards, High Performance Manager for RBHA explains how his team have overcome this obstacle.
When Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s third highest wicket taker in Test cricket, was offered a scholarship to Dale College (a prestigious high school in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape) at the age of 14, he couldn’t speak any English.
“I couldn’t speak English properly, and I wasn’t sure what to say because I was scared it would be the wrong thing,” he told ESPN Cricinfo’s Firdose Moonda, in 2010. Even by the time he made his debut for the Proteas against Sri Lanka in 1998, at the age of 20, the Xhosa speaking former cattle herder was hardly fluent in either English or Afrikaans, the two primary languages in South African cricket at the time.
The “Mdingi Express” finished his career with an impressive 390 Test wickets at an average of 28.82 balls per wicket. So impressive are those figures that it is easy to neglect how difficult those early years must have been. Not only must the social challenges have been staggering, but communicating strategies and game plans must have been extremely difficult.
Ntini had to learn quickly that cricket, like all sports, requires effective communication. Luckily cricket is a stop-start game with enough time between balls, overs, sessions, and innings to slowly tackle any language barriers that may exist.
Some sports do not offer the same luxury of time while a match is underway. That can prove challenging to a cohesive game plan as Murray Richards, the High Performance Manager for the Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA), knows all about.
“It’s probably the biggest challenge we have,” he says. “There will always be a minuscule but key delay in communication. When you get to the elite level, that delay certainly has an impact on performance. If you have to hesitate, even for a second, to think about what you are going to say or what a teammate has said, it can prove costly.”
Belgium has three official languages; French, Dutch (Flemish), and German, although German speakers account for only 1% of the population. The two main languages are also divided regionally with Dutch speakers primarily living in the north, and French speakers in the south.
“The country is practically divided in two, with regional passion often outweighing national passion,” says the Australian. “You can almost draw a line dividing the country in half and in many ways the two regions are separate nations.”
This has created an issue where the national hockey teams have become microcosms of the country in general. Richards says that during breaks in training, after matches, and at social events, the players form separate groups based on what language they speak. Most of the time, the players aren’t even aware of it.
“It’s unconscious behaviour,” says Richards. “On the pitch we have two dug-outs, and often the French speaking players will go to one, and the Dutch speaking players will go to the other. We’ll ask them, “Is this the French speaking dug-out and that one for the Dutch?” They’ll realise that they’ve done it unintentionally and change it up.”
Team unity is vital for success and anything that creates divisions needs to be stamped out. The RBHA hosts four training camps throughout the year for the men’s and women’s teams and are planning on having language themed camps. The first of these camps will be held exclusively in Dutch, with French and English to follow. Players are encouraged to learn the other prominent language so that when a player speaks on the field, anyone can understand him or her.
The effects can also be felt off the field, where a breakdown in communication can lead to disruption. “We were in a team meeting, talking about wages, and things got a little heated when the language barrier became a problem,” says Richards. “One of the Dutch speaking players said something along the lines of “if you work hard, you will get a certain amount of money based on effort”. The word “get” caused confusion and some of the French speaking players thought the Dutch speaking players were getting preferential treatment. This is why we strongly encourage players to learn both languages.”
Coaches are encouraged to do the same. Belgium is an emerging nation in hockey and many of the coaches speak neither French nor Dutch as a first language. Emotion is a massive part of coaching as conveying the appropriate message in tough situations can be the difference between winning and losing.
The England Football Association came under criticism when they appointed Fabio Cappello, an Italian, in 2008. Concerns were that the highly decorated manager could hardly speak a word of English. In the same year, the South African Football Association paid a heavy price when they hired Brazilian, Joel Santana, who couldn’t speak any of the 11 official languages in the country. Former Bafana Bafana striker, Shaun Bartlett, told the Mail & Guardian, “It must be confusing for the players trying to figure out what he wants, especially on the field.” As you would imagine, his reign ended in ignominy when South Africa failed to qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations.
“It is important for the players to be able to express themselves in their native language,” says Richards. “We make sure there is a member of staff who is completely fluent in both languages because understanding emotion is vital to understanding the person. That can only be conveyed when expressing yourself in your mother tongue.” As former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
In a fantastic article by Sharda Ugra on Cricinfo, the senior editor notes that when listening to one speak in his native language, you “hear their personalities speak with openness and humour.” Through that, the individual is “freed (from) the straitjacket of clichés.”
This freedom is felt on the field. As Richards explains; when the team is winning and the game plan is being executed properly, communication is easy and bilingual. When the teams are behind on the scoreboard, communication breaks down as frustration from the game inhibits the players’ ability to switch between languages. This applies for both speaking their second language and trying to understand it. The rub is that communication becomes more important when things aren’t going well.
“To get yourself out of a bad situation, good communication is key,” explains Richards. He goes on to tell me that he has seen his sides melt down as a result of frustration that was exacerbated by poor communication. He believes that in those situations, the results may have been different if everyone on the team was able to express themselves to their teammates better. Furthermore, this amplifies the two group mentality.
To avoid this, the RBHA applies methods and verbal cues during training to navigate this obstacle. Body language becomes crucial as well as certain key words that can be reiterated to invoke positive feelings instilled during training. The players are also given a list of common hockey terms in English, French, and Dutch as part of their coaching manuals.
The RBHA provides strict instructions on how players need to conduct themselves in order to break the divisive nature of Belgian culture. They are told where to sit on busses and planes, which teammates they need to interact with during meal time, and whom they are to share a room with when on tour. This is all to combat the unconscious tendencies that players have towards spending more time with teammates who speak their language. “When they’re tired after a game or practice, it’s understandable that they would want to talk with their friends in their own language,” adds Richards.
This hasn’t had a completely positive effect. As mentioned, many in Belgium identify with their region and language more than the nation as a whole. By stripping away the language bias in players, the RBHA has inadvertently stripped away passion from their players. “The regional passion is a very important part of who the players are,” says Richards. “We have worked so hard to remove that bias that often players are left to search for reasons to be competitive.”
The RBHA has spent so much time trying to rectify the regional and language bias in the players that Richards admits they have spent less time on actually playing the sport. “In our youth teams there has been a stagnation of performance,” he says. “We have invested so much time trying to create a unified team that we have lost time that we could have been training.” It is a necessary sacrifice though. Teams like Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Argentina don’t have the same language barriers as all their players and coaches speak the same language. As a result, those nations don’t have to contend with regional competition on the level that is evident in Belgium.
“We needed to make the changes within our structures, and it was always going to result in a trade-off in some areas,” says Richards. “We needed to get the players feeling positive and enthusiastic about the Belgium national team while still keeping the passion they feel for their region. We needed to get everyone on the same page and working towards a unified goal. I hope that with all the effort we’ve put in, the cultural side becomes automatic and we can deliver a controlled product to the players.”
A unified philosophy that seeks to bridge the language gap that divides the country has proved a success. The men’s team has climbed ahead of England into 4th place on the FIH World Ranking. With both the men’s and women’s teams set to host international tournaments in Antwerp later this month, the time for talk is slowly ending. When both tournaments begin, the nation that is able to speak the universal language of hockey fluently, is the side that will walk away victorious.
For more details on the RBHA’s upcoming international tournaments, visit the FIH’s website here.
28 May 2015
Baseball is America's pastime while cricket represents English culture and global influence. They are two sports that encapsulate the ideologies of two great nations. Separated by geography, culture, and attitude, the two sports share a history that spans hundreds of years. With minor league baseball players struggling to carve out a career on the diamond, Julien Fountain, an Englishman with experience in both sports, is hoping to offer an alternative on the oval. Switch Hit 20 is aiming to change the face of world cricket by building a bridge for minor league players to become big hitters in cricket.
Last year, three minor league baseball players filed a class action law suit against Major League Baseball (MLB) over unfair labour practices. Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odle claimed that minor league players are underpaid and that the Uniform Player Contract that all players are made to sign unfairly takes advantage of them.
When examining the numbers, it’s hard to argue against their case. The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 (R85.07) an hour. In a standard 40 hour work week, that amounts to $290 (R3 426.45) per week which is $1 160 (R13 705.81) a month. But being a professional baseball player, even in the minor leagues, is surely more lucrative than flipping burgers at a greasy fast food chain. The New York Yankees are worth $3.2 billion dollars. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw will make $31.2 million this year alone. There is clearly money in baseball. The thing is, as you would expect, that money is not distributed evenly.
The maximum monthly wage for a minor league player is $1 100; less than the federal minimum wage. Professional baseball players in the minor leagues are earning poverty level salaries and have to juggle an elite training regime with second and sometimes third jobs. A season only lasts 6 months and the players are only paid for the months they play, but are still obligated to attend training sessions and meetings throughout the year while maintaining a high level of performance and fitness.
Many athletes put up with this as the dream of making it big is too enticing to ignore. Sadly though, less than 10% of minor league players will ever play a major league game. Most young athletes eventually realise that toughing it out in the minors is simply not sustainable and have to abandon their hopes of athletic stardom. The production line of ball players ensures that another starry-eyed hopeful takes his place. Another talent wasted.
“The few players that get chosen to play in the minor leagues are one step closer to achieving their life long goal,” says Julien Fountain, a former English baseball and cricket player who is one of the rare athletes with experience in both sports. “Unfortunately, the sacrifice that the majority of players have made will be in vain and they’ll end up playing for little or no money. A large proportion quit after two or three seasons as it becomes hard to survive on such low wages. Literally thousands of highly skilled bat and ball athletes are unable to utilise their talent.”
But where one door closes, another is beginning to open. Fountain’s sporting roots are in cricket and has come up with a way of tapping into a well of talent that otherwise would be left to go dry. Switch Hit 20 is a programme that aims to turn minor league fringe players into international twenty20 (T20 – 20 overs a side) cricketers
“The major league teams can afford to neglect those who struggle and quit because there are literally thousands of young players ready to take the place of a disenchanted player,” says Fountain. “These are the guys I am targeting. They are in their early twenties, fit, strong, fast, talented, and have loads of skill and nowhere to showcase it.”
Fountain played county cricket for Somerset before switching to baseball after watching the 1987 World Series. He represented Great Britain at the U19 European Championships after only six months in the sport. He attended several try-outs with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and the New York Mets. Ultimately, like so many potentials, a career in the majors eluded the Englishman.
He returned home and began incorporating baseball skills into the cricket world. He became a specialist fielding coach, implementing particular throwing, catching, and body position techniques that proved revolutionary. His work with the England and Wales Cricket Board inspired Australia to hire American Mike Young as their fielding coach in 2000, a move that improved Australia’s fielding to the point where the Baggy Greens were widely regarded as the best fielding team on the planet.
“The two games have been kept apart by geography, culture, attitude and participation,” says Fountain. “They share a connected history going back hundreds of years and share the same core principles. With the advent of T20, cricket took a big step towards baseball in terms of skill execution, tactics, and even from a fan’s perspective. The two sports have big similarities and this is the key to the project.” Babe Ruth had private cricket lessons with Alan Fairfax in 1935, with the Australian promising to turn Ruth into “one of the world’s greatest batsmen”. Ian Botham attempted a code switch after retiring from international cricket.
Fountain has already experimented with the switch in codes. After leaving his post with Pakistan as a fielding coach in 2014, he converted a group of Korean baseball players into a national cricket team that reached the quarterfinals of the Asian Games last year, despite many of them having never played a game of cricket before. Although they were demolished by Sri Lanka in the knockout game by 117 runs, the seeds were planted for the world’s second most popular sport to grow in a foreign land.
Cricket is played in over 100 countries globally but is only commercially attractive in a handful. Realistically only the test playing nations make money off the game, with India, Australia, England, and to a lesser extent South Africa, raking in the lion’s share of profits. Fountain says that, “Global sports commerce is very profitable in a wide range of countries that are not in this exclusive shortlist such as the USA, South Korea, Japan, and South American nations. These regions have formidable sporting pedigrees and vast commercial sporting structures that support professional sports.”
If T20 could appeal to a broader audience, there is no telling how the sport could develop. 20 years ago, football (soccer) was considered a minor sport in the US. Last year, 26.5 million Americans watched the FIFA World Cup Final on TV. International stars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaka, Steven Gerrard, and David Villa have enhanced the game of football in the US to the point that more and more viewers are tuning in and flocking to stadiums, establishing Major League Soccer (MLS) as one of the fastest growing leagues in the world.
Hoping to become a pioneer for cricket in the US is Thomas “Boomer” Collins, a minor league player currently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. The 25 year old with all-state honours as an outfielder is fully focussed on making the step up to the major leagues but has already bought into Fountain’s dream.
“It would be great to do what soccer stars have done for their sport here in America,” says Collins. “I would love to be a pioneer in a sport and represent my country. It would be similar to what Jackie Robinson did to baseball. It’s all about the perception of a sport and it just takes a handful of people to make a difference. I figure, why sit on the side-lines when there is an opportunity to make something amazing happen?”
From schools right up to professional teams, the USA has great infrastructure in sports. Competition and athletic prowess is encouraged from a young age and many believe that the nation of 318.9 million people has the potential to become a world force in any sport it takes seriously.
The USA finished 6th in the World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series, ahead of traditional sevens nations such as Kenya, Scotland, France, Wales and 2010 champions, Samoa. They won the final leg of the season in London and San Francisco is set to host the 2016 World Cup. It is possible to draw the conclusion that a rise in popularity in the sport is directly correlated with positive results on the field.
“Cricket was popular in the USA, particularly on the East Coast, prior to the American War of Independence but gradually eroded over time after the Civil War in an attempt to remove anything related to British culture,” explains Fountain. In Beth Hise’s Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect, a substantial amount of historical evidence shows that the two sports grew up side by side in the USA with a shared lineage that traces back to England.
Today, the USA national teams are made up primarily of expats from Asia and the Caribbean. Many of these players have not played sport at a high level throughout their lives and have benefited from being in a country where competition for places is light. A dearth of enthusiastic young cricketers coupled with the majority of the population not relating to the sport has meant that cricket is still seen as an outsider’s game. It is understandable that those struggling in the minors would be hesitant to take the plunge.
“If I could help change people’s perspective about the game, it would be amazing,” says Collins. “I’ll give baseball all that I have but there is no reason why I can’t succeed in both sports. To represent my country at a World Cup would be the ultimate dream.”
T20 cricket is played all over the world and players are able to hop from one league to the next without any conflicting contracts. Chris Gayle, one of the most destructive hitters in cricket, is currently contracted with the Jamaica Tallawahs in the West Indies, the Royal Challengers Bangalore in India, the Dhaka Gladiators in Bangladesh, and the Melbourne Renegades in Australia. He is able to make a living all year long on stages that fit his high wages – a luxury that was not afforded to cricketers only a few years ago.
Since it was launched in December last year, Switch Hit 20 has had great feedback from minor league players like Collins. “The first thing we wanted to do was ascertain whether or not minor league players were interested in making the switch,” says Fountain. “They are!”
The International Cricket Council (ICC), long accused of not doing enough to promote the game globally and help minor nations, has been unwilling as of yet to get involved with the project. They say that it’s up to each individual country’s board to develop talent. However, the American Cricket Federation has been extremely enthusiastic and with members such as Michael Holding, Ian Chappell, and Arjuna Ranatunga, the signs are positive.
The project is in its infancy. Recruiting enough players to create a large enough talent pool is the primary goal. Fountain is adamant that he is not trying to take players away from baseball but is rather offering an alternative for those frustrated by a lack of options.
Trials are being scheduled and after that a camp for the selected few. A national T20 tournament is being discussed and companies are encouraged to invest in a sport that has proved to be successful and lucrative around the globe.
“We’ve had talks with a variety of corporate representatives,” says Fountain. “The scope for an investor is quite good as it covers live events, social and regular media, domestic and international audiences and it’s all going to be filmed on TV.”
When WG Grace became cricket’s first global superstar in the late 1800s, the thought of Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, becoming world champions would have been inconceivable. In 1996, they did just that by beating Australia in the final. A lot has changed in cricket while so much has stayed the same in a sport that values tradition and history, perhaps more than any other. One day, Fountain may be remembered as one of the great cricketing geniuses and Collins as one of the great sporting pioneers. Perhaps nothing will happen and the memories of the cricketing pilgrims on the East Coast will indeed be the great hoorah for the sport in the USA. Either way, for the good of the game, one hopes that Fountain has awoken a sleeping giant.
You can learn more about Switch Hit 20 by visiting their website.
14 May 2015
Every coach and manager has to implement innovative and creative strategies in order to stay ahead of the field. Most elite teams have scores of advisers, specialists, coaches, and opinion makers; all of whom need to be focussed towards a single vision. It is no different for those responsible for the athletes’ fitness and well-being. Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami Dolphins, discusses why managing the philosophy within the medical team is vital to success on the field.
Since Louis van Gaal became Manchester United’s 23rd manager in July last year, one word has become synonymous with the Dutchman: “philosophy”. To this day, not an interview or article concerning the Red Devils, or their gregarious manager, would be complete without mentioning the p-word.
Essentially, what van Gaal is speaking about is an approach to football that encompasses particular tactics, formations, training methods, fitness regimes, communication avenues, and an ethos within the football club that requires every member involved to be on the same page. When introducing his new backroom staff, van Gaal stressed the importance of each coach, trainer, and player buying into the new philosophy of the club. After all, cohesion is vital to success in any sport.
“What you don’t want is someone within the system fragmenting the culture of the team because he is driven by ego,” says Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director at the Miami Dolphins. “In any sport, you need a collective philosophy.”
Diesel is not a coach or tactician. He is in charge of the medical and sports science department at the Florida franchise, but like Louis van Gaal or any elite coach, he understands that a unified ethos is paramount to success.
“In that sense, the coaching and medical departments are the same,” he says. “The same way coaches like to coach and train their players a certain way, we like to treat and condition our athletes a certain way, and everyone who works with me has to be on board with the same beliefs.”
Certain teams have unique strategies and styles that they implement on the field. To use Manchester United as a continuing example, van Gaal has now settled on a 4-3-3 formation with quick midfield passes and high possession a priority. If Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg, his two deputies, favoured different styles of play, and their coaching methods contradicted van Gaal’s, it would cause confusion and contradictions for the players which would lead to disjointed play. The same applies for the medical team.
“There is more than one way to coach a player and there is more than one way to treat an injured athlete,” explains Diesel. “I favour a hands-on approach that is more exercised based in terms of treatments and rehabilitation, but that doesn’t mean my method is the only one.” An Italian approach favours electrotherapy, paralleling Italian football’s unique Catenaccio tactics, indicating that different cultures favour different models on and off the field.
Diesel explains that each variable in training, like how an athlete lifts weights or how much emphasis is placed on cardio work, differs from trainer to trainer. Much like different coaches work out coaching methods that work for them, each trainer develops a unique philosophy that is shaped over years of experience.
Diesel has worked in many different sports across multiple continents. He began his career as the head physiotherapist for the South African Gymnastics Federation in 1991 before working with South Africa’s national hockey, swimming, and rugby union teams. He has experience in a number of international events including the 1996 Olympic Games, the 1998 African Cup of Nations, and the 1999 Rugby World Cup. In 2002, Diesel moved to England and spent a year with Gloucester Rugby as the Head of Medical Services. He then held the same position with Charlton Athletic FC from 2003 to 2007 and then Tottenham Hotspur from 2003 to 2015.
Now with the Dolphins in the NFL, Diesel is one of the few sports practitioners with experience in different codes. Legendary coaches like Jose Mourinho and Gregg Popovich will never win a championship outside of their chosen sport. Code hopping is much easier within the medical and science fields in sport because constraints like tactics are not an issue. An injured hamstring at the Miami Dolphins is the same as an injured hamstring at Tottenham Hotspur. While the cause of the injury may be different and the targets for recovery may vary, the human body is the one variable that all sports have in common.
What differs in sports medicine is the culture and strategy within each team. When Diesel first started in the early 1990s, there was one doctor or physiotherapist who handled all medical and injury concerns. Now, the medical team can comprise up to 20 specialists including massage therapists, chiropractors, reflexologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, physiotherapists, and acupuncturists. Add in the fact that each member of the medical team will have a plethora of consultants and you get a lot of opinions and egos with conflicting ideas and theories.
“You have to know how to manage all the individuals on the team and make sure that they have the same philosophy,” says Diesel. “Ultimately, as Director, it’s my job to manage those ideas into a single vision. I have to listen and learn from everyone around me but we all have to be on the same page or else you run the risk of losing the players’ and coaches’ buy-in.”
The medical team also have to be mindful of the fact that the players themselves will have certain expectations and theories regarding their training and rehabilitation. As a South African, Diesel developed an understanding and open-mindedness for different cultures and languages early in his career. When he moved to the English Premier League, he was exposed to athletes from all over the world and had to adapt to their philosophies.
“Many East Asian players really buy into acupuncture while many African players have unique traditional approaches to healing. It is well documented how important cultural beliefs are to medical treatment. If you dismiss traditional approaches you run the risk of the player not trusting you and that has a tremendous effect on treatment. This concept is fundamental to all medicine throughout history.”
The two way street between the players and the coaches on one side, and the medical team on the other, has to be an open highway. Ego is a massive force in elite sport. “When a player or coach has been immersed in his particular sport all his life, he can be reluctant having someone outside of his sport telling him what to do,” admits Diesel. “You have to win their trust before you can start exerting your influence and opinions on them.”
But that trust needs to start within the medical team. Every specialist needs to feel that their opinions matter and will be taken as seriously as anyone else’s because they share the same goal.
“There is no such thing as a magic pill or one method of treatment that will solve all problems,” says Diesel. “You need to be able to vary it up and allow those working with you to feel confident to put their hands up and say “I think my approach is the best one to go with; what do you guys think?” Dialogue is important and that stems from trust.”
Everyone in the medical team needs to yearn for knowledge and growth. Different opinions and beliefs test an individual’s existing notions. Most practitioners in the medical team are scientists and doctors who have made a career challenging their understanding of the world. By accepting that you may be wrong, and that someone from a completely different view point may have the answer, is how you grow. Ultimately though, a final decision has to be made and Diesel has found himself making those decisions.
“It’s my job to take all the different thoughts under consideration and make the big decisions,” he says. “That’s what I get paid to do. The longer it takes for a decision to be made, the harder it is to move on. Players and coaches are competitive by nature and can sniff out indecision and they see it as weakness. I have to be a strong leader for my team.”
When the stadium lights are at their brightest, and the world’s cameras are turned towards the stars on the field, it’s easy to forget the hard work and dedication that went on behind the scenes. The unified philosophy of the team behind the team culminates in a cohesive unit striving for the same goal. In sport, winning is everything, and the teams who share an identity are the ones who share success.
Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami Dolphins, has over 25 years’ experience in elite sport as a medical practitioner.
He will be presenting the Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on the 2nd and 3rd of September. He will be discussing how elite athletes maintain fitness minimise risk in an ever demanding industry.
7 May 2015
Philip Buchanon's book New Money: Staying Rich, is a revealing personal account that explores some of the financial burdens that so many professional athletes face when they sign massive contracts. Buchanon bravely discloses how his own mother demanded a pay-out of US$1 million for raising her son for 18 years, as well as other shocking anecdotes. Many athletes are ill-equipped to handle new money and squander small fortunes. In an exclusive interview with Conqa Sport, Buchanon discusses how he hopes his book can inspire and educate young athletes.
In 2002, the Oakland Raiders parted ways with close to US$5 million when they chose 22 year old, Phillip Buchanon as their first round pick in the NFL draft. Before he had even played a down, the young cornerback from the wrong side of the socio-economic divide in Streator, Illinois was about to become an instant millionaire.
On the field, Buchanon matched his salary with impressive performances. He was named Pepsi’s NFL Rookie of the Week two weeks in a row, making his comparatively diminutive size (5ft 11in/ 1.8m) irrelevant with a high work rate and accurate tackling. Off the field, Buchanon had everything a young man who had never tasted any real wealth could dream of. He purchased jewellery, cars, houses, and clothes. He bought his mother a home and supported friends and family members who needed assistance. He was a young man in the prime of his life and everything appeared to be perfect.
But that was just the surface. What wasn’t being spoken about openly was that Buchanon, like countless other professional athletes, was going through a nightmare that he neither anticipated nor deserved. He has finally revealed all in his book New Money: Staying Rich, a personal account of how his sudden wealth and fame brought him troubles and headaches that few outside of professional sport can relate to, the most troubling being his mother demanding US$1 million as compensation for raising her son.
“Soon after the draft, she told me that I owed her a million dollars for raising me for the past 18 years,” Buchanon divulges in his book. “The covenant of having a child is simply that you give your child everything possible and they owe you nothing beyond a normal amount of love and respect. There is no financial agreement.”
Buchanon’s story, though distressing, is by no means unique. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Broke (2012), directed by Billy Corben, reveals that many professional athletes lose fortunes. As a result of pressure to help friends and family, a lack of competent financial planning advice, divorce, a lack of awareness of how rapidly a career can end, and a host of other factors, these young men and women with dollar signs in their eyes go broke before they even realise what has hit them. Many of these stories are not revealed until after the athlete has retired and bankruptcy has been declared.
“I wrote this book to show athletes that the pressures of new money are very real”, Buchanon says. “My intention was never to embarrass anyone. All I wanted to do was tell my story from my perspective and hopefully help someone make the right decisions and not fall into the same situation that I found myself in. So many athletes suffer in silence either because they feel alone or don’t want to be humiliated. I hope this book breaks that silence.”
Buchanon’s perspective on spending and wealth was dramatically altered in 2006. While playing for the Houston Texans (a team he was unhappy with as a result of the way they were coached), Buchanon was pistol-whipped and robbed in his home by men wearing ski masks. He was tied up while criminals ran off with two flat screen TVs, clothing, electronics, jewellery, and a stack of cash. They made their getaway in his SUV.
Two of the assailants were people that Buchanon grew up with. They had come from the same neighbourhood and from the same socio-economic background. Were it not for injury and various circumstances they might have been playing in the NFL alongside Buchanon. A tough lesson was learned that day.
“The old Phil died that day and a new one was born,” Buchanon says defiantly, now 34 and all too aware that something dramatic is often needed to make a dramatic change. “It brought everything into perspective. It slowed me down in terms of my lifestyle as I realised that I was privileged to be in the situation I was in. I understood that it could have been me wanting to rob a friend out of jealousy and greed. As I say in my book, “I didn’t know my dogs had rabies”. I made a decision to sort my life out right there while I was tied up in my home.”
According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of former NFL players go bankrupt only two years after retirement. Within five years of retirement an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke. Professional athletes have very short career spans. In the NFL, the average career lasts a mere 3.5 years. This means that the vast majority of the average player’s income, immense as it is, will be made in a fraction of his adult life. Unlike other businesses with similar earnings, the well of fortune dries up very early as retirement comes at a very young age. Longevity is not guaranteed as injury and poor form can strike at any moment.
With that amount of money though, you would think it would be easy to save for the future right? Before you’re so quick to judge, ask yourself how many of us wouldn’t be seduced by the glamour of an extravagant lifestyle.
“There are definitely pressures to live up to an image as a young NFL player,” Buchanon confesses. “You see guys with big chains around their necks driving flashy cars and you want to be like them. Hip-hop glorifies certain things and all young people want to emulate what they see. The difference with athletes is that we can afford it.”
It’s understandable that when presented with a lifestyle that is so new and exciting, many young athletes take it to the extreme. American capitalist consumerism reached dizzying heights in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the same time that professional athlete salaries sky-rocketed and hip-hop entered the main stream. Pressures to “keep up with the Jones’” often proved too much for financially illiterate millionaires.
Internal pressures are exacerbated by external pressures. When an athlete goes pro and his bank balance swells, so too does his list of friends and family who expect handouts. “I had people close to me calling me names and making me feel bad that I wasn’t helping them,” Buchanon says. “They often used God against me and tried to manipulate me. I call them “adult abusers”. They abused my love and my trust.” In Broke, all the athletes interviewed shared similar stories. Former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar said that “the bankruptcy stuff has been a blessing in disguise. When people don’t think you have money, they don’t call you as much. Family included.”
Often, these friends try and entice athletes into funding a business outside of sport, but not everyone can be like Magic Johnson who has built a corporate empire. 1 in 30 private equity investments work. For athletes, that number is greatly reduced as many unwisely invest their money in restaurants, bars, clubs, record labels, and oddly, car washes; businesses that are notoriously difficult to manage but are exciting and attractive. “It’s always someone’s cousin or a friend of a friend,” says Buchanon. “Everyone wants to try and get a piece.”
Athletes are fiercely competitive by nature and this machismo can lead to bad financial decisions. Ed Butowsky, an internationally recognised wealth management expert, told Sport Illustrated, “Sometimes a jock can’t shake the temptation to try and hit the jackpot.”
The divorce rate amongst athletes in the US sits between 60-80%, higher than the 53% national average and most occur once the player has retired and a change in lifestyle is needed. Many of these divorces result in gargantuan settlements like Tiger Woods’ divorce from Elin Nordegren that cost him $100 million.
Athletes also have to pay tax in every state they compete in, something no other financially comparable businessman has to do. Many athletes don’t realise that large salaries mean large tax obligations. Ignorance is never an excuse when the tax man comes knocking and can land even the wealthiest stars in trouble. Mike Tyson found himself $2 million in debt as a result of tax evasion and Lionel Messi and his father Jorge were accused last year of defrauding authorities in Spain of more than $3.4 million.
Professional athletes face financial challenges that are unique to their world. As such, there are wealth management groups and qualified advisers who specialise in assisting young athletes who are ill equipped or unwilling to learn how to handle their funds. Buchanon advises athletes to educate themselves and find advisers they can trust without putting all their funds and assets in the hands of one person.
The NFL and NFL Players Association provide assistance and encourage players to educate themselves, but it’s down to the individual. What seems to have worked best is scare tactics like Buchanon’s book and Corben’s documentary. “The hardest thing is learning how to say no. You need to know who the good people in your life are, and who are the ones that are just trying to take you for a ride,” Buchanon warns. “Players without financial stress are able to perform better and it’s their performances that got them rich in the first place. I just hope that at least one young guy picks up my book and improves his situation. That would make it all worth it.”
Philip Buchanon is a former cornerback who played 121 games in 9 years in the NFL. After being drafted by the Oakland Raiders, Buchanon went on to represent the Houston Texans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Detroit Lions, and the Washington Redskins. It is his wish that his book can educate and inspire young athletes.
New Money: Staying Rich is available here.
30 April 2015
If you could amalgamate different elements from different sports to create the perfect athlete, what would you take? The endurance of a marathon runner, the agility of a gymnast, the speed of a sprinter, the dexterity of a basketball player; each sport has its own unique skill sets and requirements. In our latest interview, Richard Quan, owner and trainer at Fighting Fit Militia in Johannesburg explains to us why he thinks mixed martial artists are as close to the perfect athlete as we are ever going to get.
On May 2, Floyd “Money” Mayweather and Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao will finally touch gloves in what has been billed the “fight of the century”. Millions around the world will be glued to their TVs, some paying between US $90 and US $100 on pay-per-view. Tickets for the fight at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas start at a staggering $3 749 and reach over $117 000 at ringside.
In a 60-40 split, the American with the diamond dusted, gold flaked, $100 dollar bill embedded, $25 000 mouthguard will earn over $180 million for the fight while the Filipino congressman and family man will take home at least $120 million. These are astronomical figures and must certainly mean that these are the two greatest fighters and athletes on the planet.
Not according to UFC star “The Notorious” Connor McGregor. The Irishman is known equally for his bravado and pedigree in and out of the octagon and stated that it would take him less than thirty seconds to “wrap around him (Mayweather) like a boa constrictor and strangle him.” He added, “I don’t look at a man who’s an expert in one area as a specialist. I look at him as a rookie in ten other areas.”
In a straight up boxing match, Mayweather would surely win, but it’s hard to argue with McGregor when he says his all-round skill would simply be too much for the undefeated champion. Kicks, take-downs, submission holds, elbows, knees; these are all attacks that Mayweather and every other boxer has never had to deal with. Does this mean that mixed martial artists are the most complete fighters on the planet? According to trainer Richard Quan from Fighting Fit Militia in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, MMA fighters are undoubtedly at the pinnacle of human performance.
“An athlete is not about being able to do one task. When it comes to the peak of human performance - the human body, MMA fighters are at the very top.” Quan’s fighters are amongst the best in South Africa with promise of global recognition to come. Gareth “Soldierboy” McLellan has already made his UFC debut and Quan is certain that current EFC champions Boyd Allen (featherweight) and Demarte “The Wolf” Pena (bantamweight) will soon be among the best in the world.
Quan doesn’t stop there, “Body builders are not athletes. A marathon runner is not an athlete. Just because you can run 50km down a road doesn’t mean you’re an athlete.” There are many that would disagree with Quan, as I did during our interview, but he does have a point. He stresses that he does not want to disrespect another sport as those at the top haven taken years to develop their skills, but he is adamant that if aliens had to come down to Earth and pick the ultimate human, he or she would be an MMA fighter.
CONQA: How does fighting fit differ from other types of fitness?
Richard Quan: First thing to know is that we train for performance. Today, people think that if you look good, you’re fit, but that is not the case. Some of the best fighters look like an average Joe. Secondly, our conditioning is different because in no other sport outside of combat sport do you have to take as much physical punishment as we do.
CONQA: What is an average day at training for an MMA fighter?
RQ: We train 5-6 hours a day but the important thing is that we cycle through programmes. We can’t have the same training session on repeat. Depending on how close we are to a fight we either increase or decrease loads and focus on different elements. Some days focus on kicks, some days focus on wrestling. Generally training days are divided into 3 sessions with 2 sessions focussed on skill work and 1 session dedicated to strength and conditioning. But we cycle through them. We can change cycles daily, weekly, or monthly depending on what we are trying to achieve.
CONQA: What is the focus during training?
RQ: Strength is top. Strength is the elite. Strength doesn’t mean how hard you can hit or how much you can lift. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, and I work with a variety of athletes from football, to tennis, to swimming; strength is the common thread amongst champions. A stronger athlete exerts less energy performing the same task as the athlete that isn’t as strong. That energy conservation is obviously vital.
CONQA: How do you improve strength?
RQ: It’s sport specific. Fighters used to run 20km every morning hoping to get fitter and therefore become better fighters, but that way of thinking is outdated. MMA is our sport and therefore to get fit and improve strength, my fighters need to replicate in training what they’ll face in the cage. They wrestle, they spar, they hit bags, they do drills. Fitness comes on the mat. It’s the same with any other sport. Basil Carzis (head of strength and conditioning at South African Rugby) gets his players fit by putting them through drills that simulate match environments. Fitness for fitness’ sake will make you look good and feel good, but it won’t make you a champion.
CONQA: What nutrition programmes do you put your fighters on?
RQ: Thanks to the fitness industry, people have become lazy. The industry appeals to those looking for a quick fix and turn to so called “experts” who just throw out ‘diet A’ or ‘diet B’ until something works. Every athlete’s body is different. How the athlete was brought up is important. What his body can process will be unique. For example, I’m Asian and I can process rice better, but Westerners can process wheat better. It all depends on the individual.
CONQA: What are your thoughts on the Tim Noakes diet?
RQ: Tim Noakes is not a nutrition expert. His ideology is fine for the modern man who sits on a couch but no athlete in the world could use it. Our energy output throughout the day is much higher than an average person. What if an athlete’s body can’t process meat or fats? There is no ready-made, pre-packaged diet or training programme that will turn an average Joe into an athlete. Everyone is unique and therefore the training methods have to be. Your body is a machine and you need to understand it before you can fuel it efficiently.
CONQA: If everyone is unique, how do you create a programme for an athlete?
RQ: You have to assess what his or her goals are. Then you have to separate the strengths from the weaknesses. In our sport, weaknesses can get you knocked out so you have to improve them. However, you can’t focus too much on weaknesses as that can be disheartening.
CONQA: Do you think that MMA is the sport that best represents peak human performance?
RQ: MMA has something that no other sport has: a life skill. Kicking a soccer ball or hitting a golf ball is not a life skill. The only other people that can understand us psychologically are those in the military or law enforcement. We have a warrior culture. Other sports use violence and combat as a metaphor; we use them as a way of life.
CONQA: How do you feel when you see people out of shape? Do you encourage people to join your gym?
RQ: Truthfully, I hate it. Modern society has made us soft and men have lost what it means to be a man. Most men don’t have the four essential pillars in life: growing your own food, building your own shelter, keeping your body healthy, defending yourself in combat. These are the pillars of being a man and if you can’t fulfil those requirements I believe you are less of a man. In my gym, we’re a tribe of real men. We believe in the ethos of what we are doing and we’ll defend that ethos. This is a sport and many people provide for their families through this sport but what separates MMA is that we embody a lifestyle more than any other sport. There are a lot of loud mouths in sport but how many of them can actually throw down? In MMA, we let our behaviour do the talking.
The dream fight between two of the loudest fighters in their respective sports will never happen. Mayweather may well retire after facing Pacquiao but the point is moot. The debate as to which sport supplies the greatest athletes will probably rage on forever. What we do know is that you are welcome to take it up with champion trainer Richard Quan and his team of elite fighters should you disagree with him.
Richard Quan is a trainer and co-owner at Fighting Fit Militia. He has a personal MMA record of 7-0. His specialties include Muay Thai, MMA, CrossFit Conditioning and free style wrestling. Visit their website here.
23 April 2015
Finding the right level of arousal is vital for elite athletes if they are to succeed. A long distance runner who burns himself out too early will have as little chance of success as a boxer who is too slow to get in the zone for his fight. Unfortunately, arousal is not a switch that can simply be turned on or off. Mitzi Hollander, founder of The ADD Lab, has helped Attention Deficit Disorder patients maintain their levels of arousal for years. Using the same methods, she is helping professional athletes manage their body and minds for peak performance.
At only eight years old, Gerhard Viljoen suffered a severe head trauma after being involved in a car accident. He suffered extensive damage to his prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive planning and impulse control, as well as his cerebellum, the area controlling balance and rhythm. But as it states on his website: “Life is not about being disabled, but differently able.”
Today Viljoen is a South African T2 Paralympic cyclist. He represented his country at the 2012 London Games, finishing 4th in the road race and 7th in the time trial. Viljoen has achieved success through hard graft and perseverance while understanding how to manage his levels of arousal.
The Yerkes-Dodson law, developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. Represented on a bell curve, performance rises with arousal but drops off if the mind and body are too active and tense.
The body’s autonomic nervous system and the brain’s central nervous system arousal levels need to operate near the bulge of the curve for optimal performance. A deviation from the centre can result in athletes being overly sensitive for example to external visual and auditory stimuli that can act as distractions. This can lead to a loss in focus and concentration as well as a mismanagement of energy levels.
As a result of his trauma, Viljoen finds it difficult “switching off” and remaining calm. He is constantly at a heightened level of arousal which if unchecked can lead to stress, anxiety and panic. Even at rest his muscles often tense up and his pH balance can become acidic which can lead to injury. Strategically, he used to struggle in long distance races, often exerting too much energy at the beginning while losing focus towards the end. Thanks to Mitzi Hollander, the founder of The ADD Lab, Viljoen has gained control of his arousal levels.
“Having the appropriate energy level for the task at hand, and being able to sustain that energy for the duration of the task; that is what an athlete needs to strive for,” says Hollander, South Africa’s leading neuroscientist in the study and treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). “When dealing with peak performance in athletes, I can teach them how to alter and shift their arousal so it’s appropriate to the task that they need to do. But before I do that, I need to first understand and measure where their arousal lies naturally.”
Electrical activity in the brain is measured in terms of frequencies and compared to the median score within the individual’s age and gender as measured by a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG). Frequencies are divided into four categories: delta, theta, alpha, and beta. Alpha (8-14 hertz) is the goldilocks zone. This is where a state of what Hollander calls “quiet alertness” is possible. Focus is achieved without putting too much strain on rational cognitive function, minimising the risk of mental burn-out and negative thought intrusion while still being able to perform strenuous physical tasks.
At theta (below 8 hertz), focus is turned inward and individuals can be described as “inattentive” and are often unable to “switch on”. These individuals struggle to focus on anything in particular and need to raise their brain’s frequency in order to reach alpha.
For people like Viljoen, whose brains hum in the beta range (above 14 hertz), arousal levels are naturally high and need to be brought down to reach alpha. Focus is difficult to maintain, not because not enough information is being absorbed, but because there is an overload of information. Distractions abound as background noise and visuals are not blocked out but form part of the target. Imagine a tennis player being distracted by every sneeze or laugh in the crowd, or a footballer being unable to distinguish his teammates from the blur of the stadium. As Hollander explains, “filtering is like a net that catches what’s important but lets out everything else. This is what happens at alpha. At high beta the net catches everything.”
Body arousal is measured with a similar device to a lie detector. Hollander measures heart rate, sweat response, muscle tension, and breathing in order to establish how the athlete’s autonomic nervous system functions when at rest. Essentially what is being measured is the athlete’s fight/flight response. The autonomic nervous system can’t be separated from the central nervous system and often a heightened state of arousal in the body is a direct response to a heightened state of arousal in the mind. In a previous article, Stephan du Toit, the head of strength and conditioning at Western Province Rugby, related how an over active mind directly resulted in some of Western Province’s fittest players pulling up injured due to performance anxiety in a big match.
“I worked with a Springbok rugby player who was constantly getting injured whenever he started hitting good form,” Hollander recounts. “We discovered that when he was young, his dad constantly put him down, saying that he “plays like a girl” and that he would never make it as a professional rugby player. These negative thought intrusions (one of the three disruptors of zone as identified by Dr Roland Carlsteadt, along with subliminal attention and anxiety) resulted in a heightened level of arousal and had a direct impact on his physiology.”
Once Hollander knows where on the bell curve the athlete’s arousal lies, she can start working on attaining a level of arousal that is appropriate for the particular task. Not all athletes require the same level of arousal. A test match cricketer who needs to bat for hours at a time needs to operate at a much slower frequency than a 100m sprinter who completes his job in less than 10 seconds.
Studies have shown that some sports actually benefit those who resonate in the beta range as focus doesn’t need to be maintained for long periods. An estimated 8 to 10 percent of all professional athletes have ADD compared to the 4 to 5 percent of the general population. Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest sportsman of all time, has had ADD his entire life. His struggles with attention and heightened arousal have been well documented but it hasn’t affected his performance in the pool.
“We find out where the arousal is coming from,” Hollander says. “Often the athlete’s arousal is high as a result of performance anxiety or a latent fear and therapy is needed. If it is coming from the brain we need to get the athlete to be able to control his or her own frequencies at will. They need to be able to bring their level of arousal to the desired state for whichever task they are about to perform. We do this through operant conditioning.”
Electrodes are attached to the athlete’s head and brain activity is measured. Then, using only brain waves, the athlete is made to perform a task on a screen by playing a game that rewards desired mental states and discourages frequencies that fall outside of the target parameters. By calming his mind, closing his eyes, and regulating his breathing, the athlete is able to accomplish the task. When the desired state is achieved, the game rewards the athlete with images and sounds of affirmation and he receives words of encouragement from the neuroscientists.
Through these simple games, the athlete instinctively remembers the mental state that was rewarded and through constant repetition is able to tap into that state at will in any situation. The athlete can replicate the desired level of arousal even when confronted with a stressful big match situation or fatigue by accessing the state of mind he was in when connected to the electrodes and playing the game.
“It’s called bio neurofeedback therapy and it works wonders for children and adults who need to control their levels of arousal,” explains Hollander. Self-regulating arousal by the simple act of accessing a mental state has proved an effective way of reaching alpha frequencies. When the mind is at ease, so too is the body. Fight/flight responses become normal, muscles relax, and the body’s natural pH balance is less acidic as a result of normal adrenal gland secretion and endocrine function. Athletes are able to strategize and plan more effectively when not clouded by anxiety and high states of arousal.
How many chokes, blunders, or missed opportunities in the history of sport could have been prevented with the help of neurofeedback therapy? Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss at the 1994 FIFA World Cup; Alan Donald’s dropped bat at the 1999 ICC World Cup; Bill Buckner’s blunder in the 1986 World Series; who knows what would have happened if these athletes were able to remain calm and control their arousal levels? If Viljoen’s story is anything to go by, and Hollander’s work and results continue to change the lives of so many people who walk through the doors of The ADD Lab, it’s fair to say that sport’s history may have been written a little differently.
For more information on bio neurofeedback therapy and other interventions for peak performance, visit www.addlab.co.za.
16 April 2015
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
10 April 2015
It only takes a few seconds and 140 characters, but an inappropriate tweet has the potential to ruin a professional athlete's career. With the world's eyes glued to social media, the psychological, social and financial dangers are real. Tracey Veivers, head psychologist for the Brisbane Lions (Australian Football League) discusses how new technology has influenced her job and caused her more headaches than she would have envisaged.
When it was announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah will replace John Stewart as host of the Daily Show after 16 years, the Rainbow Nation celebrated its new favourite son.
It wasn't long though until some old tweets emerged and went viral, causing a social media storm that threatened his new job before he even started. A few of them had sexist and anti-Semitic undertones like 2009’s “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” and 2011’s ““Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!” – fat chicks everywhere.”
Whether or not you find these tweets offensive or not is irrelevant. What is important to note is how the simple act of a social media post can create a controversy and land a celebrity in hot water.
Sports stars are not exempt from this. Since 2011, the English Football Association has raked in over £350 000 from Twitter fines, with former Chelsea left back Ashley Cole’s £90 000 fine in 2012 for a foul mouthed tirade aimed at the FA the most costly. Also in 2012, Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was expelled from competing at the London Olympic Games for tweeting: “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitos will at least eat homemade food!!!”
Since the rise of social media and especially Twitter, sportsmen and women have had to be extremely careful about what they post. Like the rest of us, celebrities are prone to thoughtless outbursts but as Tracey Veivers, head psychologist for the Brisbane Lions in the Australian Football League (AFL) explains, sports stars represent a brand.
“They have to understand that they are a marketable product,” she says. “The team they represent is a brand and therefore they become a part of that brand and are accountable for it. Social media has created a platform for the most impulsive whims to be aired to the entire world and sportsmen and women have to be so careful that they do not breach a code of conduct.”
Veivers says she wishes she operated in a world devoid of any social media as it has heaped additional pressure on professional athletes. Social media through fan engagement has created stakeholders invested in the athlete’s performances and lifestyles that weren’t there before. Strangers and “couch experts” can openly voice their opinions directly to the athlete and all those messages have the potential to pile up and weigh on the athlete’s mind.
“They don’t even have to be defamatory or scathing comments to have a negative effect on the athlete’s performance,” explains Veivers. “Last week we had a few debutants for the Lions (against Collingwood in the opening round of the AFL) and they received so many well wishes from friends and family on social media. Too much support can lead to performance anxiety and can take the athlete’s focus away from the simple processes that he needs to enable optimum performance. These young men have a whole new set of expectations that they have to manage that just wouldn’t exist without social media.”
Veivers and sports psychologists around the world now have to educate their athletes about the dangers of social media. She uses scare tactics and real life examples to instil a fear in them. One example is how a professional footballer had his house broken into as a result of personal information posted on one of his social media profiles. Bullying is also a real concern. All too often fans cross the line when it comes to criticism and Veivers strongly stresses to her athletes that they have a right to set firm boundaries and disengage from social media when that criticism becomes abuse.
Unfortunately, an athlete can be swept up in a social media controversy without actually engaging online. In 2014, Didier Deschamps, the current manager of the French national football team, filed a civil law suit against Samir Nasri’s girlfriend Anara Atanes after she tweeted: “F**k France and F**k Deschamps” after the Manchester City star was omitted from France’s FIFA World Cup squad. While Deschamps remains at the helm, the young midfielder’s international career remains in doubt.
Veivers tells of an incident involving some of her players posing in a photo holding drinks from a main sponsor’s rival that was posted by a cousin of one of the players. “It can be that simple,” she says. “Athletes can lose endorsements and sponsorships or their integrity can be seriously questioned.” In 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall lost a major sponsorship deal after: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” This followed US President Barack Obama’s announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
The consequences of social media engagement extend further than financial implications. Like all of us, sports stars carry insecurities and self-doubts and if exacerbated by social media, they can become real problems. It is human nature to compare ourselves to other people but thanks to social media and the ease with which we can access other people's personal portfolios, skewed perceptions on what is normal or healthy abound. “I work with a footballer who is so obsessed with how he looks that he suffers from a condition called body dysmorphic disorder,” Veivers reveals. “He is an amazing athlete but as a consequence of social media he has started to doubt not only how he looks, but also how he plays. Body dysmorphic disorder is not openly discussed but is a serious issue for professional athletes and can be directly correlated to social media.”
At the very least this can become a distraction and at worst a serious mental health issue. Veivers explains that it can all culminate in poor choices related to how the athlete treats his or her body in terms of training and diet. She tells me that she has seen injuries and drops in performances directly related to body dysmorphia that stemmed from social media.
New technology has allowed a new generation to interact with the world around them through a screen. Social media has meant that every individual can become the centre of his or her own world. Every thought that pops up, no matter how inane, can be shared with the world in seconds. Veivers has seen first-hand how a young athlete with his nose constantly in his phone can lose the respect of his teammates. Social cohesion is vital to team success and the anti-social tendencies of social media can alienate athletes and create cliques.
That is why Veivers and the Brisbane Lions confiscate all phones and tablets several hours before a match and only return them to the players several hours after the match has ended. “Our young athletes in this current generation just don’t know how to put their phones down,” says Veivers, her frustration carrying over our Skype call. “I would rather social media just didn’t exist.”
With increased stakeholders, exacerbated pressures, abusive fans getting too personal, and the understandable immaturity of young players, social media can be a hazardous minefield of controversy. One slip and the social and financial consequences could be career threatening. Social media can be a wonderful tool for a professional athlete and the engagement that it allows has opened up a relationship between sports stars and fans that is unprecedented. The flip side though is that the psychological dangers are a real threat and it is imperative that they are managed.
Tracey Veivers has been with the Brisbane Lions as their head sport psychologist for 11 years. She helps players and coaching staff find the optimum mental space for peak performance. She has worked extensively with the AFL club as well as Brisbane Roar FC, the Wallabies (Australian rugby union national team), the Queensland Academy of Sport as well as V8 Supercars.
2 April 2015
Injury: the greatest fear for every athlete. Across any code, at any level, injury is a part of life for sportsmen and women. A torn hamstring, a broken arm, a severe concussion; all injuries require extensive physical therapy. But what about the mental battle that needs to be waged when injured? How does the psychological process measure up to the physiological one? Doctor Charlie Weingroff and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers reveal what an athlete goes through psychologically when undergoing physical rehabilitation.
On the 29th November 2014, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the South African rugby community held its collective breath when captain and 107 Test veteran Jean de Villiers fell to the floor clutching his left knee during a Test against Wales. His cries of agony could be heard over the live television feed with replays showing his leg bending at a sickening angle. A post-match prognosis indicated a broken knee cap, a torn hamstring and anterior cruciate knee ligament damage. What we had seen may well have been the abrupt end of one of the most illustrious and successful careers in the history of the sport.
“When it happened my first thought was definitely negative,” de Villiers says in an exclusive interview with CONQA Sport. “I thought “that’s the end”. Because of my age and the stage of my career that I’m at, I immediately went to a negative place. I knew it was bad straight away.”
De Villiers is a positive person and those negative thoughts were vanquished within the first few minutes. The Springbok captain was being carried off the field on a stretcher when assistant coach Johan van Graan told him that he was still going to go to the World Cup in September. The road to recovery, and indeed the World Cup, started right there on his back.
According to de Villiers, the rehabilitation process is a mental battle from the very first day. Having a solid support base in the form of close friends and family is crucial as they are the ones that build the mind while the physiotherapists, surgeons and coaches rebuild the body.
Doctor Charlie Weingroff is someone who knows how to rebuild both. Weingroff, a certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. His work with elite athletes going through rehabilitation has brought him international renown and his time with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2005/06 season saw the East Coast franchise ranked first in the NBA for the least amount of players missing games through injury.
For Weingroff, the mental side of rehabilitation is just as important as the physical process, but stresses that because everyone is different, there are no set rules when understanding the mental side of recovery. Unlike a ruptured hamstring or a broken arm, every mind is comprised of different experiences and emotions. Some players may need constant reassurance that their rehabilitation is on track; others may need as little social interaction as possible. According to Weingroff, some players are like “little mad scientists” and scrutinise over every scrap of data while others simply need to be told what to do. Some injured athletes blame coaches and trainers for their ailments and others push too hard in their pursuit of fitness. As a result of the variety of mental states, Weingroff instead chooses to solve the mental battle with a physical approach.
“The psychological side of rehabilitation is still scientifically observable,” explains Weingroff. “Spiked levels of dopamine and certain neurotransmissions can be monitored. Maintaining hormonal and neurotransmitter levels associated with positive mind-sets and positive rehabilitation is what we strive for.”
This is achieved in a number of ways. First, the mind needs to be tricked into thinking that the body is healthy. As de Villiers and Weingroff both point out, one of the major inhibitors for rehabilitation is the athlete’s frustration that high levels of performance are no longer possible while injured. Weingroff circumnavigates this negativity by focussing on another area of the body. If an athlete has injured his foot or knee, there is no reason why the upper body cannot be trained. If this happens, there is a reduced risk of central sensitisation, a condition of the nervous system that is associated with chronic pain. “The athlete does not dwell on the injured body part and the area does not occupy a larger space in the cognitive brain,” Weingroff says. “Pain is in the mind, not in the body.”
Focussing away from the injured area is also achieved through the use of external rather than internal cues. Weingroff explains that he will never say “lift your knee this way” or “push your shoulder in that direction” but will rather use phrases like “lift the dumbbell like this” or “push the floor away from you”. Through external cues the athlete has no direct association to the injured area. As a result, training successes, while injured, can be measured in terms of small victories achieved through small goals (working a different part of the body or focussing on the external cues.)
“It’s important for the individual to still feel like an athlete,” says Weingroff. “You need to continuously put the athlete in situations where he or she can succeed. It’s very acute, but the little spikes in dopamine have a positive effect psychologically.” Tackling a bag, running a certain distance, pushing a weight in a particular way; these small victories create a connection between physical exertion and success. The number one predictor of injury is a previous injury. The athlete needs to negate this fear by performing actions that are associated with positive cognitive functions. The task doesn't have to be difficult, in fact it shouldn't be. Successes, no matter how small, all add up to the overall positive mind-set. The athlete can now regain the athletic confidence that is required to replicate match situations during training.
De Villiers confirms that the fear factor for the returning athlete is very real. “We simulate a lot of what goes on during a game in training,” he says. “Each time you’re tackled or run a little further, that fear and doubt is reduced. It takes time but eventually you get there.” The cause of the injury needs to be simulated. If the athlete rolled his knee as a result of wet grass, those conditions need to be replicated in training. If the player was injured in a tackle or from mistiming a jump, the variables have to be repeated in training because a negative association with an in-game variable increases the risk of a repeat injury. Match situations will never be duplicated precisely in training but the cognitive loop that links the variable to injury needs to be broken.
At 34, de Villiers has experienced his fair share of lengthy layoffs. In 2002 he suffered his first serious injury five minutes into his debut against France and missed most of the successful 2007 World Cup with a bicep tear. “I think the fact that I had injuries in my career definitely helps because I’ve been through it and I’m mentally stronger,” he says. Both de Villiers and Weingroff agree that although older players have anxieties regarding career ending injuries (the financial implications being a major source of anxiety), they are able to draw on experience and maturity which are both vital to the rehabilitation process. Young players’ bodies generally heal a lot faster but the exuberance of youth can often be a detriment as frustration caused by an inability to see the bigger picture can create unrealistic expectations.
“I always tell injured players to expect the worst,” says de Villiers. “Anything better is a bonus but nothing is more damaging and more demoralising to the psychological side of rehabilitation than expecting to be fit before you really are. That can set you back a few months and then you have to start all over again. It’s harder for young players but the more you play the more you appreciate playing and that means you don’t take anything for granted.” That is one of the trade-offs with age. An injury is a loss, and like any loss, certain emotions need to be experienced before acceptance. Feelings like denial, anger, frustration, and blame are all part of the psychological rehabilitation process. Older players tend to get to the acceptance stage a lot quicker as time is against them. Only once a player has got to the acceptance stage can expectations can be managed.
Jean de Villiers faces the greatest battle of his rugby career. After regaining fitness after that lengthy lay -off he broke his jaw against Argentina last week. Getting fit for the World Cup in September would represent everything that de Villiers is about. This rugby legend is throwing all that he has got into getting his body fit and ready to regain the Webb Ellis Cup that all Springbok fans desperately crave. But getting his body fit is only half the battle. De Villiers will need every ounce of mental strength if he is to bring the curtain down on his career with a crescendo of noise and his arms aloft at Twickenham.
Dr. Charlie Weingroff trains and rehabs golfers and athletes of all performance levels at Drive495 in Manhattan and Fit For Life in Marlboro, NJ. He is also currently the Lead for Physical Performance for the Canadian Men's National Basketball Team, managing the Senior National, Developmental, Junior, and Cadet teams with a regular staff of 6 and a team of consultants throughout the world. He also holds a similar position with the Roddick-Lavalle School of Tennis. He is also a member of the Nike Executive Performance Council and consultant to several organizations such as Equinox Fitness Clubs, Perform Better, and TPI.. Visit his website here.
25 March 2015
Whether you're liking, sharing, or retweeting, the exchange of information is simply a click away. By sharing knowledge we progress our own understanding of the world around us. It's how we grow and develop ideas. For some though, making cognitive progress requires a little more than a social media interaction. For coaches in the Australian Football League (AFL), developing their game has required some out of the box thinking.
Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) explores why human civilisations evolved differently across the globe. He points out that throughout history, certain groups of people travelled across oceans and continents to dominate and decimate other groups of people.
Geographic location was the primary factor for this as disproportionate technical advancements were directly related to where civilisations came from. Apart from climate, the development of farming, and exposure to diseases passed on from livestock, what the conquering and colonising forces had as an advantage was their exposure to new information. Knowledge sharing was encouraged through the ease with which they could travel and interact with new civilisations.
Conversely, communities isolated by large bodies of water or terrain that proved difficult to traverse developed in isolation. When Europeans first encountered the inhabitants of small Pacific Islands and Australia, they found indigenous people using tools and technologies similar to Stone Age tools found elsewhere.
Although we now live in an age of knowledge sharing unparalleled in human history, one small tribe living in Australia still remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world. This tribe is the Australian Football League (AFL).
“Our sport is certainly extremely unique and we think it’s a great game. We can’t compare it to anything else,” says Ron Watt, Manager of Professional Development for the AFL Coaches Association. “Because we don’t have another sport to measure ourselves against, we have to reach out and learn from other sports. We’ve had to be creative in the way we develop our knowledge.”
Watt has been with the Coaches Association for just over a year and has encouraged all head coaches in the AFL to learn from other sports. The way basketball players keep possession, the way field hockey teams spread the ball across the pitch, the way rugby players tackle; these have all been noted and improved the development of the sport.
The AFL’s isolation has necessitated their need to challenge the way they coach their game, but this is something that not all sports practitioners have been forced to do. Watt explains how last year while visiting the USA, he met with a National Football League (NFL) coach. Watt asked him how he learns from other sporting codes; he responded that he simply doesn’t. The obstinate coach asked why he should learn from other sports when there is a perfectly good football academy just one state over.
It seems a stubborn response but one that is not uncommon. According to Kenneth Husted and Snejina Michailova in their paper Diagnosing and Fighting Knowledge-Sharing Hostility (2002), there is often a strong desire to develop one’s own ideas and in turn, whether consciously or not, reject outside knowledge. In a previous article, Paddy Upton touched on the notion that coaches are determined to be seen as all-knowing technical gurus. A head coach is an isolated and volatile job with a very short shelf life. Getting sacked is a strong possibility in any code and it is understandable that a coach would be reluctant to share ideas as well as allow others to share theirs. It seems folly not to accept help but how many of you have felt the pressures and expectations that come with being a head coach of a franchise or club?
“It’s a lonely job as a head coach,” says Watt. “It’s his head on the block but communication is key. Understanding that there is always something new to learn is what makes a top coach. We encourage our coaches to meet regularly and learn from each other and other sports. We’re not threatened because our sport is so different.”
This security has allowed Watt and the AFL to learn from other sports and has created a willingness to share knowledge. Research in knowledge sharing has shown that the desire to create a two way avenue is vital. When former New Zealand All Blacks coach Laurie Mains called code-hopping Sonny Bill Williams a “mercenary”, it seemed to come from a personal place. In an interview with News24 last year, the former coach lamented the fact that the New Zealand rugby hierarchy were “content to let Williams flit from one code to another at will.” Of course Mains wanted the best players available representing the code he loves, but his anger seemed to be directed at the opposing code (rugby league) more than the ineptness of his code (rugby union).
Cricket Australia had no such qualms hiring American Mike Young as their fielding coach in 2000. Young’s sporting background was in baseball prior to John Buchanan’s out of the box appointment. In the early parts of the new millennium, Australia’s fielding improved dramatically under Young’s tutelage. The way players positioned their body when throwing and catching the ball was adapted using the combined knowledge from cricket and baseball. Young noted that when walking in with the bowler, fielders were taking around ten steps before the ball reached the batsman. Over a five day test match that adds up to a lot of steps. Thanks to Young and his knowledge from another sport, Australian cricketers were saving energy by only taking three steps.
The baseball-cricket relationship has now developed into a new initiative called Switch Hit 20. Julien Fountain, a former English county cricketer crossed codes to represent Great Britain as a pitcher. Having experience in both sports, Fountain’s Switch Hit 20 is a program that seeks to take baseball players who have failed to make it to the major leagues and turn them into a competitive American 20/20 cricket team. Fountain argues that the athletic ability and skills required in both sports is very similar. With a bit of coaching to refine those skills, a sporting cross-over for athletes is achievable.
There is no set rule when it comes to knowledge sharing. Australian Sevens Rugby has recently encouraged code-hoppers to join their ranks in a quest to assemble the best possible squad for next year’s Olympic Games. As Watt states, “it comes down to the individuals.” However, each individual in his or her own sport will always prioritise their own interests. In other words, for a coach or manager, knowledge sharing must be a means to an end rather than a romantic ideal of exchanging ideas.
In a study done by Halil Bisgin published in the International Journal of Sport Studies titled Examination of Knowledge Sharing Levels of Physical Education and Sports Teachers According to Various Variables (2014), knowledge sharing is best encouraged in informal environments where knowledge can be exchanged voluntarily. Knowledge sharing differentiates form knowledge transfer because of the engagement it offers. Knowledge sharing allows both parties to come away from the exchange enriched. In conversation with Upton a few weeks ago I asked him how any coach could tell Sachin Tendulker how to play a cricket shot. He responded; “you don’t tell him, you ask him.”
Watt speaks of the AFL Coaches Association’s willingness to exchange ideas with pride. His sport has benefited from learning from other sports but the profits of knowledge sharing works both ways. Watt tells me how rugby league and union coaches have implemented kicking tactics borrowed from the AFL. The way AFL players protect the ball when jumping to catch it has also been replicated in both rugby codes. The dimensions of the field used for Australian rules are unique to any high intensity ball sport and therefore so is the way players are conditioned and managed. Many young Australians are being used as punters in college football as the technique they have grown up with and perfected is completely different, and more efficient, than their American contemporaries.
New information is just a click away on any phone, tablet or desktop. Coaches and scouts can access data and player analysis around the globe with a simple flight or call at any time. The pressures of winning have increased just as the margins for error have decreased. With coaches striving to find that special something that separates their team from the rest, perhaps the answer lies in another sport.
Knowledge sharing and the exchange of ideas is how all elite sports practitioners stay ahead of the field in terms of innovation and performance. CONQA Sport's Elite Sport Summit promotes networking and the fluid transaction of knowledge and insight.
12 March 2015
Every player wants to be in it, but stay out of it too long and your place in the team will be at risk. Form is something that every sports star, coach and fan can relate to but few know what it is or how to measure it. Its symptoms can be seen such as a batsman scoring runs or a striker scoring goals, but the notion of form remains open to interpretation. Paddy Upton, head coach of the Sydney Thunder (BBL) and the Rajasthan Royals (IPL) discusses the ideology of form and whether or not there is a method to ensuring one stays in it.
When Amjad Javed of the United Arab Emirates ran in to deliver Quinton de Kock’s 45th ball of his innings in South Africa’s final pool match of the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the young opener was on 26. Not exactly a strike rate that he have come to associate with the free flowing maverick but he has been out of touch lately and needed a solid innings to rebuild his campaign. Unfortunately for the 22 year old, an all too familiar scenario played out.
A modest 122km/h ball pitched on a relatively good length just outside off stump and carried on with the angle across the left hander. Not moving his feet and playing away from his body, de Kock only managed to get a fine edge on the ball and was caught by a grateful wicketkeeper. He went out the same way to Pakistan. He’s been going out like this quite a lot recently.
This is de Kock’s leanest spell of his fledgling career. Not since his 107 against Australia in November last year has de Kock gone above 30. In fact, this knock of 26 is his first one past 20 in 7 innings.
What has happened to de Kocks’s game? This is the same player that scored 3 consecutive hundreds against India in December 2013. Why has he suddenly hit such a bad run of form? For Paddy Upton, the answer is simple.
“Form is nothing more than an abstract concept of the mind,” he says. “Form is lost when the body’s natural intelligence is forgotten or blocked.”
Upton has worked with some of the top cricketers on the planet in a number of different roles. He is currently the head coach of both the Sydney Thunder Cricket Team as well as the Rajasthan Royals that competes in the 20 over Big Bash League (BBL) in Australia and the Indian Premier League (IPL) respectively. His work with Gary Kirsten as high performance manager for both the South African and Indian national sides helped both nations reach the number one Test ranking during his stints there and became a World Cup winner with India in 2011.
Upton has realised that with any sportsman’s performance over a set period of time there will be peaks and valleys. No player in any sport has sustained a level of consistent success over his or her entire career. At face value, this is nothing but form. Every player goes through dips of “good form” and “bad form”. Upton, however, says that form is an illusion:
“When you play roulette, you have the choice of red or black. If the ball repeatedly lands on black, there is an unfounded belief that the ball will land on red the next time the wheel spins. The truth is for every new spin of the wheel, the ball has a 50-50 chance of landing on either red or black. What came before is irrelevant. It’s the same with a sports star. As long as the player has prepared his own game to the best of his ability, he has an equal chance of failure or success whether in so called “good form”or “bad form”. The only reason his chance of failure increases is if he focuses on his downward spiralling in to poor form.”
Individual perception is a good place to start when discussing form. Let’s take two players who are both struggling to score runs; the player who believes that his poor run is down to bad luck and that a big score is around the corner will be able to focus on the procedures that have made him successful in the past and trust that will bring back success. The player who buys in to the concept of poor form will look to rectify the situation by tackling the problem; in this case not making enough runs. Upton is clear that it is not about the popular psychology concept of ‘thinking positively'. Rather it is about not feeding the monster that is the abstract concept of poor form.
“Whatever you focus on grows,” says Upton. “If a player truly believes that nothing is wrong and that he is only going out to good bowling, bad shots, bad luck or whatever else, and not the result of poor form, he will continue to prepare his game in the same way that made him successful. If he believes that his poor form is real, he will try and fix the problem by preparing differently, often by focusing on perceived technical errors. Coaches add to this by the allure of getting overly technical. In reality, the problem is seldom physical. It’s more deeply rooted in the mental.”
The reason many coaches do this is because they do not fully understand or are not able to deal with the mental obstacles that the player has constructed for himself. Coaches are often inclined to be seen as technical gurus. By solving a mechanical problem in the player’s game, the coach is seen as an all-knowing saviour. In addition to this, being known as a player with a mental weakness rather than a technical one can be a career ender. Choking in cricket is perhaps the most contagious and feared abstract concept there is.
During South Africa’s reign as the number one Test team under Kirsten, Graeme Smith went through a lean patch in terms of runs. Coaches and experts credited this dry spell to a poor technique. They rightly pointed out that Smith was falling over his front leg and playing across his body and getting trapped lbw, or his front foot cemented itself in the crease and he played away from his body getting caught behind the wicket. However, Smith had always played this way. A split-screen of Smith the runs machine and Smith the easy wicket showed that his technique hadn’t changed. What had changed was the perception of where the problem was – the position of his front foot. The problem threatened to spiral out of control until Kirsten and Smith both came to the conclusion that the problem was not physical. Smith didn’t allow his focus to shift to a minute part of his game and was able to naturally feel his way to “good form” by cutting out shots that exposed this weakness such as driving through the offside and focussing on what suited his game such as playing through the on side.
“When a player has bought in to the idea of bad form, I’ll get him to take a step back from cricket,” Upton explains. “It’s like being in a helicopter flying at 10m above the ground. The small details seem big but you don’t see the whole picture. I’ll take them up to 10 000m to look at their family, their financial situation, their health, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. It gives them perspective. Then we’ll come down to 1 000m and look at the last few years. There have probably been periods of good and bad results. It gets the player to understand that this current run is all part of a natural cycle. He can then mentally go back and remember the things that made him successful and focus on that.”
Understanding that form is abstract does not detract from the need to prepare well. Success comes from a combination of preparation plus belief. It is realistic confidence that comes from knowing you have done all that is within your control and accepting that it still might not go your way. Not overthinking is crucial.
Upton explains how when a player’s game is flowing naturally, his body movements are being governed by body intelligence which is controlled by the basal ganglia found at the base of the forebrain. Players are able to perform complex tasks such as playing a cricket shot without thinking about it because the motor functions involved are so ingrained in the athlete’s body. When the athlete starts to overthink things and focuses on a perceived technical weakness, the pre-frontal cortex takes over and what was once instinctive becomes clumsy and uncoordinated. When AB de Villiers pulls a 150km/h Mitchell Johnson bouncer, he is not thinking about it, his body just does it. De Kock scored those hundreds against India with the same technical issues he has now such as playing away from his body and not moving his feet. However, back then, they weren’t perceived as flaws as he was crunching most deliveries from the middle of his bat.
In his book, “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, Malcom Gladwell refers to the ‘story-telling problem’; suggesting people are too quick to come up with explanations for things that they really can’t explain. How many times have we watched a sports star give a post-match conference and fail to fully explain his or her match winning performance? They’ll use words and phrases such as “in the zone” or “trusted my instinct”. Athletes only get overly technical when things start to go wrong.
There are a few measures that Upton suggests when trying to get back in to “form”. The first step is to focus on strengths (he suggests 80% of your focus should be on your strengths). Whatever you focus on grows so by focusing on what made you successful as opposed to what you perceive to be a problem is vital. The next step is preparation. Confidence and “form” are related and confidence comes from backing your own game. Sure, it won’t always guarantee positive results, but knowing you have prepared as best you can for the opposition, match conditions and your specific skills and talents ensures you approach the game with as much confidence as possible.
Once the physical preparation has been done, the mental side of things becomes important. Know that this lapse in “form” is temporary and part of a natural cycle. See the bigger picture and remember what made you successful in the first place. Quinton de Kock has not become a bad player. He has just returned from injury and so his body intelligence is perhaps a little rusty. Perhaps pressures both external and internal are hindering his ability to feel his natural game. There are a myriad of reasons why this supremely gifted sportsman is struggling. Let’s hope that someone is putting an arm around his shoulder and giving him the support he needs. An in-form de Kock is one of the most destructive forces on a cricket field and will go a long way in helping South Africa win the World Cup. A big score is surely around the corner. Let's hope the selectors see it that way.
Paddy Upton will be speaking at our Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town in September. His understanding of what makes a sports star successful has seen him inspire and motivate people around the world. His record speaks for itself and his views and insights will no doubt prove invaluable. You can follow him on Twitter or keep up to date with all his work on his website.
6 March 2015
MTN-Qhubeka are set to become the first African team to race in the Tour de France. Their journey has been one of upliftment and dedication. This is no mere sporting success story; what is happening with this team transcends the standard checks and balances of professional sport. CONQA Sport sat down with Douglas Ryder, owner and manager of the team, to discuss his MTN-Qhubeka's journey and how through a unique ethos and philosophy, he is set to make history.
In 1992, Songezo Jim became an orphan at the age of 14 when his father had tragically died only two years after the passing of his mother. Living in the rural Eastern Cape just outside of Mtata, Jim had no choice but to travel close to 1 000km to go live with his aunt. He now calls Lucca, Tuscany in Italy his home and on July 4th this year he will potentially line up in front of the world’s media and 3.5 billion people watching on TVs across the globe as one of the very first black Africans to race in the Tour de France. Not bad for someone who only learned how to ride a bike as a teenager.
“These are the kinds of success stories we want to create. These are the heroes that young people can look up to and aspire to emulate,” says Douglas Ryder, the aptly named owner and manager of MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung, the high performance cycling team that will become the first from Africa to compete in world cycling’s showpiece.
Ryder, captain of the South African national cycling team between 1993 and 2002, and 2001 Cape Argus Cycle Tour winner, got an idea in his head during his cycling days that just never went away. Endurance cycling requires stamina, focus, hard work and the will to drag your body over the line when every muscle is screaming at you to stop. The same rules apply to long distance endurance running, a sport dominated by Africans, especially those near the Horn of Africa.
“Africans are at the very top of the world when it comes to endurance running,” Ryder points out. “The theory is that the athletic ability for long distance endurance sports is there. We asked the question, “If the best runners are from Africa, why can’t we create the best cyclists?” My dream is to have African riders on every elite team in world cycling and to have an African stand at the top of the podium as World Champion.”
An interesting theory, but the logistics involved are not as simple as with road running where a pair of shoes and a stretch of tarmac is all that is required. The bikes used at this year’s Tour de France cost somewhere in the region of R117 500 ($10 000). An entry level bike costs at least a few hundred Rand; a vast sum of money for children living in conditions similar to those that Jim grew up in, many of whom have never been on a bike before. Ryder identified this problem early and joined up with Qhubeka.
Named after the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa) word that means “to carry on” or “to move forward”, the organisation aims to help rural communities progress by giving people bicycles to encourage mobility and therefore independence. Bikes are not handed out for nothing and have to be earned by doing work that helps improve the recipient’s environment and community. Qhubeka does not provide funding to the cycling team; rather the team provides a platform for Qhubeka by donating space and exposure that would usually be occupied by a corporate team sponsor.
“We realised that if we wanted to take riders from Africa and make them the best in the world, it would be very difficult if they didn’t have bikes,” Ryder explains. Since 2004, more than 50 000 bikes have been distributed to children who have now been exposed to a sport they otherwise would not have. In addition to the athletic benefits, they now have the freedom of mobility which allows them better access to schools and integration with people from different villages and towns. This mobility has encouraged entrepreneurship and the exchange of ideas that walking vast distances just never afforded.
Handing out bicycles does not automatically guarantee a place on the elite stage of cycling. It has been a long and arduous journey for Ryder and his team, one filled with naysayers and pessimists at every stretch along the way.
The challenges that Ryder faced and continues to face are not shared by European team owners. The costs involved are incomparable as the South African Rand at the time of writing comes in at 11.83 to the US Dollar, 13.1 to 1 to the Euro, and 18 to 1 to the British Pound. This means that costs are through the roof for equipment storage, training facilities, flights, accommodation, food and salaries. As Ryder stresses, his team must match the standards set by elite European teams in terms of facilities and resources provided to his athletes. Not only is the team an African one but so is the telecommunications company MTN that sponsors them.
Cultural challenges have also arisen. “Africans generally don’t travel well,” Ryder says, his experiences showing that this is applicable for riders across countries and socio-economic standings. He explains that his riders initially got home sick and found the language and food changes difficult. When they first started racing in Europe, Ryder explains that seasoned professionals eyed the Africans with scepticism at best, and at worst with disdain, with the general perception that this was not a sport for Africans. His riders even reported pelotons as physically confrontational with a little more than the standard jostling for position doled out to his men.
Ryder knew that before he could take his team to Europe he first had to establish dominance in his own country and continent. MTN-Qhubeka won their first UCI Africa Tour in 2012 and have since gone on to win it three times in a row. This continental success allowed Ryder to turn his attention to Europe. It started small; a 3 month tour to Europe in 2011 was the first time many of his riders had left the continent. In 2012 this increased to 5 months and brought 14 race wins against some of the best teams in the world. The wheels started turning faster and in September 2012, Ryder presented his team to Christian Prudhomme and Yann Le Moënner, the general director and CEO respectively of Amaury Sport Orginisation, the company responsible for the Tour de France.
“We told them that we were going to register a Professional Continental team and that we were coming to take on the best in the world as an African team,” says Ryder. “When we showed them the demographics of our team, that we were 60-70% African, they were less than optimistic of our chances. When I told them that we had a 3 year plan to get to the Tour, Prudhomme said we wouldn’t be there in 10 years! The message was that they loved our ambition but didn’t give us a chance of achieving our goal.”
Ryder left that meeting more determined than ever. He says he felt like a “bull with a red flag in front of my face”. He tirelessly approached sponsors and riders, selling not only the feel good factor of their ties with Qhubeka, but also of the promise to make history as the first African team to mix it with the big boys in a sport long regarded as elitist and exclusive. Understandably, this was quite a dream to pitch and by his own admission, he considered abandoning his lofty ambitions. It was thanks to the small successes that kept the fire burning.
In 2012, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg put the team on the map when they were still travelling in a 25 year old, second hand truck bought from T-Mobile and staying in backpackers as opposed to luxurious hotels. His stage wins and impressive breakaways against elite riders showed that MTN-Qhubeka’s riders were not touring Europe for the sights. Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti became the first black African to finish in the top ten of the ABSA Cape Epic (the most prestigious mountain bike race in the world) and was then encouraged to make the step up to endurance road racing. Eritrean rider Merhawi Kudus picked himself up from a terrible fall in the first week of the Tour of Spain to finish the race (the team were not only the first African team to compete, but finished 12th out of 22 teams and were one of five teams to finish with all their riders). More and more African riders were showing promise as well as desire and the makings of an elite team started to form.
International riders have also bought in to the success story of the team with American Tyler Farrar, Australian Matthew Goss, and most notably Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen now riding under MTN-Qhubeka colours. Riders of such a high pedigree would not be throwing away their careers and reputations for a team that was merely a charity organisation pretending to be a cycling team. It speaks volumes of the ability and ambition of the team when a rider of Boasson’s calibre takes a pay cut and chooses them over Team Sky, his former employers.
But the vision and ethos cannot be ignored when evaluating the team. Ryder stresses that winning is not the end goal for his riders. He explains to them that what they are racing for means more than stage victories and coloured jerseys. 50% of the rider’s obligations are off the road with social media work, community appearances and raising awareness for Qhubeka a top priority for the team. Ryder explains that by putting less emphasis on winning it benefits his team during races. Firstly, when the last 20km is approaching and his riders’ bodies are close to breaking point, knowing that this race means more than a trophy drives his athletes to greater heights. The emotions of helping those less fortunate have proved to be a greater motivator than the promise of glory. Secondly, with no pressure to win at all costs, MTN-Qhubeka’s riders are not tempted to dope, something that not many teams can say of their riders. “We have a zero tolerance with regards to doping,” says Ryder. “We won’t employ anyone with a doping history. We explain that as ambassadors for Qhubeka, if they dope, our riders are literally taking food out the mouths of children.”
MTN-Qhubeka’s riders are set to make history. There has never been a black African rider in the Tour de France. Ryder says there may be two this year. Of the nine riders that will start the race, five will be African. Ryder is adamant that we are at a turning point in the history of professional cycling. 2015 will forever be remembered as the year that African cycling was invited to sit at the main table, not just as novel guests, but as equals based on merit. MTN-Qhubeka is taking this year very seriously and Ryder promises something special on Nelson Mandela’s birthday (18 July) at the Tour.
Ryder knows that a once off year is not enough, he wants to create a legacy and launch pad for African cyclists. As he rightly points out, no European scout has ever considered thinking outside of the box and taking a gamble on an African rider, to be fair, that didn’t look like changing without Ryder’s vision.
“We want to bring the whole continent forward,” beams Ryder. “We want to build a brand that is taken seriously as a cycling team, but also one that improves the lives of people living on this continent. We’re doing things our way and that is vital to us.”
Ryder believes that in 3-5 years there will be an African rider on the podium of a Grand Tour and his next step is to compete regularly on the World Tour as an African team. This year’s Tour de France is merely the next step towards his vision. It is a massive stage to showcase the talents of Africa and the vision that was born on this continent. On the 4th of July, when those nine riders stand in front of all those millions watching all over the world, they won’t merely be another nine cyclists striving for success; they will be representing an entire continent that will no longer be seen as inferior. This is a watershed moment for the sport. The wheels of change are in motion and cycling will never be the same again.
25 February 2015
The University of Pretoria has established itself as one of the premier sporting universities in the country. Tuks have created a winning culture through victories across various sporting codes. We sat down with Steven Ball, the Deputy Director of Coaching and Performance Management, about why Tuks has achieved so much recent success.
Inside the University of Pretoria’s (Tuks) sport centre, life size photographs of victorious athletes from 2014 greet you with arms aloft and trophies hoisted. They are a testament to the current student champions in football, rugby, athletics, netball, rowing and martial arts who have achieved success for their university.
“People look at winning as a very closed, definitive thing,” says Deputy Director of Coaching and Performance Management, Steven Ball. “In most people’s minds, when I ask them what winning is, they’ll point to trophies and tournament victories, but here at Tuks, it’s not as simply defined.”
In 1999, Tuks were a competitive university across a few sports with individuals rather than teams shining on the national and global stage. When Kobus van der Walt was appointed as Director of Sport, things started changing.
Van der Walt’s vision was to transform the culture and ethos of the university, creating a more collaborative environment where honesty and integrity became the mandate. Another aspect that the university had decided to focus on was competitiveness and the way in which the sports are played. Winning stopped being the end goal for the coaches and athletes and instead became a bi-product of this new mind-set. As Ball says, “with the right environment and the right stimulus, the cream will rise.”
It seems whimsical and romantic to emphasise abstract concepts like culture and ethos in sport. It almost seems patronising given the recent success of Tuks. Their cricket team has recently won the Red Bull Campus Cricket World Finals tournament, beating a team from the West Indies in the final at Lords last year. Their cricketers have also won the Momentum National Club Championship for the third consecutive year. The men’s football side have dominated Varsity Football in recent years. Their swimming and rowing teams are the reigning university champions in their respective sports. Students and athletes from Tuks have recently stood on top of international podiums in athletics and judo. Their trophy cabinet is brimming with accolades from a variety of codes and the number of Proteas that call Tuks home continues to grow.
“We love to win, and we love to celebrate our success,” beams Ball. The way he speaks about ‘his’ coaches and athletes is not possessive, but filled with pride, reiterating this idea of a collective unit striving for success. “The most important thing is how we play the game, how competitive we are. That’s what we push to our coaches; be competitive, challenge the athletes, make sure the environment is the right one for them to improve. If they’re supposed to win, that win will eventually come. If we only focus on the win, we’ll forget about the small successes.”
These small successes are the building blocks for Tuks victories. Ball speaks about teams made up of individuals of different races, religions, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, all coming together for a single purpose. He tells me about how their netball team lost in the Varsity Netball final last season but graciously accepted the defeat as part of the learning experience. He explains that the sports teams are not removed from the academic institution that they represent, but are rather an extension of it and therefore the athletes are groomed to be well-rounded humans rather than finely tuned athletic machines.
With Varsity Sports (rugby, cricket, netball, athletics, football and hockey) becoming more prominent and the trophies becoming more prestigious, the pressures and demands on the coaches and athletes has increased. Student athletes now no longer play for mere pride and for the privilege of representing their university. Matches are televised and the Varsity Sport program is now seen as a big stage to demonstrate talent and to launch professional careers.
“The demands have certainly increased,” admits Ball. “The dynamic has changed but we are conscious at the university to never get to the point that the NCAA and the college system in America has got to. Each sport needs to uphold the culture of the institution and if that means losing the match but keeping the integrity, then so be it.”
There is a level of professionalism that now accompanies Varsity Sport that threatens this philosophy. I watched Hilton Lobberts run out in the final of the rugby Varsity Cup in Pretoria against Tuks for the University of Cape Town in 2011, five years after touring with the Springboks. Hardly an example of a breeding ground for young talent that any university tournament should be.
“If we have to compromise results on the field while keeping the integrity of the institution intact, then so be it,” Ball says defiantly. However, results on the field have been positive, all the while holding true to the values that Ball stresses. So how do they do it?
“We encourage communication within our sporting structures,” explains Ball. “We have regular coach’s forums where challenges can be discussed in an open environment.” The cricket coach might face a challenge that the golf coach has overcome. Player development in hockey might hit a snag but because netball has successfully resolved a similar issue, the problem does not seem insurmountable. Ball explains, “It’s not rocket science. We discuss these things openly. Any coach in the world can go and look at the positive impact this kind of integration can have on a sports institution.” Every coach, manager and player feels that they are part of the same team. Success in one sport breeds success in another because the buy-in across the board has reached a level where Tuks as a collective comes before any personal gain.
“All our coaches and players want to wear the Stripe (the red band that represents the university’s sports teams). They want to be part of the Stripe Generation. The Stripes are our Olympic rings. It’s been around longer than the Blue Bulls (Pretoria’s rugby union side).”
There is a focus not only on the elite athletes that make up the premier teams in each sport and who operate in the ‘train to win’ phase, but also on the less accomplished athletes that make up the majority of Tuks sport and who function in the ‘train to compete’ phase. These are players who will never represent their university on TV or in international competitions but are just as important to the success of the university as the national representatives. These fringe athletes increase the talent pool substantially and create a foundation on which talent can thrive. They do all of this because just like those at the top, they have bought in to the ethos of the Stripe.
Ball reiterates the fact that the reason players perform so well for Tuks is because they truly want to; not for themselves, but for the university and what it represents. Rival institutions in the country offer top athletes bursaries around R80 000 to R90 000. The largest sum Tuks offers is considerably less. That means athletes are drawn to Tuks for reasons that aren’t financial. State of the art facilities – which Tuks undoubtedly has – coupled with excellent coaching can only develop an athlete so far. Walking the halls of the university’s sport centre I really got the sense that something special is happening. It was hard for me not to be caught up in the romantic ideals that Ball has bought in to and sells to those who represent the Stripe.
“The demand for winning is so high right now,” Ball admits. “Varsity Sport has changed the way we do things and we understand that the demands are extremely high but I would lose every tournament we enter before we sell ourselves and our integrity in pursuit of victory.”
Looking at the current crop of champions, that scenario looks very unlikely.
Steven Ball is the Deputy Director of Coaching and Performance Management at Tuks Sport. He has an honours degree (BA) in Human Movement Science and is a Level 5 International Senior Coach. He has represented South Africa in swimming and his work with the South African Swimming Association as well as Tuks sport has been instrumental in their respective successes.
18 February 2015
It’s hard to imagine that the United States of America spends less money on any sport compared to their direct competition, but that is the case for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). Luke Bodensteiner, the Executive Vice President of Athletics for the association, explains how his unique program implementation ensures his athletes win as many medals as possible, for the least amount of money.
The 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships wrapped up at Vail and Beaver Creek (Colorado) this weekend, with the host nation finishing second in the medals tally behind Austria. The event was a resounding success for the US Ski Team, winning five medals, including two gold, matching their second best performance ever. Ted Ligety (Giant Slalom) and Mikaela Shiffrin (Slalom) both stood at the top of their respective podiums, representing their nation. Neither of them will receive a single dollar from the organisation and government for which they triumphed.
“We don’t pay our athletes money,” says Luke Bodensteiner, the Executive Vice President of Athletics for the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). Bodensteiner is a two time Olympian and a NCAA champion so he understands the financial restraints that are felt at all levels of the USSA. He oversees the integration of the USSA’s twelve sports under a unified strategic plan that emphasises high performance services.
Manchester United and England football captain Wayne Rooney earns $460 428.00 a week. In the same time, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will make $876 000.00. Boxer Floyd Mayweather made $32 million dollars for his single fight against Marcos Maidana last year. I think you see the point I’m making.
“Our goal is to win as many medals as possible with the least amount of resources. We don’t receive government funding and so we need to generate funds through various other avenues,” says Bodensteiner. “We receive donations and sponsorships in order to raise money for the facilities and coaches our athletes have access to. We host “Ski and Snowboard Balls” at major cities across the country. We have fund raising events. Our board of trustees consists of between 70-80 people who are leaders in their industries and who have been with us for years. It’s a challenge for us to keep up financially with the arms race as there is no sport we manage where we out spend our biggest competition.”
Still, the money that is raised does not go to the athletes, nor does it go to the roughly $25 000.00 that is needed for travel costs annually. The USSA’s policy is to provide the athletes with what no one else can give them. Hotels and flights are not covered because every cent that is raised through donations or made through sponsorship is funneled back in to the sports. The way the USSA and its athletes have sought to overcome this obstacle required some out of the box thinking.
They use RallyMe, an online crowdfunding site that helps athletes appeal to strangers in order to raise the funds required. It’s given the athletes a chance to reach out to the American public who have a strong Olympic dream and who wish to see the men and women who represent them achieve their goals. It has also allowed the USSA to be clear in the way they assist their athletes. As Bodensteiner says, “we can be a lot more pointed in the way we’re going to spend our resources. It’s usually a tough line to maintain emotionally.” This external crowdfunding source allows the athlete to free his or her mind from the burdens of financial restraints. The importance of the mental side of sport is obvious to us all and anything that helps in this regard will always translate to results on the slopes. By allowing this, the USSA has created a mechanism that alleviates the resource allocation pressures, as well as creates a pathway where the fan and the athlete can engage on a level that transcends a fleeting social media interaction.
“Good resource allocation is fundamental to any organisation,” says Bodensteiner. “It’s the classic Moneyball/ Oakland A’s thing. By being smarter with what you have, you can unlock innovation, technology, better coaching and facilities. The way we have started to think about resource allocation has had a profound effect on results.”
Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, the most medals the USSA contributed to the American total was 10. At Vancouver, that tally was 21. What Bodensteiner and the USSA did was unevenly distribute resources across the 12 sports based on the prestige of the sport as well as their chances of medals in each sport based on the talent at their disposal versus the competition from their rivals.
For the USSA to make the wheels turn they need to focus on alpine skiing as the media coverage and standing of the sport demands it. With other sports such as ski jumping, less attention and resources are allocated. It’s nothing personal. It’s all about the medals and prestige.
Roughly 200 athletes are involved in the elite set up across the 12 sports and the churn of talent is something that the USSA is conscious of. In sport, especially in codes that carry astronomical financial weight, we tend to forget that these are real people with real emotions involved. Have you ever tried telling a veteran of the sport you love that you are no longer going to support him and that you are replacing him with a much younger, less accomplished athlete? Could you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not going to represent his country at the Olympics? It’s a tough game that Bodensteiner has to play.
“Emotion is something that can really trip you up,” Bodensteiner admits. “That’s why we focus so much on the data. Nordic combined was a sport we never paid too much attention, but we had a real shot at gold so invested so much in these four kids who we believed could win. At Vancouver they brilliantly won gold but all the data we looked at showed that we were spending a ton of money and that we wouldn’t get the results in four years’ time, but because these guys were successful there was a lot of emotion involved and we couldn’t just scrap them. It would have been too political so we spent another four years heavily in this team. At Sochi (2014) we got zero medals out of them”
Bodensteiner and the USSA stresses leadership, accountability and honesty throughout the organisation from top to bottom. His rhetoric echoes in some way Captain Thomas Chaby’s. As a result, big decisions need to be made and that often means telling an individual athlete or even a whole sport that the support that was there before is going to be pulled. The USSA’s objective is winning as many medals as they can and Bodensteiner and his team are constantly playing a chess match against multiple opponents on a board that is moving with pieces that are always changing.
Data is collected and analysed over four and eight year cycles with Olympics and World Championships the focus of these cycles. They assess the athletes across the codes and figure out where to allocate resources. Remember though, some sports carry more prestige and a win in a less important sport is not going to move the needle on anyone’s radar. The USSA also have to keep in mind how the competition is doing. Scouts and tracking teams closely monitor other nations but there is only so much guessing you can do. As Bodensteiner explains, “the hardest thing to know is how the competition is going to react with regards to their own performance.”
You see, the same issues of prestige and where to allocate resources are being discussed in Norway, Austria, Slovenia and France. The Canadians might want to target a softer sport for an easy gold but the Germans might want to risk putting it all on the line for a team that could potentially make history.
“We are constantly trying to figure it all out,” Bodensteiner says with a small chuckle. “All these different nuances that come with managing resources with the aim of winning medals means we can never know anything definitively. These sports take a long time to develop and the data we’re collecting now might not even be the right data that we need. But we have to always assess where to increase time and energy but that means we have to figure out where to decrease.”
Like the snow their athletes compete on, the landscape that the USSA lives in is constantly shifting. A snowboarder who loses his love for competition and would rather make snowboarding movies is something to deal with. Changing rules in sport that focus on different elements means that a gold medal hopeful now has a glaring weakness and her resources need to be cut and located elsewhere. Recruiting talented athletes in a sport that will never have Katy Perry sing at the half time show is a challenge as well, but Bodensteiner revels in what is put in front of him.
“We have created an environment where we’re constantly learning,” says Bodensteiner. “It’s almost like we’re involved in financial management and risk assessment except our assets are athletes and our end goal is medals. Everybody in the system has to be progressing and use his or her experience to help the team. If you stop learning, your performance is going to come to a stop very rapidly.”
Luke Bodensteiner will be speaking at our Elite Sports Summit in Cape Town in September. His innovative methods on resource allocation will provide invaluable insight for elite sports practitioners and program implementation managers who understand that spending money wisely results in success on the field.
12 February 2015
Pitso Mosimane is one of South Africa’s longest serving and most decorated managers. He has managed some of the top clubs in the country and was appointed head coach of the national side after the 2010 World Cup. He sat down with CONQA Sport to discuss the cultural nuances that come with managing a club versus managing a nation.
It’s a tricky task treading the fine line that separates humility and confidence when you’re a football manager. Veer too much on one side and you get labelled as arrogant and heap pressure on yourself to deliver. Fail to do so and you get crucified by the fans and media. Stray too far the other way however and you’re labelled as small time; a deer in the headlights who is just happy to be sitting in the hot seat long enough to feel its warmth. Being a football manager is a balancing act.
“I’m not a genius,” says Pitso Mosimane, without any inkling of false modesty. “The geniuses are Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho. These are the guys showing me how to do my job. Unless you are a genius you can always learn from others.”
Mosimane is currently head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns, the reigning Premier Soccer League (PSL) champions. He is also the only man to play for and coach Bafana Bafana, the national football team of South Africa. He has experienced what it is like at the top for both club and country, a relationship that still seems to be fraught with complications.
“The biggest challenge in Africa, and especially South Africa, is the club versus country debate. A balance always has to be found between the pay master and patriotism. It comes down to how important your country is for you as an individual.”
A club coach spends almost every day with his players. He understands their personalities and has the luxury of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. He can adjust his personnel positions, work on different tactics and try and fit individuals into a system that gets the best out of them. A national coach, especially one in Africa, does not have these luxuries and must therefore implement different strategies in order to create a winning formula.
“For official games as Bafana coach, you get only a few days to prepare your team. For friendlies you get maybe one and a half days. How can you implement tactics and experiment? There’s no way. I once had a player from Rubin Kazan. He left Russia on the Wednesday, flew to Frankfurt, then to London, then to Johannesburg. He arrived Friday afternoon with the game the next day. Travel is something European national coaches do not struggle with as much as we do here.” This is not an overstatement. For a future CAF Champions League match in Cameroon, Sundowns will have to fly to Germany, then to Cameroon, back to Germany and then back to South Africa.
With this in mind, Mosimane begins to paint a picture of how a club manager and national coach have to use different approaches in order to become successful. A club manager has enough time to become a master tactician. The geniuses that Mosimane mentions above can mould their players, adjust the shape of their teams, and completely overhaul previous philosophies if results on the field are not going the way they should be. A national coach needs to adopt a more ideological approach as, barring a major tournament, he only has a few days with his players.
“When I was Bafana coach I would put our national flag in the dressing room and make the players look at it,” says Mosimane. “I would tell them that they are playing for their family, for their country, for their flag, for 50 million people. I’d tell them that they have been chosen to play in that position as the best person who can help their country. No one else on that day can do what they can do.”
This shifting of philosophy is an important factor to understand when a coach is in charge of a club or a national side. Patriotism, nationalism, the desire to play for your country; these are the tactics the national coach must employ. For every positional shift or formation change that rattles around Mosimane’s head as manager of Sundowns, he had a resounding speech or morale boosting gesture for Bafana.
Patriotism is an easy tool to use with a national side as, generally, all the players under the coach’s care come from the same country. For a club manager, getting a group of people who might have absolutely no affiliation with the region they are playing for, working on the same page, can be tricky. Mosimane insists though that a club manager still needs to impart his ideologies on the players that play for him.
“Unlike the national side where the players play for their country, in a club team the players play for their job, but they also play for their coach. You need to get them to buy your vision. Sometimes you have to manage a foreign player and help him adjust. But the manager of a club team gets to handpick who plays for him and he is chosen on his football ability, not whether or not he adjusts or if he loves where he plays.”
Club football is more professionalised. Club players and managers, despite the emotions that come with football, are there to do a job and as such have no obligation other than winning that football match. This can lead to players playing different roles for club and country. Take Oupa Manyisa as an example. The Orlando Pirates man is a central figure for his club, dictating play from the middle of the park, yet he found himself in wide positions for Bafana at the African Cup of Nations. Surely they can’t both be the right position for him, and if that is the case, why isn’t there dialogue between the clubs and the national coach?
“As the national coach, you can tell the clubs what you think is right, but they don’t have to listen to you,” Mosimane would know, he has been on both sides of the managerial debate. “The club coach needs to win games. It’s his head on the block. If he doesn’t do well with what the national coach is doing, he is going to get sacked.”
Mosimane cites the Netherlands as an example of how a unified system throughout the clubs can impact the national team. He states that the majority of clubs use the same formation and implement similar tactics and as such, the identity of the national side is one that the players are familiar with.
“When the football association has a unified philosophy on the way the team should play, and when 80% of the clubs play that way, I think we will be moving forward and it would be better across the board.”
This unified philosophy would also help with youth development. When the coach of Bafana needs to fill a position, he might not have the exact fit he is looking for. A striker is needed, but one that suits the style of play of the national side. What if none of the clubs play that way? The strikers from the clubs might suit one style of play and not another. Lionel Messi will never be a long ball target man and would never be as prolific in a team that plays that way.
“At a club, you develop and improve young players through the academies and the feeder systems of the clubs,” Mosimane explains. “In the national team you only get to choose what is available. If the youth structures are not of the highest quality, we won’t have the player we need.”
We previously spoke to Ulf Schott from the DFB about youth development. Mosimane references the work of the current world champions as something to try and emulate. Unfortunately, as Mosimane admits, South Africa do not have the financial resources to match the European giants and that makes life difficult when it comes to developing players.
“We need to increase the talent pool in this country, but that’s not going to happen by itself. u15, u16, u17 coaches in this country; they are not financially supported enough so they rather go to their 9-5. We need to support our coaches and encourage former players back in to the system so we can develop our young players. Our league is the best in Africa in terms of how it’s run and the infrastructure, but if infrastructure and a well-run league was all that mattered, the USA would have won the World Cup by now.”
Mosimane is insistent that we are on the right path in terms of youth development in this country and is not reluctant to state his part in this. Shake Mashaba’s team, despite being humbled at AFCON, showed promise, with young and exciting talents emerging. Mosimane states that he wants to be remembered as a coach who made coaches. This is clearly a man who believes in the culture and ethos of South African football. He references Steven Pienaar and Thulani Serero and his hand in helping them reach the heights they have. The fact that he is one of the most successful managers in recent PSL history is not once brought up. Instead he focuses on the future and how Bafana Bafana will be here long after he has gone. As he says, “knowing that I have made a difference in someone’s life is what it means to be a good coach. I know that to stay in that position I have to win trophies, but it is the human element that makes me a successful coach.”
Before he leaves for Sundowns duty I ask him if he would ever want to be the head coach of South Africa again. He doesn’t miss a beat; “We have a saying; ‘Once a Bafana, always a Bafana’”. Mosimane may not be a genius like the European legends he admires and studies, but you’d be hard pressed to find a coach who understands the cultural side of the game as much as the Kagiso native.
Pitso Mosimane will be speaking at our Elite Sports Summit in September in Cape Town. He will be giving a talk on Building Culture: Creating a Winning Formula where he will discuss how through a human approach to coaching, he manages to get the best out of his players in a country where culture is entwined with sport.
Pitso also assists his community and is involved in many charitable organisations and foundations. Go to his website for more information.
4 February 2015
With some of the best players on the planet, Germany threaten to dominate world football for years to come. But it wasn't always the case. Just over a decade ago, Germany were languishing in 22nd place on the FIFA rankings. Thanks to Ulf Schott, Director of Youth Development at the German Football Association, Die Mannschaft now occupy top spot, and aren't showing any signs of moving.
There was almost an air of inevitability when Philipp Lahm received the FIFA World Cup Trophy from Sepp Blatter in Rio de Janeiro last year. Joachim Löw’s side may have only won the showpiece by a single goal against Argentina, but they were by far the most accomplished and complete side at the tournament. Their ability to counter at speed was unrivalled. Their passing and finishing was clinical. Their defence was watertight and shielded by the most disciplined midfield going around. It also didn’t hurt that they had the world’s best goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer between the sticks.
As the confetti was falling and champagne was popping, there was one man who must have been smiling a satisfied smile to himself. He would never admit it, too humble is he, but Ulf Schott must have been gratified, at least for that fleeting moment, on a job well done.
“It was the 1998 World Cup in France when the alarm bells started ringing,” explains Schott from his office at the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Association – DFB) in Frankfurt. “We lost 3-0 to Croatia at the quarterfinal stage and we realised that we needed to implement changes because we wanted to host the 2006 World Cup and have a team we could be proud of.”
Two years later, things went from bad to worse as Germany crashed out of the group stages at the European Championships, losing two games, drawing one, and only scoring one goal.
“For change to happen, it’s important to have historical moments. Historical, emotional moments. I think this is the core of humanity that the most emotional moments are the cause to change something.” It’s easy to get a sense of the holistic understanding and approach Schott and his team adopted in transforming German football.
Football fans, despite having a strong penchant for nostalgia, have surprisingly bad memories. It might be hard to remember a time when Germany’s national side were not feared, such is the future dominance in the sport with which they now threaten. When they crashed out of the respective tournaments in 1998 and 2000, drastic measures were needed. As Schott explains, “We needed to immediately implement the strategies that we had been talking about. We couldn’t allow the downward slide to continue.”
Schott was appointed to head up a team tasked with developing and restructuring youth development within the DFB. Schott, a former second division defender with SV Darmstadt, will be the first to admit he is no coach or skilled tactician. What he was able to do however, was get the right people to walk down the same path together.
He started by looking elsewhere to nations where youth development was successful. The Netherlands, France and Spain ranked amongst the best in Europe and what they were doing there was duly noted. Money that wasn’t there before was made available and the process of a German renaissance could begin.
In 2000, there were 36 u21 players playing in the Bundesliga eligible to play for the national side. Bundesliga clubs were over reliant on foreign exports and as such young local talent couldn’t develop any further than fringe players. The DFB and the professional clubs were at loggerheads over young players. Schott admits that the DFB considered implementing rules that would have forced clubs to play young Germans but why should a coach play a player that doesn’t belong there when his interests are solely invested in the club he runs? Clearly something worked as last year over 80 u21 German players in the league were eligible to play for the national side.
Regional and local coaching centres were set up across the country, with full time and qualified coaches found at every stage of development. The DFB realised that in order for clubs to play locally produced talent, they had to create them at a standard that warranted their selection.
Training sessions went up from 3-4 times a week to 7-8. Training sessions of 11 v 11 were scrapped as they encouraged long balls. 4 v 4 sessions were adopted as young players had more touches of the ball and small, accurate passes became standard. The youth league structure was redeveloped going from 22 leagues for young players to just 3. Schott cites this change as a way of ensuring that top players regularly played against other top players, thus developing their talents in a more competitive environment.
At 366 DFB training centres, the most promising young players are sent to clubs where coaches, who now possess at least a UEFA B licence, can hone and nurture their talent. As Schott points out, “the youth development system is not only a system for scouting talented players, but also for scouting talented coaches as well.” Children between the ages of 8 and 14 are monitored by over 1000 DFB coaches. With so many coaches cutting their teeth on young players, the odds of finding the next Joachim Löw is as high as finding the next Philipp Lahm.
For those who aren’t quite up to the standard required, there is still a safety net. André Schürrle’s development is a prime example of this.
“It’s important that we provide an avenue for those players who might develop later. Schürrle was noticed by the professional clubs but wasn’t as good as the other players when he was young. When he was 16 he had the chance to develop himself at the regional set up with an amateur club and then, once he had developed, he was picked up by a professional club.”
It is this structure that allows players to not abandon all hope of making a career as a professional if their early development does not match their peers. By installing a hierarchy with fewer leagues at the top, and supported by a structure that has a vast scouting network, the DFB and the clubs ensure that no stone is left unturned.
“Psychologically it is important for the young player to know that he still has a chance,” adds Schott.
The psychological aspect of the game is another area where the DFB have focussed on, and clearly have gotten right. Players are encouraged to stick within their regional confines and as a result homesickness is not such a challenge for the teenager. Education is also of the utmost importance with every academy required to have a close association with a school.
“Because of the increased training sessions, study time is reduced and that is why education becomes more important,” says Schott. In Germany, 50% of 16 year olds will complete their final year of high school. In the youth academies this number is 70%. Schott believes that it is the holistic approach of the academies which is instilled by the teachers and coaches that accounts for these figures. By developing the young player’s self-confidence on a multifaceted level that is not overly reliant on football, the player can achieve better results across the board. A bad training session or a loss on the field doesn’t hurt as much because the player has other positives to turn to such as good grades or a strong sense of identity. Therefore, challenges on the field can be approached with a clear mind, ensuring better results.
“We implemented new criteria for the youth development centres to have a strong mix of psychological as well as pedagogical assistance and evaluations. It’s important for the players to be able to talk to someone other than their coach who can help them with dynamics outside of football.” Schott also notes that many coaches who are now developing their own skills in the youth academies are former teachers, highlighting this holistic approach that not only creates more technically gifted footballers, but more accomplished and well-rounded humans.
This holistic approach is not merely ideological however. Germany did not become convincing World Cup champions solely as a result of their philosophies. In 2006, Mattias Sammer, 1996 European Footballer of the Year and 2002 Bundesliga winning manager, was appointed as technical director of the DFB. He changed the philosophy of youth development from the “Olympic idea” (where representation at a tournament is sufficient) to a mind-set where the goal of each team, no matter what age, is to win.
“Competition is important in development,” explains Schott. “It is important to have the mentality to win. Of course winning is not the only thing in youth development but with clear goals, development in training can have direction.”
It’s quite clear that what was implemented in 1998 and 2000 has paid off. Mario Götze is 22. Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and Marco Reus are 25. Centre back partners Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are both 26, infants for the position they play at the level they do. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the now veteran captain with 108 caps is 30; hardly close to retiring given his role as a deep lying midfielder.
Joachim Löw has an exciting young team at his disposal; both technically gifted and locally produced. The 54 year old (comparatively young himself for an elite manager) has been at the helm of the national team since 2006, a time span that eclipses the vast majority of club managerial reigns. It is an empire in the making with a foundation forged in the youth development programs and elite training centres across the country. As football fans, we wax lyrical about legendary teams such as the Brazilians of the 1970s or the all-conquering Spaniards a few years back. Thanks to Ulf Schott and the men who work with him, we might yet be witnessing the start of something truly dynastic.
Ulf Schott is the Director of Youth Development for the German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund - DFB) and is largely responsible for the dramatic rise of the national team. Mr Schott will be presenting at our Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town in September where he will discuss in detail how he implemented changes within the federation that has seen such dramatic improvements on the pitch.
28 January 2015
In our latest interview, we chat to Stephan du Toit, head of strength and conditioning for the Stormers and Western Province rugby teams. Du Toit has been working with some of the best players in the game for over 11 years and so when he tells us how his holistic approach to conditioning is one to follow, we take him very seriously.
Rugby players are as close to apex athletes as you can get. Fast, strong, explosive, powerful; these are the basic requirements every players needs to possess. Gone are the days when a front rower can merely prop up a scrum and not do any running. Modern day fullbacks and wingers are just as physical as flanks were in the early days of professionalism.
As a result of the ever changing game, the men and women who finely tune these athletic machines have become as important as the coaches who mastermind their teams’ tactics. Some might argue that those responsible for the players’ fitness are even more important. After all, you can’t build a house with broken bricks.
Alistair Coetzee, head coach of the Stormers, has recently said that come the start of the season, he doesn’t want his players to be merely medically fit. He wants them to be “really game fit, mentally fit - the whole package.” The man in charge of all that is Stephan du Toit, the head of strength and conditioning for the Western Cape franchise.
Du Toit has been with the men in blue and white hoops for 11 years and has adopted a holistic approach to the way he goes about his job of ensuring that all his players are fighting fit. We sat down with du Toit to ask him how the preseason is going, what his biggest challenges are when starting a new season, and what he would change in world rugby.
CONQA: What are the biggest challenges when starting a new season?
Stephan du Toit: The biggest challenge is that the season is still so far away and the players want to play. They have to be in the right mind-set. We do a bit of goal setting in terms of conditioning standards, running standards, strength standards. Some players are returning from medical assessments. Maybe some of them had surgery so they’ll be going through rehab and training so we plan for those guys. But ultimately we try and keep the preseason fitness regime as fun as possible.
CONQA: How do you make fitness fun?
SdT: Cape Town is beautiful and we try and utilise that. We go for runs up and down the stairs by Clifton beach. We play conditioning games at the beach and on the field. We sometimes teach the guys the techniques we want them to use when they get up off the ground but mimic that on a surfboard. It’s all goal orientated but we try keep it fun.
CONQA: A lot has been made of the Stormers lack of attacking flair despite a rock solid defence. Alistair Coetzee has stated that he would like to change that. In what ways does a change in tactics from the coaching staff influence the way you do your job?
SdT: The head coach and the head trainer need to be really close. As the trainer, you need to be in the coach’s head. I need to have a really good understanding of how the team wants to play. We’re at the point where we’ve changed a lot of our stuff in the way we’re conditioning the players because we want to play a different style of rugby. Robbie Fleck (backline coach) and I have sat down and established what outcomes we want to see in our GPS data that we’ve collected in training sessions. But it comes down to contracting the right players. I can’t turn a donkey in to a race horse but I can make that race horse the best horse he can be. I try not to focus on coaching in the gym. I think many trainers get bored and want to impress the players by bringing the rugby inside the gym but it’s the coaches who will coach them on the field. We just need to make sure that the coaches have the best physical athletes to work with.
CONQA: When a player changes positions, such as from wing to centre, or a player’s role changes, such as a flank becoming a fetcher, does the way you condition him change as well?
SdT: Players change positions and roles so often that we can’t keep up. A guy like Schalk Burger can play anywhere in the loose forwards. Some 13s can play wing, some 12s can play 10. It’s more of a coaching thing than a physical thing because it’s down to the mind-set of the player.
CONQA: How do you help injured players, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well?
SdT: First off, when a player is injured, he won’t just be sitting around doing nothing. He might have a hamstring injury but he’ll still be doing upper body work or work in the pool. As a trainer, you’re probably the guy the players see the most per day. I’ve got an excellent relationship with all my players. They’ll phone me at 11 at night or at 6 in the morning about things that don’t necessarily have to do with rugby. We’ll go in to personal things. With injuries you have to be very clear with your feedback because false hope can be more damaging and you can lose the trust of the player. Rather give the player the worst case scenario and work to make things better.
CONQA: Since the start of your career, what has changed the most in the way the game is played and how have those changes affected the way you condition the players?
SdT: It’s definitely become more physical. Our game changed when Super Rugby went to a conference system four years ago. We now play each South African team home and away. That’s 8 incredibly physical matches where each guy is playing for a Springbok spot. The squads have also gotten bigger over the years and so rotation and when to rest players becomes important. This is challenging because you want your best players on the field and all the guys want to play. Technology has also been a game changer. There is so much data that you can’t thumb suck anymore.
CONQA: If you could change one thing about the game, what would it be?
SdT: Well, what the players want is be rotated more often and to have a cap on the number of games they play in the season so we don’t have a repeat of what happened to Jean de Villiers. There is simply too much rugby being played. I would also love to see technology have more of an impact in assisting us when we should rest players. Coaches want to know in an 80 minute game whether or not a player should play the whole game or if he should come off. What is his central nervous system telling us? What is his temperature telling us? In the 2009 Currie Cup semi-final at Newlands against the Bulls, two of our fittest players pulled up with cramp around the 60 minute mark. It surprised us because they had creamed every fitness test. The problem was it was the first time they’d played in a game like that and their muscles were tense and they couldn’t relax. What was missing was a proper analysis on their mental conditioning. Sport psychology is one of the most underrated jobs in sport. Henning Gericke is now working with us and he helps the players on the mental side of the game. But still, I’d love to see technology help with the things we still can’t measure. It’s like I always say; if you can measure it, you can improve it.
Stephan du Toit is the head of strength and conditioning for the Stormers Super Rugby franchise as well as Western Province rugby. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with an honours degree in biokinetics from Stellenbosch University. He has worked, and continues to work, with some of the most talented and physical rugby players in the game.