As you may have read two weeks ago, I was in Dubai with the South African rugby team for the Sevens World Cup, and I found very little time or energy to write anything. So our series on aging was suspended (but not forgotten!) as was the debate about doping in sport (much to the pleasure of some, I am sure).
For today, I’m going to indulge myself in something of a “diary” post about the trip in Dubai, mostly because I need to get some things off my chest and gain some clarity of my own thoughts of that tournament, which was, to put it mildly, an enormous disappointment. It’s a post that mixes sports science, management and my own personal reflections on my involvement with the team, and hopefully, some lessons that might be applicable to all sports.
Wales: Rugby 7s world champions
The appropriate starting point is to state that the World Champions for the next four years are not South Africa (the reason for my disappointment), not England (the joint number 1 in the rankings), not New Zealand (the historically dominant nation), not Fiji, not Samoa, not Argentina, but Wales.
The odds on Wales winning this tournament must have been astronomical. Ranked only 11th coming in, the Welsh exceeded all expectations and deserve credit for finding form and great rugby when it mattered. The big four all fell in consecutive matches in what must be one of the most astonishing sequences of upsets in all of sport – four matches, four favourites gone and the semi-final line up was a one in a million chance. Wales emerged World Champions, and congratulations to them.
South Africa – lost opportunities
As for my team, we fell at the quarter-final stage, beaten 14-12 by Argentina. As is always the case after defeat, post-mortem analysis is easy, and playing the blame-game is a routine that is done by everyone without much effect. The post-mortem often limits itself to on-field action and misses out what may be even more important than what happens off it.
On the field, knock-ons, missed tackles, refereeing decisions, lazy defence, ill discipline, kicking inaccuracies, lack of concentration – the list of possible reasons goes on, because in defeat, finding reasons is always relatively easy, no matter what the situation or even sport. However, the list may well be justified in our case, and we were incredibly disappointed in the manner of the defeat. It is a practice common to all sports, and any fan reading this can relate to how agonizing those defining moments can be when they don’t go your way.
The real answers lie off the field
For South Africa, defeat came after going into a 12-0 lead, and looking completely dominant for most of the game. In sport, leads do slip and teams come from behind often. But when the same error occurs not once or twice but five times in the space of a few months, then it is a symptom of something else. That has happened to us in three consecutive tournaments, and I must acknowledge part of the blame for that. On-field performance and execution is part of this, but victories are secured not on the field, but off it, in the preparation and build up phase, thanks to the discipline of management and players.
That’s where the answers need to be sought, but they are much more difficult to find, and it is easier to simply point to moments in the match that contributed to the result. Certainly, that is true, and but for perhaps three or four things that happened in the game, we would have won the match and at least given ourselves a chance of winning the World title. This is again true for any sport – moments swing matches, and “if only” is the most over-used yet ineffective review of matches. Dwelling on match performances, however, is to ignore that 99% of the effort goes on behind the scenes, in training and between tournaments, and so that’s where we need to be looking for answers.
Sports science and my personal role
And here is where it is personal for me. My role with the team is that of scientific consultant and strategic advisor to the coach Paul Treu. It would be accurate to say that I’m in charge of details, finding the final 1% to add to the players’ preparation and motivation to ensure that we take the field with the advantage. As many of you will know, I am firmly of the belief that sports science is not simply a VO2max and heart rate, but the integrated approach to athlete preparation.
I have written before that when an athlete takes to the line or the field, they must believe that they have done 99% of the work in training, and that the final 1% lies before them. The team that has prepared the best (99% as opposed to 90%) has the advantage. If you have done more than the opponent in training, then he needs to do more than you to win – you hold the advantage, both physically and mentally. I believe that sports science is the quest for those percentages, or millimeters, or milliseconds. It asks “What stones remain unturned, and how do we overturn them”? That is comprehensive, integrated sports science and management.
As a result of my PhD work, my personal interest lies in the role of the brain in performance, and an extension of this is an interest in the mental component to performance. I’m not a psychologist, nor do I wish to be, because I believe that the role of the mind is very much physiological. But in my role with the Sevens team, I’ve done a fair amount on the mental approach to training and matches, because it’s impossible to separate this from the physical. “Mind over matter” is bogus, because they’re the same thing.
Before the tournament, I spoke to the players about the “moments” that define them. There are ten key moments, I said, that determine the outcome of the game. We must aim to win at least six of them. But because so much of the result happens off the field, this means that we fight for every millimeter in training, every percentage in practice, so that on the field, those moments go our way. We also find these millimeters in our culture, our way of thinking off the field.
In the end, we lost all those moments. We succeeded at neither controlling what we could, or taking the chances we had.
So to lose a 12 point lead three times in three tournaments, to fail as a result of what is most definitely not a physical/fitness problem is a reflection on me, and just as I would expect every player to look first at themselves, I hold up my hand in acknolwedgement that I failed. I failed, and hence the team failed. I dare say many of our players probably did not even recognize my role or purpose with the team during the week, so spectacular was MY failure. When outcomes are determined by millimeters, I missed the mark by meters.
Now, every single player needs to do the same – “I failed, and in future, if I am to return to winning (because SA is the number 1 ranked team in the world, we are winners), then I need to look very, very hard at HOW I do things. And if I cannot do them better, then I am accepting failure, and have decided that I will remain a loser for the rest of the year”. The player who does not seek improvement in defeat will remain defeated. Acknowledging failure is not being overly hard on yourself, it’s being realistic and realizing that where you stand currently is not good enough to win. If you wish to win, you must move. And to move, you must work and improve.
That is fundamental to self-improvement in sport. If you are not challenging yourself to improve, then you will regress. This is the theory of overload and adaptation in physiology. If you wish to strengthen a muscle, you must acknowledge its relative weakness and then train it. If you wish to strengthen a sporting team’s performance, you must acknowledge the weakness or failure, and then aim to be better. Accepting the status quo, especially in a competitive environment like the World Cup, means you go backwards.
And my impression is that most sports people and even sports scientists do not appreciate this ethos. And again, I submit myself as one culprit, with an admission of guilt and acknowledgment of failure. If the Springbok Sevens rugby team are to improve, I must improve. Hopefully, the players are adopting the same attitude, and will seek to improve ahead of the next tournament in Hong Kong (where I will also be, hopefully seeking a personal redemption for my failures of Dubai).
Accepting mediocrity is too easy
The other great lesson for me is that it’s very easy to accept mediocrity. This was a tournament that comes once every four years. And while it’s a odd tournament, because of its position in the calender and the other rugby going on, it’s still a World Cup, and the opportunity to be a World Champion, which only arrives once in a lifetime for a select few.
As result, defeat should mean a great deal, for it represents the end of a four-year dream, with the possibility of never again returning to the same opportunities. However, having been on the receiving end of defeat, and feeling that disappointment, it becomes very easy to accept and rationalize it and resume with life as though “it’s not that bad”. Celebrate in the face of defeat, “it’s not so bad after all”. But I am grateful for the small things that remind me of the failure in Dubai:
- Returning empty-handed to an empty hotel room, that only 12 hours before, I had left with aspirations of returning as part of the World Champion team
- Queuing in an airport at 5.30 in the morning after the final, with no sleep and nothing to show for exhaustion other than a weak justification of why Wales, and not SA, were world champions
- Arriving home to an airport in South Africa to be met by families and friends who offer words of consolation, when it might have been an army of thousands to welcome back the world champions
- The knowledge that in 2013, I may watch the next World Cup and remember back to the moment that got away, when it might have been a celebration of a moment that was taken
These are the moments that sting and bring me back to the realization that Dubai 2009 was failure, both for me personally and for the team. I just hope that the players feel it as deeply. If they do not, then they have accepted mediocrity and failure. I dare say that the driving force behind the great sporting dynasties of the past is their love of victory and the absolute contempt they have for defeat. If you start to accept defeat, then you guarantee it in the future. Let’s hope the Springbok Sevens team burn deeply as a result.
The bottom line – preparation is the entry point, and attitude is the key
I know this post is a personal testimony, mostly to get off my chest my own disappointments in Dubai. It is also a commentary on high performance sport, and maybe some insight for some of you into what it is like in elite competition, where the stakes are high and pressure is intense. It needn’t be limited to that though.
And so whether you’re an aspirational World Champion, or a weekend superstar or simply a fitness enthusiast, hopefully this post has stimulated some thought into what it is that you may be missing in your own exercise habits. The key point is that preparation does not simply involve hours a day of training to strengthen the muscles and heart, it is a culture of belief that the training brings you nearer to the finish line, so that by the time you start, whether it’s a marathon or a 10km race, you’ve done the work. Your attitude determines your preparation, and preparation determines your outcome.
And if you are not hard on yourself, then you never leave the ground.