Back online!  //  March madness ends, and we’re back on track in Hong Kong

01 Apr 2009 Posted by

March madness ends, and we’re back on track in Hong Kong

I’m back! Yes, I know it’s April Fool’s Day and you are probably reading this thinking that I’m having you on, but I promise that this is not an April Fool joke!

It’s been a disastrous March for us – all of two posts (I’m embarrassed). I also reneged on my series on Exercise on Aging (which has now aged substantially), and have missed whole pile of stories from the world of sports. In March, Dwain Chambers became athletics’ most wanted man, for all the wrong reasons, Lance rode, crashed and had surgery, the World Cross Country Championships took place in Ammann, Jordan, and the world of sports management was rocked by attacks on cricket players, terror threats and changes in venues. And I managed to cover absolutely none of it – my profuse apologies.

It’s been a very busy time for me personally – I was in Hong Kong last week for the Hong Kong Sevens Tournament (more on that later), and have generally been swamped by work. Not that that’s been a reason not to post before, but I’ve also found myself a little burned out and mentally drained. Looking back, about 400 articles in two years, I guess a downer was inevitable, combined with various other things that are not even remotely relevant to this blog.

But, let’s set that aside and tackle April, which promises to be a great month of sport, with the marathon majors from Europe and the USA, the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon here in SA, as well as the first signs of life from the track and field athletes of the world. And of course the European cycling season. Oh, and did someone mention that series on aging?

Hong Kong recap

But first a recap from Hong Kong this last week, which is the most prestigious Sevens tournament in the world. To all IRB officials who might read this – you should make Hong Kong the World Cup, and not try to hold a separate tournament (presumably motivated by money only), because you’re only succeeding at cannabalising your own sport and confusing the market you’re trying to penetrate. It’s stupid. Rather use Hong Kong, the established tournament, and grow the game.

Anyway, Hong Kong is an absolutely brilliant festival. Anyone who reads this will know exactly what I mean. The South Stand must be one of the most notorious and “legendary” stadium locations in all of sport, an age-restricted grandstand which dominates the news coverage almost as much as the actual rugby does (much to the dismay of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, I’m told).

Ross_in-Hong-KongThe actual tournament was a success for us (South Africa) – 8 out 10 for performance, 8 out of 10 for result. I was once again with the team, as I was for the Dubai World Cup three weeks ago, though this was a different experience (picture of me doing the coin toss for the final match against Fiji is shown to the right).

No, we didn’t win. That honour went to Fiji, 26-24 in a final in which we gave them a 19-0 lead after only 5 minutes (of a 20 minute match).

We came back and had a very difficult touchline conversion after the final whistle to tie the match and take it to extra-time, but it was missed. Just as was the case in Dubai, it was again an issue of “what if”, and “if only”. Many people have suggested to me that the final kick “cost us” the 2 points we needed to level the match. Literally, I guess that’s true. However, it again misses the point and diverts the attention from the real issues that come between victory and defeat.

Those issues are, as always, numerous but tiny. The conversion was a 1% moment, a low percentage play and something no team should ever have to rely on. They should rather be relying on the assimilation of 20 minutes of collective work and performance to reach a situation where that does not matter. Victory at sport is all about control – control of the match, the opposition, your own ball, and your own performance goals, which begins when you start to control your preparation. Putting yourself in a situation where a miracle kick is needed is not control.

We missed crucial tackles against Fiji and had maybe 5 or 6 moments in the match where our decision-making might have been better. We have emphasized to the players that in any match, there are perhaps 10 moments the match that determine its outcome, and to win, you must win most of those moments. To do that (because you don’t know when they’re coming), you must control as much of the match as you can, and everything in your own power.

Winning control means setting very specific targets, and then working towards those, from moment to moment and play to play. That was the difference for us in this tournament. Those who read the post after the Dubai World Cup (one of all two in March) will recall my own disappointment and that of the team. That kind of disappointment was absent in Hong Kong, because we managed to shift our focus from the result to the process.

This must sound obvious to readers, who surely think that every team should be doing this. It’s an over-used cliche in psychology to say that you must focus only on the “controllables”. However, actually doing this is relatively uncommon from what I have now seen in the sport. Or at least, the correct implementation of the process-focus seems to be lacking.

So the key for us was to identify very specific targets and parameters that we could control and then focus every single effort at meeting them, in training, in discussion and in matches. The measurement of those parameters (which I won’t be discussing – sorry!) enables each player to be accountable, not only to the coach, but to one another, because each target is a TEAM GOAL. A player who falls short of a target is forcing team-mates to work harder so that they team still succeeds. They therefore buy in to an ethos of playing for one another. Finding the right focus allows everyone to raise themselves, because those parameters are measurable, repeatable and “eternal” in that they exist regardless of opposition. They provide the STRATEGY, and the only detail that has to be covered is the TACTIC of how to achieve them.

The most obvious impact this has had is on our second half performance. Fans of the game will recall how we surrendered 12 point leads in the last three tournaments – leading at half-time, losers by the final whistle. In Hong Kong, we won every single second half. We often found ourselves close at half-time, but dominated every second half completely. It was a very pleasing turn-around.

Enough self-compliment, however. We still didn’t win the tournament, and therefore must look at improving in the future. We are a work in progress, and have only shown signs of what we need to do in the future. We have another tournament in Adelaide this weekend, where we can build even more on Hong Kong. Our failure to win was the result of a loss of concentration and missed tackles that cost us 26 points. We gifted those points to Fiji, though to the credit, they ran hard and played above themselves against us. Eliminating those errors in Adelaide will be a key focus.

Speaking personally, standing in the middle of the field watching a fireworks show and listening to “Time to say goodbye” while Fijians, and not South Africans celebrated with a trophy is not a feeling I wish to experience again. Then again, it’s not a feeling I wish to forget either, because it provides the incentive to work harder, to focus more, to improve and to be better next time. The players must all feel the same way (and do). This was, as far as defeats go, a “noble” one, but not one that should become a habit.

In the big picture, we created a 16 point lead at the top of the World Series table, thanks to England’s and New Zealand’s early exits. More of the same in Adelaide, which will be difficult, would be nice. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Looking ahead

But, that’s that for Hong Kong. Looking ahead, things should be a little more settled for a while. I will be travelling to London and Edinburgh with the SA Sevens team again, but until then, will hopefully be able to devote more time to filling your inbox with posts. A few ideas come to mind. As mentioned, the London and Boston Marathons loom on the horizon, with some fascinating head-to-head battles on the cards. Ryan Hall vs Cheruiyot in Boston, and Lel vs Wanjiru vs just about everyone else in London.

We’ll cover that, we’ll cover the cycling stories emerging from Europe (someone mention doping?) and we’ll try harder to get to any other stories from the world of sport and science.

I’d say “welcome back”, but I guess that is up to you! Let’s hope I stay longer this time!


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