Sing when you’re winning but don’t dare smile when you’re losing?
January 25th, 2013


I can hear the roar of the British football fans as they chant, “sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” at their rival fans on a chilly English afternoon. What are they trying to say? Well, they are trying to point out that the other fans are fickle, shallow and not nearly as loyal. Are they right about the disloyalty and fickleness? Probably not, such is the one-eyed nature of a passionate sports fan and their ability to reason properly.


This leads me to a topical point as we speak which seemed to have stoked the fire of your average South African cricket fan, Faf Du Plessis and his coach Gary Kirsten sporting broad grins as the Proteas suffered yet another collapse in an important game. Did they choke or didn’t they, well that is a debate for another day, but did they care about losing or not – that seems to be the talking point. Surely smiling means losing doesn’t matter? Are they taking the game seriously and are they doing the country proud if when they lose they smile? These are without doubts the questions that were being thrown around in lounges and across the twittersphere as the images came through. The answer from these folk was probably, most predictably, definitely not.

Some questions I would like to pose are, does facial expression correlate to how much a player cares, does facial expression correlate to how much practice and planning time has been put in, does berating oneself and sulking after a loss correlate with improved performance in the next game? I have my thoughts, and I would say that at professional level, most probably not. The reality is that these players play cricket for a living and ‘caring’ is what they get paid for and performing for their country is most likely what they dreamed of doing since they were small boys.

The issue here is that as South Africans we are a passionate nation that more often than not relies on emotion and passion as key performance drivers across many sports (I can vouch for this having worked in over 10 different codes). It is in our DNA and what we pride ourselves on – and for good reason as well.  We love to celebrate like crazy when our team wins and vent our frustration when our team loses – in fact at times we almost see our team’s sporting success as an indication of our country’s worth or view the games as if we ourselves are playing and thus take it very personally. This is awesome and gives us so much joy; what it also does is cloud rational thinking.

For years the Proteas have lost the big pressure games much to the ire of us all. Currently the Proteas are under a regime that is largely focused on improving the players as people, maintaining a calm and mature environment and on allowing players to make choices for themselves. The old school would not enjoy this, and would call for more discipline and a ‘stronger’ coach. This culture may indeed have its flaws, but it is the same culture that has taken the team to top of the class in the Test game. It is the same culture that the smiling Faf Du Plessis has begun to thrive in. Faf himself spoke about his schooling and how important winning was at that particular institution and therefore how afraid they were to lose at his school and that he now had to unlearn some of this thinking to allow him to free himself up from the fear of failure so that he could perform at national level. The same culture that aims to take pride in the processes that they follow rather than in the results that are achieved because they are aware of what is the most controllable and which one comes first.

Now don’t get me wrong, winning is massively important and what pays the bills for these players. And I have no doubt that the Proteas outfit at the moment is absolutely desperate to win, as younger players look to earn places in what is a strong side. The facts however are that the side that played in this particular game was missing 5 front-line world class players and had a line up that was heavily “out-capped” by their opponents, so perhaps that was the reason for losing.

That is not the point of this article though. The point is two-fold; firstly that caring can manifest itself in many ways and smiling should not be construed as not caring or taking things too lightly. The second, and I believe most important, point is that how much a game means to you, or how much you care is not always the best predictor of success, contrary to popular belief. Many amateur players will arrive at a given sporting event and put all their heart and soul into the event only to lose. Why? Did they not want it enough? No, they wanted it a lot, well on the day at least, but they didn’t want it enough to put maximum effort into their preparation. They cared massively but because they hadn’t put in the hard graft beforehand, they may have been physically, technically or mentally underprepared. So often our efforts on match day are huge, as that is what is in the public eye and that is what we get defined by, yet the reality is that the ones who truly succeed are the ones who define themselves by the way they prepare. There are numerous examples of this, but this is not what is lauded in the press or by pundits on television. The people who define themselves by standards rather than those are driven by punishment, rules or rewards are those that will succeed in the big games and in the long-term.

Also, does caring that much in a game or tournament always mean you are in your best mental state to perform? A former international cricket coach told me the other day, that he believes that SA have lost so often in big games not because they don’t care but because they care too much. The emotion and passion, which we pride ourselves on, gets in the way of players sticking to routines, plans and just executing what they have practiced for years and years in a big game. Faf Du Plessis batting out a day for the Proteas in Australia, in all probability didn’t see it as life and death but rather as an opportunity to show his skill and had thoughts of sticking to his game plan as calmly as possible rather than focusing on how much he cared, or how much this meant to the country. We must also remember that this is the same mature, calm and clear Faf Du Plessis who was widely criticised on Tuesday night for smiling as the team was sinking. Can you have your cake and eat it? He put his care and feeling into the practice and planning and chose instead of chastising himself and sulking in defeat to smile and ensure that they learn what they can and improve going forward. I know what kind of a mind-set I would want to see from the Proteas in the next game under pressure.

So in conclusion, we need to ask ourselves whether outwardly showing emotion or care is always best for performance even though we may love to see the players reflecting our own inner emotion. We need to ask ourselves whether putting emotion into everything is what will always win us the big games (how has it been working for us so far?). And we need to ask ourselves whether it isn’t better to have our players putting their feeling and care into their training and preparation so that when it comes to game day they are clear, calm and motivated to succeed.

I welcome thoughts and opinions as I have no doubt not everyone agrees!

Tom Dawson-Squibb