Proteas capture!
June 12th, 2017

It’s 2015 and South Africa’s cricket team are playing in the world cup semi final against New Zealand. Dale Steyn, who is about to bowl the final over to win his team the game, turns to his non-playing mates and coaches on the side of the field and says confidently, “I got this”. New Zealand’s Grant Elliot, slapped his length ball away for six to win the game and knock out South Africa.

Fast forward to 2017, AB de Villiers in a press conference tersely responds to a question about spinners in the Pakistani team by pointing out that in fact half of their spin bowlers are only, “part-time” and that they will be fine. South Africa were bowled out cheaply and lost the game.

Fast forward further to SA vs India in the ICC Champions trophy, post another out of character display by the Proteas team under pressure, and former SA player Shaun Pollock (on commentary) totally avoids a question posed by his co-commentator around why SA battle under pressure.

What is common here? A lot. Three great cricketers on the world stage, three leaders, three wonderful role models for South Africans and all round nice gentlemen who have served this country admirably. What is common in their language and behaviour in these moments? Avoidance of the truth.

As South Africans sit and reflect on yet another poor display in a big tournament, it’s only natural that many will have their say and that the usual emotional reactions will ensue. ‘Sack the coach’, ‘sack the captain’, ‘they choked’, ‘useless’ – all statements bandied around in the aftermath of the Proteas’ insipid batting display. All of these may have some merit, albeit probably not much, and all ensure we fall into the same trap of once again, avoiding the truth.

Psychologists will tell you awareness is the precursor to control. Only through truly understanding oneself and one’s reaction to certain situations can one’s own emotions and subsequent behaviours be managed.  The issue is that sport and bravado go together like bacon and egg. Outward displays of confidence and certainty are lauded and admired (admittedly deep inner confidence is helpful in performance). Therefore sportsmen and women will rarely sit down and discuss negative emotions, planning for when things go wrong and areas of vulnerability. It’s just not the norm.

Turn it back to the Proteas’ tournament woes and one has to wonder whether the real awareness and acceptance exists of their nervy behaviours in order for them to manage them better?

Former player Robin Peterson very pertinently said, on analysis, that each individual experiences something different under pressure and only when that person understands and talks about it, will progress be made. However when a typically audacious and care-free Quinton De Kock begins to play within himself in a big game, one has to wonder what effect the collective mindset has had on his own.

Emotions are real and very rarely controlled. They emerge when we least expect them and cause us to behave in particular ways depending on how we view a particular situation. Shifting how we feel about something is a long and drawn out process, understanding how we feel about something and accepting that (rather than fighting it) is a more accessible and useful process.

Triple A (Acknowledge, Accept, Advance) is the method I use – Acknowledge (stop for a second and be mindful of what you are experiencing), Accept (Do not try and fight the feeling rather see it as something that is coming along for the ride in your journey to perform), Advance (Small process goals or triggers that you can control under any circumstance). To make this practical, think of batting in a big game where you talk to your batting partner and explain that you are experiencing some nerviness and have accepted that as par for the course. Instead of fighting it you are going to look to keep your head really still and maintain an energetic body language as you know those help you regardless of how you are feeling. No, not easy, but way better than denial.

Returning to the Proteas’ performance yesterday – they were captured, captured by their emotions that led them to act in a way that was extraordinary as a result of the situation. I am not sure it serves anyone to say that they weren’t or to try and move on without taking the valuable learnings from the situation. Do we blame them for it? Absolutely not. Were they not fired up enough for it? Absolutely not? In fact I believe that blaming them and chastising them will only do more to continue the avoidance that takes place. Do we have a symposium of psychologists where everyone gets together to discuss the ‘choke’? Perhaps, but I’d say that’s a very small part of the solution. Do we begin to be honest, to ask hard questions, to be vulnerable with each other as a player and management group? Without doubt, as this I believe is the only way to truly learn and go forward more positively in the future. If they do this, I would suggest that keeping the same coaching staff and player group would be optimal.

A team with so many GREAT players should not perform like they did in two consecutive games which indicates more than just a ‘bad day at the office’. The strategy going forward will be interesting and whether they can begin to ‘uncapture’ themselves on the big stage only time will tell. What I am absolutely certain about is that the time for bravado, unrealistic optimism, avoidance of the truth and unsolicited criticism is over. Now is the time to challenge, be vulnerable, be honest and leave ego at the door.