April 6, 2015

South Africa need a new narrative

Dr Ken Jennings
To break their World Cup hoodoo, they need a new philosophy and paradigm of thinking, resulting in a new way of being on and off the cricket field

The ability of South Africa's players to "show no weakness" did not quite translate © Getty Images

Like all South Africans, I have witnessed the pain that South African cricket teams have endured at World Cups. I have previously written about possible solutions to the problem, but I am not sure if any of the information was received by the players or teams. I have also considered that some or all of my ideas may have been rejected.

The intention of this article is to offer a new way of looking at past problems, as well as to move into the future with a clear vision.

As you know, the team failed again at the 2015 World Cup. While this may sound harsh, I believe that the first step to any revival is to truthfully acknowledge the problem. It is not emotionally weak to do so. It takes courage to look at a painful problem, especially if it has caused much embarrassment.

In the final overs of the semi-final against New Zealand, the intensity of the situation got to be too much for the players. Two easy run-out opportunities were missed due to the phenomenon of "rushing" (which manifests itself in a desperate, panicked and impatient mind-set).

Over the years, South African teams going to World Cups have been repeating the same mistakes over and over. This repeated pattern has created the historical problem of choking, which you now need to address. I believe that the failures were embedded in a way of thinking, speaking and acting that inadvertently created the very problem they were trying to resolve.

Please don't despair about this. You have an opportunity to resolve this issue. But this will require a new philosophy and paradigm of thinking, resulting in a new way of being on and off the cricket field.

All of the teams leaving South African shores have had excellent camaraderie and team spirit. They have also been totally committed on the field and have always given 100% effort. Further, I do not feel that their cricket skills have been an issue. However, the fundamental emotional and mental issues that all of the previous teams have struggled with are definitely a problem.

Teams going to the World Cups have had sports psychologists, mental conditioning coaches, motivational gurus and expert consultants to assist them with the mental aspects of the tournament. I don't know what is discussed or advised by these professionals, but sometimes information about strategies and/or techniques that these professionals suggest tends to make its way into media reports. I am not sure why, since this should be a private, confidential process.

Be careful to not promise to bring the Cup home before any match is played: there is no need to tell everyone how important it is for the nation that you win, or that you need to make the nation proud by winning

For example, I read in an article that in this World Cup the idea of "showing no weakness" was part of the team's strategy. Given this mantra, I was surprised to see how the players reacted on the field after the loss against New Zealand. It became apparent to me that in failure and disappointment the ability of the players to show no weakness was compromised, and instead a child-like emotional reaction (and to some extent self-pity) was revealed. The 2019 captain will have to deal with these images when the press again confronts the team with the harsh reality of failures in the World Cups. In other words, 2015 has added another layer of emotional pain that will have to be dealt with.

If you do decide to bring in a mental consultant for your preparation, be sensitive to the confidential nature of the process. Do not go public with any intervention that may be decided on, since this reduces the effectiveness of the work that is done at the mental level.

I mentioned that a new paradigm of thinking and acting is necessary if you want to win the World Cup. This paradigm is based on, among other things, co-evolved reality creation, energy and information flow, process-orientated thinking and zen-like attitudes. While this may sound complex and difficult to comprehend, it is not.

The team will need to be taken through a process of change and maturation, in which they heal past pain and learn from past mistakes and approach the challenge of competition in a more co-operative way.

Every team at the World Cup is playing for their country and wants to bring the trophy home. Every team tries its best to win. Every team feels the pain of losing. Your team is no different. Every opponent your team faces will be challenging you to produce your best, just like you will be challenging them to be at their best. That is the nature of competition.

As part of the transformation in your team, you will need to shift the sense of entitlement and intense desperation in the team to prove its worth to the world. Be careful to not promise to bring the Cup home before any match is played: there is no need to tell everyone how important it is for the nation that you win, or that you need to make the nation proud by winning. The nation will always be proud of you if you deal with victory and loss in an humble and honourable way, after you have given 100% commitment on the day of competition. It is not necessary to speak about this; actions are far more powerful. Let the nation see for itself.

Think of life as being a co-operative energy flow between what you think and say and the way that life responds to you. I believe that you have half a pen to write your life story, life has the other half. It is very much the same when it comes to competing against another team, batsmen or bowlers. The opposition also influences the process. As a case in point, I was impressed with the way the New Zealand batsmen chased the target of 298 in only 43 overs, batting second. They were remarkably calm and emotionally balanced. They were also part of the story of the match. They had half their pen to make a mark on history and go through to the finals.

You need to be able to assess your abilities in a realistic way. Most South African teams tend to exaggerate their abilities and underestimate the task at hand. For example, in November last year, the one-day team was beaten 4-1 by Australia. In the round-robin pool matches of the World Cup tournament, the team lost to India and Pakistan. In the semi-final, they lost to New Zealand by four wickets. South Africa lost to teams that are considered mainstream cricket-playing nations. The team may have built up the expectation of being able to win the World Cup by putting too much emphasis on their emphatic, one-sided results against teams such as UAE, Ireland, Zimbabwe, and an uninterested-seeming West Indies.

Every cricketer, coach, member of support staff, and administrator (past and present) is wrapped up in the problem that the South African team is trying to resolve. Given this, very little new information can be generated internally. That's the nature of the situation that they find themselves in.

Doing charity work could be one way of helping players see life as more than just cricket © Sri Lanka Cricket

As part of the new way of thinking and the new transformational process, some of the following ideas could be considered:

1. Bring in poets, philosophers, artists and ordinary every-day people with inspirational stories to address the team on an ongoing basis as part of a development programme. Group discussions and individual reflective writing need to follow. This will help to expand creativity, heighten sensitivity, and take the players out of the restrictive world of cricket.

2. Each member of the team needs to do a soft internal exercise that will help balance the energy system. Doing a martial art, tai chi, yoga, meditation or pilates will assist in developing an inner balance.

3. The team needs to go through an ongoing group therapy process to heal past pain and to develop an internal dynamic that resolves issues effectively. Linked to this is the idea that each player develops more self-awareness and becomes a leader of self.

4. Each player needs to commit to a hobby and/or field of study, and this needs to be monitored. This process will help broaden players' interests outside of the world of cricket.

5. Every player needs to do some charity work. This should be ongoing, not done as a one-off promotional event, accompanied by media attention. This will help ground the players emotionally, so they see life as a bigger picture.

After developing the team as described above, will the team be guaranteed to win? Unfortunately, no.

The process of human transformation goes beyond winning. A new narrative is required for the team, and it should not be judged by a result in a tournament. Instead, the purpose of the transformation is to develop a more grounded, emotionally balanced, energetic system in each player.

I am reminded of the story of the two samurai warriors who were pitted against each by their respective emperors to fight to the death to see which empire would be victorious and so able to annex the other. There was a lot at stake. Before the fight each warrior went into solitary meditation for about a week. To meditate on what? The story goes that they meditated on their death. They made peace with dying. They did this since the worry of death during the fight would have distracted their focus, which would result in their death. They both knew that only one would remain, yet there was a serenity in both as they faced each other.

As with previous teams, in 2019 there will be a great group of players who will be proud to represent their country. The South African spirit is resilient. The challenge is to combine this with a culture of learning that facilitates a quantum leap in the team.

All the best for the challenges in 2019 and before.

Dr Ken Jennings specialises in the field of performance psychology. He consulted with the SA cricket team in 2000-01, and has extensive experience in working with international athletes and teams across various sports