Two recent performances from the Springboks have raised some serious questions about the team that should take us to World Cup success next year, and whether the current crop has hit the ceiling, or still has a lot to offer Bok rugby. I asked Dr. Ross Tucker, an expert in the field of sport science for his opinions on the matter.
For a Springbok team that has been so dominant in recent years, two pretty convincing defeats have left much room for discussion and allegation, playing the blame-game. I must emphasize that no-one really knows for certain why teams stop winning when winning had previously become a habit, and I can speak from experience about how high performance sport follows cycles.
Achieving success is rare, but sustaining it is exceedingly uncommon. Part of the reason for this is that people very rarely learn from success, and they continue to try the same things that worked before.
I think in evaluating the Boks recent performances, a few things must be noted. First, they’ve “only” lost two matches, and they were matches that history suggested we’d lose, thanks to a relatively poor record in New Zealand. Not that I’m condoning defeat, because of course we want to win, and the manner of defeat is more worrying than the result.
However, it’s possible that we’ll return home and enjoy a very good run, as has happened many times in Tri-Nations competitions, and this post (and entire discussion) will be forgotten!
Second, when a team that has been winning suddenly starts losing, it’s very difficult to pinpoint one or two things. In all likelihood, it is the sum of many small factors that are now suddenly negatively affecting performance more than the positive factors that may previously have hidden them!
Winning teams are very rarely judged with the same rigor as losing teams, and so this Springbok team has likely had “inadequacies” for years, but the form and quality of players within in have managed to keep these failures from causing losses.
So the idea that there is one thing to blame, be it fatigue or coaching or old players, is a massive oversimplification of an incredibly complex high performance dynamic.
And I know from experience from within squads that those outside can often create very convincing arguments for things that don’t exist at all! Equally, those inside the squad can rationalize away the problems and be completely oblivious to them.
It’s a delicate situation, and the best coaches are the ones who can shut off the external criticism but still be sensitive to the outsider view. You have to see yourself from outside. But, the point is, we’re all speculating.
Having said that, there are a few things that jumped out at me, and I thought I’d share my personal views on them. As I say, these are somewhat speculative.
First, the issue of player aging and fatigue, since as a sports scientist, this is the one that always comes up.
My mentor Prof Tim Noakes, under whom I studied, has been one of the most vocal advocates for resting players in this window between World Cups because of the need to “preserve” the players. Many will argue that the recent results, and the performances of senior players, strongly supports this notion.
I do agree, to some extent. There is a danger that we now have a “ready-made” excuse every time we lose – “they must be tired”. So one has to be careful not to fall into the default position and blame excessive playing.
However, the signs have been there – Fourie du Preez’s admission towards the end of last year that he didn’t want to see a rugby field again, even if made somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is a telling indictment on the pressure and incessant routine the players may have been under.
The success of this team over the last 3 years has been built around a core of players who have had to respond to match after match of high pressure, and not only in national colours, but in the Super 14.
Remember that for the last few years, the SA teams have dominated that tournament too, and so the same players we expect to perform in Green and Gold are expected to perform in blue or black. That kind of pressure creates a limited shelf-life, especially when teams are successful.
Take for example tennis, a sport which has had 19 players reach the number 1 ranking since 1990, but 11 of them lasted only 8 months, never returning. In women’s tennis, it’s even worse – since 2000, 39 players have reached number 1, one every 3 months! The reality is that staying at the top is very difficult, and a lot of it has to do with mental fatigue, not physical.
We’ve had our fair share of injuries, sure. The afore-mentioned du Preez, Brussouw, Burger, Bekker, and numerous others throughout the Super 14. But linking these injuries to excessive playing is difficult to do.
Rather, I feel the biggest contributor to ‘fatigue’ is the mental burden of having to find motivation to do something you’ve done before. Remember, the core of this team has been at the very top since 2007, winning a World Cup, a Lions Series, the Tri-Nations (including a sweep of NZ), away matches in places they’ve never won at before, plus two Super 14 titles (with others playing in the final).
In short, this is a team of history-makers, and I think we underestimate the psyche of sustaining success like this – if 39 tennis players can reach number 1 and stay there for 3 months on average, then how much more can a team that holds records all over the world for unprecedented results.
And it doesn’t take a lot to swing a result around. We lost heavily in NZ, but the margin between that defeat and winning is actually very small. If 15 players are even 1% “off-key”, it’s enough to change a match.
If 15 players each make 1 error more than usual, because of focus, or desire not being exactly where it needs to be, then that’s 15 errors a match and enough to hand 14 points to the opposition. The players of course wouldn’t ever admit to this, and they may well be unaware. Those 15 guys are certainly trying their best.
But in my experience (and again, this is “soft-science” and speculative), players who achieve the very highest level of success start to come down off that same uncompromising approach to excellence that got them there.
They may cut 5 minutes out of their video session, they may take one or two short-cuts in training, and the cumulative effects of all these tiny things in preparation is a player who makes just one or two more mistakes than they ordinarily would.
Look also at football – only twice in history has a nation defended the World Cup (one was 1938, and the other 1962 – both are in times where sport was not nearly as professional, and so I wouldn’t even count them).
Staying on top for four years is exceedingly difficult, and I believe the main reason for this is that it becomes impossible to “stimulate” players for long enough to do so.
The other reason teams fail having achieved success is that they rely on history far too much in their preparation. The attitude of “It worked last time” is a sure recipe for disaster in sport, because the opposition who are defeated always jump two steps ahead.
Therefore, if you stand in place as the champion, you wake up to discover teams ahead of you. This goes to the tactical and technical approach. And here, my impression is that we were shown up by a very well-prepared and smart NZ side.
If you want a good barometer of the state of preparation of a team, I’ve always found line-outs to be very instructive. They’re easier to analyze, because they’re two-dimensional and static, and you can plan very specifically for them.
On numerous occasions in the last two matches, we’ve been beaten by quick throw-ins, short line-outs, dummies, the so-called “maklike bal” at head-height to the front man. Repeatedly, which gave me the distinct impression that one team was thinking on their feet and well prepared, the other not as much.
Now, that may be harsh, and I certainly don’t mean it as a criticism of the quality of the coaches, because these are men who’ve shown their credentials. But sometimes even great quality isn’t enough, it needs to be translated different ways to provide stimulation.
And here, I think it’s telling that all those rumours exist about the influence of the senior players on the squad. If that’s true, then you can appreciate how mental fatigue/routine and the systematic achieving of goals would erode the level of preparation, not just performance.
If players are relied upon to drive preparation, then it’s far more likely that they will stick to one thing and not evolve, especially if they’re great players who know success. This is the reason why many great players become very poor coaches – they tend to do what worked for them.
The best coaches are often players who had limited ability and had to think very creatively to compensate! Also, if players own too much of the ‘intellect’ and strategy, then it makes the integration of new players difficult, because their dynamic within the squad is complex.
Generally, having the parts of the system drive the system is a bad idea in terms of sustainability, it needs external guidance and drive.
The argument that some of the players are too old, I don’t believe. Remember, a lot of these players didn’t just play well in the Super 14, they dominated it. That was only 8 weeks ago! You don’t age in 8 weeks.
So some of the players who are now being criticized have achieved tremendous success in a different set-up very recently, which leads me to believe that the problem is more with the context of the players, the set-up they find themselves in, whether they are being “stimulated” to prepare as well as usual, and what they are playing for – their purpose.
I realize this may seem like justification for poor results, which I don’t intend. But what I will say is that professional sport is now so advanced that when you are successful for three years, you do begin counting down the days to when it turns around. That’s no excuse, of course, because people knew this possibility (indeed it’s not a new debate), so we can’t say we’re surprised, and thus we might have been able to prevent it.
The question is how to fix it? First, it may not be broken – I’d wait on few more results before making that diagnosis. However, the constant infusion of new ideas, new people and new talent is essential, because it keeps everyone honest.
If Matfield, Smit, Botha, Burger, du Preez and de Villiers are genuinely believed to be our best shot at winning the RWC in 2011, then they don’t need to be great now, they need to be great one year from now.
Therefore, it might be a good time now to leave them out. At worst, you discover a new player, even better than before, and exposed to the highest level already. At best, they come back in 2011 with hunger to write one final chapter in their illustrious Springbok history.
But at the moment, there is a worrying trend, which was entirely predictable, that we may have killed the goose that laid the golden egg by asking them to produce the same level for four years.
The same goes for the coaching staff – it would be helpful to shake it up. New Zealand have done it by switching roles around, and they seem to have found some success. New methods of teaching, new base camps, new support staff, can all invigorate a high performance setup, and that is crucial over four years.
In athletics, you have to periodize training and performance because the human body (and mind) can’t cope with a consistently high level of training and racing. You therefore write off entire seasons, where you may compete in an event different to normal.
You also rest, race sparingly and train with different purposes at different times of the year.
Rugby seems to have demanded a level of excellence from too few players for too long, and over too long a period (a calendar year of high level is very difficult to sustain). There was a feeling ahead of the 2007 RWC that the squad was on the up, on the way to something special.
The feeling at this stage is the exact opposite, and the only way to get it back is to re-invent the approach to the game, in terms of preparation, so that players are challenged more. The Bulls seem to have perfected this, and the Stormers also found that ‘magic’ this year. They would have interesting lessons for the Springboks.
I would like to thank Ross for yet another insightful opinion. Please be sure to catch more of his views on; http://www.sportsscientists.com.Tweet