Professional sport has changed so much in recent years it has become virtually unrecognisable in some respects from the gentler games played just a couple of decades ago. Amongst the greatest advances, certainly in cricket, is the acceptance and subsequent use of psychology in understanding and improving performance.
The United Cricket Board of SA and, subsequently, Cricket South Africa have a proud record of innovation and they should consider further ways to lead, rather than follow in the field of sports science.
Every player responds to different stimuli. The old-fashioned notion that any team comprised just two groups – those who need a kick up the backside and those who need an arm around the shoulders – was disproved decades ago.
All sportsmen, for example, are sensitive to criticism. They divide themselves into four groups when it arrives. Those who are too old to care (3%), too upset to perform adequately (10%), too angry to be rational (35%), angry enough to prove the critics wrong and then calm down (51.5%) and, finally, too emotionally well developed and mature to allow it to upset them (0.4%).
Hang on a minute. That only makes 99.9%. Oh yes – the last group comprises those who are angry about the criticism and determined to prove the critics wrong – but having done so, they remain just as angry as before, or become angrier!
During the tour of England in July and August, the fitness of a couple of senior players in the Proteas squad became the target of English media speculation. On Sky TV David Lloyd called them ‘chunky’ while Nasser Hussain wondered whether the Proteas’ tendency to visit the gym more often than most teams had contributed to their ‘bulk’. Michael Holding responded: “I used to push weights in my playing days, but never more than 10 repetitions.” After a long pause, he concluded: “But I can’t recall ever pushing weights around my midriff.”
The truth is, a couple of the team were carrying a couple of extra kilos but, like all sportsmen, they weren’t about to admit it. At least not publicly. But this column has stumbled across exciting evidence which suggests that not only did they acknowledge to themselves that all was not physically perfect, but that they have done something pretty spectacular about it.
The results of the squad’s exhaustive, annual fitness tests have traditionally been guarded like winning lottery numbers. This year, however, they have been leaked – at least some of them have. The fittest man in the national squad across four categories – strength, endurance, flexibility and body fat percentage, is Mark Boucher. AB de Villiers finished second and Jacques Kallis fifth having set a personal best mark in the lung-busting ‘bleep test.’
So my theory is this: CSA should pay a psychologist to scientifically evaluate the level of criticism which best inspires Boucher and then systematically feed it his way to ensure maximum performance value. Time and time again he has proved his critics wrong. A couple of weeks ago Darryl Cullinan had a dig at him and Boucher’s response was to flog the Kenyan bowling attack for a 25-ball 50.
Perhaps this column can serve to inspire him to even greater heights. Unless, of course, he realises that it isn’t a criticism at all. Goodness knows what would happen if he recognised it as praise for rising to yet another challenge and conquering it. Better not risk it.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to get in touch.