MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says players can only control themselves — which is why they have to stay fit.
I missed the last three minutes of the Lions’ victory against the Sharks, but the first 77 minutes again highlighted how important fitness is to succeeding in sport.
The Lions defended more than they would have liked in the opening 40 minutes and there was a suspicion that the first-half tackling would be their undoing in the last 10 minutes and that the home team would not have the fitness levels to last the pace.
A lack of fitness has been synonymous with any Lions performance in the past three to four years, perhaps even before that. Bizarrely, the players did not see the importance of being fit and conditioned to play rugby. The coaches believed it to be the responsibility of the players and it was one bloody mess after the other.
Lions coach John Mitchell, during his two years as All Blacks coach, and as coach of Australia’s Western Force, has not relented on the fitness of his players. He has always believed that if a player has something left in his legs in the final minutes of a brutal contest, that player has got a chance to finish a winner.
When I worked with the Springboks between 2000 and 2003, one of the more enjoyable experiences was a workshop with a Jamaican sports psychologist and motivator, and while I forget his name I’ll never forget the one exercise he did the with players.
He asked the team why they believed they were losing and as the players answered he would jot down the reasons.
The media were ‘anti the team’, said a player, and it was why they were losing.
The referees were anti-SA and it was impossible to play against any team who had the referee on their side, said another. Late kick-off times made it impossible to be at their best, said a few players.
Other reasons were the weather conditions, the quality of the opposition, match venues, the lack of good training facilities when overseas, the location of the hotel, the bus time to training and match-day engagements, jerseys that were either too heavy or too tight and in the odd instance too big. And, said one, don’t get us started on the hotel food.
The sports psychologist wrote down each answer on a flip chart without countering any of the reasons. He just called for more and the players responded. Team selection, they said, was not always good. The coach’s game plans were not always that sound and there was uncertainty in understanding the thinking of the coach.
‘What about you guys?’ he asked. ‘What is it you are doing — or not doing — that is contributing to losing?’
Some players looked surprised at the question. The odd one even looked shocked at the mere suggestion the players may be responsible for anything.
One player said he could be fitter. Another said he could work harder at his skills. Another added there could be greater communication within the team.
It was at this point that the friendly consultant reacted to a player’s comment.
‘Can you guarantee me the communication will be better in the team and that there will be a better team spirit and a winning culture?’
The player said he couldn’t give such a guarantee because he couldn’t talk on behalf of his team-mates and he couldn’t necessarily influence them positively to do what he believed would benefit a winning culture.
‘Exactly,’ said the consultant. ‘And you can’t control what the media say or write. You can’t control who the opposition coach selects, where the game is played, what time the match starts and playing conditions.’
The player could also not control the coach or the coach’s thinking. All the player had control over was himself, and as a professional sportsman the only guarantee a player could give was that he was in optimum physical shape for every game and that every day was an opportunity to improve his skills .
‘Is that it?’ asked a Bok player. That these were the only things the players had to worry about just emphasised how much there was to worry about, because being fit and skilled are not minor details in the life of a sporting professional.
Mitchell has ensured an environment that rewards those with something in their legs at 77 minutes, but if this Lions team is to develop into the real deal then hopefully the players will believe in the controllable elements of their sport and not seek comfort in hiding behind what they can’t control.