Cape Town - Sports psychologist Pieter Kruger tells Simnikiwe Xabanisa what the national team can do to stop the slide after a drubbing by the All Blacks.
Question: What is your relationship with the Boks?
Answer: Although I would have liked to have a full-time job with the team, the Springboks currently only use me on an ad hoc basis to deal with some of the psychological aspects of the team. I have mainly been contracted before and during the French incoming test series to help the coaching staff overhaul the team culture, as part of a bigger process to turn the ship around from where it was in the previous year.
Unfortunately, during the Rugby Championships, I only had one contact point with the team before the first game against Argentina and not again since then. Working on that basis is obviously very challenging when you are a performance psychologist. The more contact time you have with the team and individuals, the easier it becomes to devise, implement and monitor performance processes.
Do you work with the Boks individually or as a group?
Before and during the French series, it was mainly at group level, with a specific focus on team culture. Due to my involvement with various players during my time with the 2015 Springboks, as well as my time at the Lions in 2014/15 and the Sharks this year, I have worked with a lot of the individuals before. So we used the opportunity, whenever we could, to continue working on some individual aspects.
How do you explain why a team, seemingly on its way up, with five wins and a draw out of six games, folded so spectacularly?
I have unfortunately not had any contact time with the team in the past four weeks and cannot speculate about the build-up to this game. However, small margins in a game can swing momentum quite dramatically, whether it is a bad referee call, bounce of the ball, or one good piece of opposition play.
This is where experience and a shared mental model will play a role. Experienced teams know how to reset and absorb the momentum, while gradually trying to turn it around.
The result will not depend on the effort that individuals put in to recoup and recover from this loss of momentum, but rather how the team can respond as a unit.
I understand the reaction and disappointment from the public, but it was a series of small events that shifted the initial momentum against the Springboks in the first half.
An experienced team like the All Blacks, unfortunately, have well-conditioned processes in place to then exploit the situation and fully capitalise on it.
You worked with the 2015 Springboks, a team laden with test cap experience. What’s the main difference in working with them and a developing team like the current Boks?
In our 2015 World Cup squad, we probably had in excess of 1 700 test caps. The current team is probably not even half that. At international level, this makes a huge difference in a group’s ability to deal with pressure. The ability to apply your physical attributes under pressure and to stay focused in the face of adversity is a skill you have to develop. You have to learn how to react and stay on target when things go wrong. For teams with less experience, it is significantly more challenging to try to fast-track these processes. This team has a lot of potential, but, due to their relative inexperience, they will face some challenges initially.
After the defeat in Albany, the Boks have a two-week turnaround to their next game. What are the key things to impress upon them?
I will unfortunately not see them before the next game, but I have shared my thoughts with Allister (Coetzee). It will be massively important not to try to reinvent the wheel or go into panic mode. One would have to break the situation down into the technical, tactical, physiological and psychological components to have a clear idea of what went wrong and which aspects have to improve.
Next, one has to learn from these mistakes and use the hurt and disappointment to turn it into a reason to work harder and smarter.
In elite sport, you do not have the luxury of dwelling on mistakes, as this uses vital headspace you need to get back on target. As we cannot directly control the outcome of any given situation, we need to focus on small, manageable areas and deal with one aspect at a time.