1990 – an epic rugby final

Girl's rugby - jumping high for the ball, Washington, April 2010

The 2010 Super 14 rugby final is going to be played at the Orlando Stadium, Soweto, tomorrow.

My thoughts drift back in time, 20 years ago….

I received a call from Ian McIntosh, the coach of the Natal rugby team. It was a week before the 1990 Currie Cup final against the Blue Bulls (Northern Transvaal), the powerhouse team of South African rugby. It was the centenary year of Natal rugby, and the team had only been in two previous finals (losing both). Ian asked me to help with the mental preparation of the team. He was an innovative coach and introducing a sports psychologist into a rugby team was unheard of; especially given the hard core attitude of rugby players at that time. So this was going to be a first.

The chips were stacked against the Banana Boys (Natal rugby had not yet acquired the Sharks tag, and were affectionately known as the Banana Boys because of the tropical climate and fruits grown in the region). They had been convincingly beaten twice by the Bulls in the season. The final was being played at Loftus Versfeld, home to the Bulls who were the holders of the trophy. They had a proud history of winning the Currie Cup; and had dominated the competition over the years. Man for man, the Bulls were vastly more experienced than the players in the Natal team. The Bulls were captained and controlled by the Springbok fly-half kicking genius, Naas Botha, who was a points scoring machine.

I remember walking into the hotel conference room to meet the team. It was Wednesday, 3 days before the final. Alone, I came face to face with the group of 20 hardened elite rugby players. I could feel some skepticism in the room, all eyes looking at me as if this was going to be a major test match for me. The roles had become reversed. They the spectators, watching and judging my every move. I, the performer, now doing the work that I had been trained for. The challenge for me was to join with the team in a way that was not going to create any resistance or rejection of our process together. If our process together was going to make a difference, then ‘I and them’ had to merge into a tightly knit we.

When meeting with teams, I try and co-evolve mental themes that have significance for the players. I remember starting to talk about this moment in time being a special moment, and that this moment together could never be repeated. The players looked at me and I could see that this theme was resonating with them. I asked a couple of questions around this theme and some players cautiously ventured out of the group malaise. As the confidence in the conversational process grew, more and more players added their unique voice to the theme of this is a ‘special moment’.

After about 45 minutes of conversation, I suggested that we do a relaxation and visualisation with music. These ideas were very new to the players, but I was happy that I had developed sufficient trust with the players for them to find a comfortable place in the room and lie down and close their eyes to follow the visualisation and music process.

I met the team again the next evening and I started the conversational process  by asking for some feedback about how they were feeling and if there were any important ideas that needed to be brought to the fore. The players were more energetic and forthcoming than the night before. As the conversational flow unfolded, ideas around the theme of seize the moment came together. Special moments needed to be seized. The team spoke about how this was going to occur. A variety of possible match scenarios were discussed and ideas were shared about what to do when certain on-the-field scenarios unfold. I told them a little about upward and downward spirals of performance, and the players worked out plans about their responses if a downward spiral started to unfold on the field.

As we ended our conversation, the players asked whether they could do another relaxation. It was obvious that they had felt the benefits of the process the previous evening and were again wanting to access their unique internal mental and emotional worlds that such a process offers.

I met the team for the last meeting on the night before the final. I was happy with what we had accomplished so far in such a short period of time. I felt that the players trusted me and that they had found the process meaningful. We had cemented our relationship, the I and them, was now a connective we. As I began the conversation I noticed a lot of happy, sparkling eyes looking at me. This provided me with the idea to the final part of the trilogy. While this was a special moment, and that each one needed to seize the moment, our hearts needed to enjoy the moment. This activated a light, fresh and joyful energy in the group. The seriousness and intensity of the upcoming final was now embedded in the joy of playing rugby because of the love of the game.

After completing the third relaxation with the team, I joined the team for a memorable supper.

I watched the match in the packed stands at Loftus Versfeld. I can still ‘see’ some of the significant moments in the match. I can still ‘hear’ the eerie stunned silence of disbelief  as the Bulls supporters left the stadium. I can still ‘taste’ the champagne that I drank from the golden Currie Cup as the team invited me into their change room to join in the celebrations of winning an epic final 18-12, against all odds.

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