Please no ‘poor me’ talk

I was playing in the under-10 soccer team. I can still remember when we walked off the soccer field complaining about the referee’s decision to award a penalty that resulted in us losing a semi-final match. It felt as if our world had collapsed. This was such an important match. Nothing worse could be imagined. We had lost. We felt gutted and angry at the decision. It was unfair.

As I look back now, my teacher’s comment to our emotional reaction challenged us to adopt a more empowering perspective to what had occurred. In a calm, caring, yet assertive tone, I remember the essence of his message:

“I want you all to think of how you played during the match today. Let’s take some time to think. Think only of yourself. If you feel that you played a perfect match and never made a mistake on the field in everything you did, then quietly congratulate yourself. You can feel proud of yourself. But please be honest in your assessment of yourself. Being honest with yourself is the hardest thing that a top sportsman has to do. When you are truly honest with how you see yourself, you will never think that life is unfair and/or blame others for your mistakes and/or them making their own mistakes. Striving to be the best you can be, is all that matters. So let’s take a minute to breathe and relax and now please go and thank the referee for giving up his valuable time to be with us.”

Using the old to flourish

Maybe this lesson many years ago still sits deep in my being. Whenever I hear international teams publicly criticize referees after suffering a humiliating loss, I get this feeling of agitation. When a team adopts a ‘poor me’, ‘life is unfair’ stance and focuses on the mistakes of a referee as a reason for its poor performance, it loses dignity. It also loses respect from the wider audience. In addition, tags like spoilt and arrogant tend to emerge as a consequence of the verbal exchange.

In any sporting encounter, athletes need to distinguish between the ‘controllables’ and the ‘uncontrollables’ during a match. Weather, playing conditions, bounce of the ball, crowd behaviour and referee decisions all fall in the ‘uncontrollable’ domain. The ‘controllables’ encompass all processes that one can personally and directly influence. In particular, our mental attitude, physical skills and the mental tenacity to remain focused on the game strategy fall in the ‘controllable’ arena.

The South African rugby team needs to take a honest, careful look at the harsh reality of recurring destructive patterns that they are experiencing at this point in time. They have:

  • suffered humiliating defeats in each of the three tri-nations tests, conceding more than 30 points on each occasion,
  • not managed to get a single bonus point due to the degree of the defeats,
  • had one or more players sent off during each test, usually in the first couple of minutes of the game,
  • had 3 different referees officiating the matches; all of whom were considered to be unfair and against the team.

A team never remains in the same state over time. The South African rugby team is presently in a process of decay (or change). Over the past year, three disturbing processes have unfolded concurrently in the team:

  • The settled, established combinations that had previously existed in the team in the 2009 season have now changed. The present team is not organised and finds it difficult to absorb the intense pressure that a classy opposition is able to exert.
  • A year ago, the team was at its peak with many experienced players taking leadership roles on the field of play and supporting the captaincy of John Smit. This on-the-field leadership no longer exists and the coaching staff are now being exposed.
  • It is an aging team. Players who are ‘long in the tooth’ no longer create the necessary vibrancy and creativity to win matches. Old players can get set in their ways and get easily agitated if things do not go their way. Many of the experienced players are getting distracted and the standard of their play is deteriorating (Bakkies Botha’s head butt, Danie Russouw’s little kick, Jaque Fourie’s spear tackle, all occurring in the first couple of minutes of the match). Further, the captain is seen more and more with outstretched arms questioning/talking/(complaining?) to the referee.

While we may be the rugby world champions, I fear that the decaying process will eventually be at its low point by the time 2011 arrives. As the team attempts to navigate itself through these difficult times, I only have one wish: please no ‘poor me’ talk.

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