by Paddy Upton
Cape Town - Mike Rindel, on his first tour with the SA cricket team, was the subject of an informal conversation between coach Bob Woolmer, captain Hansie Cronje and a few of the senior players. "Most of the time he just sits in his room and sulks, not making much effort to fit in with the rest of the team," they observed. "He is a poor tourist, and probably should not be selected for an away tour again."
It was on my first tour as fitness trainer of the national team that I overheard this conversation. I too was feeling unfamiliar, uncertain (and sometimes lonely), but the message was clear; don't allow any of these feelings to show. If I do happen to feel them, I must at least appear to be on top of my game, to be strong, to fit in, or I too might not tour again.
As the team grew under Hansie and Bob's guidance, a wonderful team spirit developed. By 1996, the team was widely recognised by hosts around the world as the most well-mannered and spirited team in world cricket.
Leading Australian sports photographer Colin Whelan wrote in a letter to the team: "I have covered top-level sport for over two decades, and in this time have never encountered a more helpful, co-operative and decent team of men."
In contrast, a sport psychologist who spent three days with the team in 1996 reported that the players operated on a very superficial level, and that individuals didn't actually 'talk' to one other. This observation received little attention as the psychologist had already destroyed his credibility during a team talk on a morning of a Test match, when he suggested: "When you are batting today you must imagine yourself hitting the ball on fire." We were going out to field that morning.
The photographer was right. We probably were one of the most decent and co-operative teams in world sport. But the psychologist was right too - relationships occurred generally at a superficial level.
I would hazard a guess that, in four years of travelling with the national cricket team, I got to learn more about the dynamics of fame and touring than players who travelled for much longer periods. I got to observe a lot, from close quarters. I came to understand some of the social and emotional dynamics the players experienced.
For example, I would really miss my girlfriend on tours, yet I would be unfaithful to her. I would come home from long tours and find myself putting on the 'everything is great' fa?e with my friends, even at times when it was not.
And finally when I was alone with my girlfriend whom I missed so much, and with whom I could be totally myself, I would drop the 'always smiling face' touring fa?e, and would unload onto her all my pent-up frustrations and un-dealt-with emotions. Her problems seemed less important - it was me who needed a place and a space to be nurtured and cared for.
When the pressure mounted, I would switch back into the touring mode and climb back onto my emotional island. Not understanding what was actually happening, my relationship broke down. I watched similar things happen to several players.
There were times on tour that I turned to a few extra Castles and a night out on the town to counter boredom, loneliness, the stresses of touring, defeats on the field. At these times, we (I was never alone) never admitted to any of these emotions. In fact, I do not recall being part of any conversation where words like loneliness, guilt, stress, fear, vulnerability, worry, depression were used - except in labelling 'bad tourers', that is.
I was quite close to Hansie and witnessed the mounting stress he appeared to be under, as well as his increasingly unpredictable behaviour. It was clear that stuff was going on for him, and within him - I assumed the cause was the additional pressure his benefit year placed on his already full schedule.
He was a fitness fanatic, but had lost his zest to train, putting on up to 6kg of fat. His own performance was under pressure, and having recently got married, I assumed the minimal amount of time he got to spend with Bertha placed some stress on that relationship.
The widespread shock, even amongst his team-mates of many years, at the revelations of his match-fixing activities suggested he shared what was really going on for him with very few, or even nobody. It must have been a very lonely place.
And there was stuff going on for me too. I was travelling the cricketing world in style, living in smart hotels, being spoiled by hosts in various countries, getting free sunglasses, clothing, shoes and restaurant meals, being paid well, and then getting 'travel' expenses on top of that. I met the Queen and Madiba and went as a VIP to concerts, functions and special events.
I got on particularly well with the players, management and administrators, and was extremely healthy. I couldn't have asked for more out of life as a person in their 20s. Yet I resigned as fitness trainer to the national team primarily because I was unhappy.
Some time and several experiences later, I realised that I had been wearing a fa?e, often compromising on my own values for the sake of 'fitting in' with the team environment and living up to the expectation that I perceived others had of me. Make no mistake, it was great fun at the time, but it had a cost. Once I had weighed up the cost, the act of resignation gave wind to the sails of my soul.
In my next position as fitness trainer with WP Rugby, I soon saw very similar social and emotional dynamics that I saw in cricket, although less amplified as rugby tours were far shorter in time. I began to gain some understanding into why cricket is the sport that has the highest suicide rate in the world. It also confirmed that I should depart the world of fitness trainer to elite athletes. For what, I wasn't sure, but I began a journey.
A journey that saw me walk and sometimes stumble from completing a masters degree in sport science, working days and nights for two years with hardened street children and youth in the Cape Town city centre, travelling, but this time with a backpack and flip-flops rather than with blazer and tie, to studying a second masters degree, this time in Business (Executive) Coaching though Middlesex University. It is a path that has guided me to understand what it was that was missing back then, but more importantly, what can be done to fill the gap.
It is not rocket science, and is no magic bullet, but rather age-old common sense. What it is about is coaching the sports star as an all-round person, and not just coaching them in the mechanics of their craft.
Whilst coaching has a long history in sport, the materialistic reductionism of the past two centuries has seen it regress to becoming dogmatic and instruction-based. Just over two decades ago, the business world borrowed concepts of coaching from sport and revitalised them, using a combination of age-old wisdom and solution-focused psychology. This gave birth to a profession called 'Executive Coaching', which refers to coaching top business executives to, amongst other things, higher personal performance in the work place, whilst at the same time bringing balance, fulfilment and perspective to their lives. Executive Coaching is now one of the fastest-growing business tools in the world.
In sport, which seems to lag well behind business advancement, it's only a few world leaders and innovators who are employing a professional executive-type coach to advance their combined on- and off-field effectiveness.
Jacques Kallis, the world's leading all-rounder is one of them. "I have always had an unrelenting focus and dedication to achieving excellence as a cricketer. However, despite my efforts, and the array of service providers made available to assist me, I felt that there was still something missing."
He adds: "2003 was a challenging year for me. I lost my father, and broke up with a long-term girlfriend in a very short space of time, I was trying to set up a home in between travels, and had gone some time without a Test hundred. I guess what I was looking for was to gain better balance between my personal and sporting life."
A short time into his coaching relationship Kallis observed: "Working with Paddy, I think I've found the missing something that I was looking for. Most importantly, I have learned to even further fine-tune my ball-by-ball focus whist batting, and the results were immediate."
Every sportsman (and businessman) knows that either of one's personal and professional life can affect the other, positively or negatively. Top sportsmen's private lives are public property - off-field indiscretions and activities often receive more media attention that what happens on the field.
Public figures often present to the public the person who they think their fans wants them to be. Just imagine your favourite sports stars, ones who you have not met and got to know. In more cases than not, I can guarantee that they are not who they are made out to be. They have the same faults, vulnerabilities, shortcomings, fears as you and I.
So, how does Executive Coaching for elite athletes fit in with the current situation? As late as 1994, the coach's objective in cricket (and almost every other sport in SA) was to coach (and thus be an expert in) strategy, tactics, skills, team development, psychology, diet, fitness, and more. Bob Woolmer, in consultation with Tim Noakes, was the first coach in world cricket who decided to off-load his responsibilities of fitness, injury prevention and diet to a full-time fitness trainer.
Apart from contributions by a few successful sport psychologists, all the major innovations in elite sport in South Africa over the past 10 years have been in the physical and technical domains. To reach the top, it is often recommended to copy the best, and innovate from there. Bob Woolmer took SA cricket to the top by doing just that.
I suggest, however, that SA sport has got its focus of innovation stuck on the physical and technical domains, to the detriment of the individual psychological, emotional and spiritual development. Most successful businesses have some sort of specialised Human Resources (HR) focus or department. Compare this to the business of rugby where Rudolf Straeuli recently assumed the HR function of teambuilding.
Fortunately, progressive-thinking national cricket coach Eric Simons has recently appointed a manager with a strong business background in HR, and has begun to increase his focus on the development of players as rounded individuals.
That said, other than Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten and a select few Olympic athletes, few of our sports stars are being genuinely coached as psychological, emotional and spiritual human beings, who happen to possess a great physical talent.
Says Kirsten, who is also undertaking executive coaching with myself: "I believe it's never too late to learn. Coaching for me has not been limited to what happens inside the boundary ropes, but outside as well. In fact, I think it's critical that all sportsmen do work on themselves off the field. After all, being a cricketer is only a part of who I am."
It is disturbing how little consideration, expense or effort is given to the professional preparation of our elite sportsmen as role models. I am convinced that the all-round focus of Executive-type coaching will be the next major innovation to further raise the bar amongst the elite sportsmen and women of South Africa.
Edited by Schalk Jonker