Its late afternoon on the 1st of August 2015 and the sun is dipping on the Faure Street Stadium in the middle of Paarl. The ground is full of colour, music, noise, excitement and tension. 25 000 fanatical rugby fans create a kind of energy that is felt deep within your bones. The town and the stadium is divided, even the trees around the stadium have different colours draped over their trunks to indicate loyalty and support depending on location. It is the 100th clash between two of South Africa’s great rugby schools at this venue. The game has been an intense battle of strategy and skill; Boishaai started the better of the two teams, however Paarl Gim fought back with determination and at 13-10 with 10 minutes to go the match could have gone either way. Over the last 10 mins of the game a flood of Boishaai replacements joined the fray and continued to seamlessly attack and crucially during this part of the game, defend wave after wave of determined Gim runners as if it was the original XV still playing.
During this tense period the Boishaai fullback and kicker Jeanluc Cilliers left the field with cramps; and as an example of the greater squad being one of the keys to this team’s success, his replacement Juandre Grobelar stepped up to successfully convert a pressure penalty minutes before the final whistle went. Boishaai won the game 16-10 much to the delight of the old boys, scholars and the key 50 or so players and support staff who were the heart of this campaign. For them it was tears and solemn heartfelt hugs; this team had taken the next step on its journey and purpose, and everyone involved knew it was a squad effort that was inspired and driven by a bigger meaning that the team had adopted: “Every try for God (ETFG)– our performance is our testimony for God’s grace and love in our lives. Never wanting to be average and taking responsibility for what we have committed to.”
There were two things that stood out for me the most when I first met the Paarl Boys High 1stteam squad in our first session together at the end of May. Firstly the size of the group; one of the young men sitting in the front row saw the look on my face as I was counting upwards on 40 players and confidently shared with me, “Sir it’s the first and second team together sir, we do everything together, we are actually one team.” The second thing was that around half way through the session one of the leaders within the team, a massive 100kg plus athlete who I have been told had been playing exceptional rugby turned to me as well as his team-mates and said, “Recently I have started to doubt myself and battle with my self-confidence, please can you help?” Something special was happening here under the leadership of veteran schoolboy coaches Sean Erasmus and Elmo Wolfaardt
My immediate instinct was to affirm the bravery of the young man who could speak so openly of his doubts and fears and I shared with him my belief, “Great teams can safely talk about anything, there is no fear of judgement. There is no issue too small or too big”. If it’s important to someone, the team can and should hear what needs to be said. To finish that session Coach Erasmus chose to take the leap of faith to share what had been heavy on his heart, what was important to him these last few days – his beloved grandmother was sick in hospital, something that he could hide with his words but not his face or energy. He took that moment to reinforce the message I had offered and to “go there first” as a leader, something I had seen him do many times since we worked together for the first time in 2008. As he shared his story through teary eyes, you could feel how the circle of boys around him grew even closer as young men, and most importantly as men who were being real with what they experienced and felt. Rugby players and other athletes often believe they need to act “macho” to show toughness – however acting macho can be a mask that numbs down emotions and hides authenticity, which tends to have a negative impact on a team over time. Worse then that macho toughness is often brittle and struggles to be sustained over time and under pressure.
If you want to be world class genuinely tough, then it’s important to be real, to own and acknowledge your fears, doubts, weaknesses and all of your emotions. To face them, learn from them, work through them and let them go to become a more authentic, stronger and healthier human being. This process includes dealing with emotions and risking vulnerability – the act of putting yourself “out there” risking judgment and having no certainty of a favourable outcome; but sharing your truth regardless. Great teams create this kind of environment and opportunity; what fascinated and impressed me is that I arrived to work in an environment that already supported vulnerability.
My first session with the team was halfway through their story and season; the team had played 12 and won 12 yet were showing signs of inconsistent form. Their season started with a gruelling pre-season camp at Yzerfontein. Here Coach Erasmus shares his experience of that camp in his own words,
“The squad of 42 went on a pre-season camp to set out goals and spend time together. Every morning the team ran to the NSRI building where we had board sessions etc, but I kept wondering why we always arrived there first as coaches in the bus and the players would take so long? On the 2nd day I decided to follow the boys and see why they took so long. As soon as they were out of sight of the coaching staff they started walking and taking their time. I obviously was very disappointed and angry because they were showing their real character when no one was looking and I knew that when the chips were down on the field with minutes to go this team would do the same…give up or walk, because that was their character at that time. I waited for them at the NSRI building and saw them running the last bit… I chased them from the NSRI building back to the camp which is about 3km and told them they had to run there and back (6km) and they only have 20 minutes, a very unrealistic time for anyone not to mention a pre-season group not fit enough yet… I drove behind them in the kombi and said nothing. I just watched… When they arrived back after about 40 minutes I sent them running again and again and again…. I wanted my time! Eventually after about 5 attempts they got angry and started to push each other and climb out of that “pit” filled with mediocrity! They ran the 4th attempt ( +/-24km_) between 25 -35 minutes… It wasn’t the time I was happy about, it was the family, camaraderie that was born that hot morning in Yzerfontein. The faster runners dragged the slower team mates, anger turned to motivation and they encouraged each other to show me they can do it! Their anger at running so much drove them and moulded them as a unit!
When the players arrived at the NSRi building we sat down as a team and I explained the difference between being mediocre and great and told them we would get nowhere not taking responsibility. I told the group that the coaching staff would now leave the room and they have to put together a document for this year that will include what the team stands for, how we will train and with what attitude, a Statement of Belief or as we called it SOB! It was amazing to see what they came up with and that became their rules and their goals, not the coaches! #42davidvsgoliath was also born on that camp along with #ETFG! We wanted to remain focused, we knew nobody gave us a chance and few rated this First and Second team group! We decided to be like David and fight every form of Goliath, be it in the form of criticism, temptation to do wrong, standing for God and our faith, any pressure on and off the field! After that day I knew we were going to be special and although a mountain of work lay ahead I was happy and confident, the 2015 team was born, a family of 42, 1st and Seccies together!”
This intense and powerful camp led to a triple focus of culture, quality and faith that was owned and driven by the entire squad; the how and the accountability of that focus was mapped out and agreed to. These principles were protected and nurtured by the squad and was further enhanced by the work of fellow Mental Coach and friend Tom Dawson-Squibb in the early part of the campaign…
Having been briefed on the backstory I was curious as to how the team was thinking and talking about how they were doing. I asked the team to explain how their season was going in their own words so we can start to build a connection and a relationship. I asked them to share what was working and not working and it soon became more and more clear where their thinking was stuck.
For the “big games” they dug deep, and for the “smaller” games there just wasn’t the same energy or precision in play. What was most interesting for me was that every squad member said they approached every game with the same level of respect, however teams they had previously beaten at age group level didn’t generate the same level of buzz as the season wore on. Consciously they were giving everything, unconsciously something was holding them back.
Their challenge was a common one for many teams. Over the season they fed off the energy and hype of those around them, and those many influencers got more excited for top ranked opposition and traditional foes, and less so for the other teams. Their internal energy was waning due to building pressure and continuous weeks of hard work and commitment- willpower just wasn’t enough anymore. We focused on understanding the structure of their thinking and what was going on for them, and began a process where the team could assign their own meaning to each and every game and practice, and link that meaning to the team purpose and team goals: The supercharging their movies technique. This process was based around a powerful phrase, “What does this mean to you?” This would help them create their internal energy, that they could nurture and grow in a healthy way. The session ended with each team member standing up and committing to his team-mates what he is going to do differently going forward to be part of this solution.
Their next game there wasn’t a lot of evidence in the way they played or the energy they arrived with that the players had kept their commitments to each other. In fact they had let each other down. This is often the case with a team taking a step up; there’s great talk in the team room but it doesn’t show up on the field, not yet anyway… Fortunately the coaches trusted me enough to know that this was a key part of the process; their conversation at Monday’s practice was a simple, direct and honest. “Gentlemen – did we keep our commitments to each other – if not how come?” The bond of the team and the maturity of the group allowed the answer to emerge after some very uncomfortable moments. The team decided that they will create and live their own meaning, for each and every week they had left together and will arrive for practice and games just as they said they would from that moment on. Coach Erasmus shares, “When things go well you can easily forget about systems and take things for granted, that Monday after our disappointing performance we highlighted that we cannot forget our systems, what we stand for and how easily it can all disappear. The weekend was a huge wake up call, we hadn’t chatted about how easily we can lose what we’ve reached thus far. This team didn’t like to disappoint each other or the people believing in them and a mind shift was made that Monday. Tim Goodenough had planted a seed and the team started to believe and water that seed!”
There is a wonderful African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In sport it also takes “a village” to raise a group of high performing and values based boys and help forge them into young men. The Paarl Boys High village included coaches, support staff, buy-in from the head and head of sport and school and continuing commitment from the players themselves to keep aspiring to living the values and the purpose of the team. This inner circle of commitment, buy-in and values alignment include:
David Sadie (Seccies Coach), Conrad Barnard(Kicking Coach), Ryno Rust(conditioning coach), Anzel Brink(physiotherapist), Dr Kobus Uys (team doctor), Tim Goodenough (Mental Toughness Coach and friend of the team)
In a long season there are many important moments and key games; since I started working with the team; three games stood out for me.
Paul Roos was a titanic battle where the no 1 ranked team in various rugby rankings took on the no 2 ranked team. I was curious in our session before the game how much fear or mental interferences would be in the room with the prospect of playing the No 2 team in the country. I had a whole session planned on how to deal with all of that, however 5 mins into the session I canned it. The team was internally focused on how they can create their most accurate meaning and mental prep for the game. They believed if they prepared accurately and well enough that they could let go of the result, and so their focus was on attention to detail in their mental preparation which lead to this article. This was another key indicator of their growing maturity and mental ability; when Coach Erasmus phoned me to ask how the session had gone (he had bad flu and wouldn’t put his players at risk by being in the same room) I told him emphatically, “Yes they are ready.”
Interschools vs Paarl Gim is always a tough encounter, it had been 4 years since Boys High had won it, in fact none of the squad had witnessed a win at 1st team level throughout their high school years. I use a simple equation with the team throughout the year:
Performance = Trained ability – Interferences.
For the first time this year interferences were above 2 (out of 10), in fact they were close to 8/10. We spent the session with the boys naming all the interferences and then workshopping their own solutions to solving them. I then taught the squad the Scanning process to identify the release any mental blocks linked to the solutions they had created and key moments in the game (first kick, first restart take, tackle , line-out etc) The players were tasked to monitor themselves – if during the week any unuseful tension or stress popped up that would interfere with the enjoyment and appreciation of the occasion they knew what to do to deal with it. The build-up week is very unusual in that a lot of traditions and events are planned and it’s easy to get lost in the hype and the excitement of playing in front of 25 000 or more passionate fans and on for a national TV audience. The week is a celebration of tradition, rivalry, school spirit and school pride and it’s easy to arrive on Saturday drained and stressed, fortunately the squad did the work necessary to arrive ready to give their best.
Outeniqua was the final hurdle of the season. The team was drained and exhausted from the physical, mental and emotional wear and tear of a long year and the pressure to keep the dream alive week in and week out. This was going to be their 21st game of the season – an incredible number for 17 and 18 year olds to get through. The last game of the season was also captain Andreas van Wyk’s 50th 1st team game for Boishaai. Andreas or Andy to his team-mates, became one of only 5 people in the history of the school to have reached this milestone; a special achievement made more meaningful when considering Andy was playing 5th team before being promoted to the 1st team squad when he caught Coach Erasmus’s eye. His character and personality has had a significant impact on not just his team-mates but the entire school; a great example of this special bond was that the rest of the school would spontaneous sing. “Captain Andy!” to him every time he spoke in assembly … or even walked past it. Tapping into the energy around the inspirational captain and special milestone was a key element for the last David vs Goliath challenge of the season.
Outeniqua had a very good season and were highly motivated to be the first team to beat Boishaai this year. Coach Erasmus’s message was direct and powerful “Forget about how tired you are after a long season and injuries, focus on the fact that after a win today you will forever have a legacy that no one can take from you, an unbeaten team not only for the history books of Paarl Boys High but also in the history books of South Africa! (The last winning streak in SA was Grey College that won 17 games in a row!) Remember what we stand for, remember ETFG and the amazing testimony we can give. Remember we are a familia, we don’t let each other down, we don’t stop playing for each other, we never stop believing and when it gets tough we ask ourselves” What does this mean to you?”
The game ended with a tense 30-28 win to seal a historic season. Not since 1982 had both the 1stand 2nd teams gone unbeaten during the entire season. It was an incredible group achievement founded on values, team-work, hard work, selflessness and faith all wrapped in a simple message. Every try for God.