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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Dubai Rugby World Cup 7s

Dubai Rugby World Cup. The World Champions are Wales

Well, it's now been the longest break between posts since we started this site almost two years ago - my profuse apologies.

As you may have read two weeks ago, I was in Dubai with the South African rugby team for the Sevens World Cup, and I found very little time or energy to write anything. So our series on aging was suspended (but not forgotten!) as was the debate about doping in sport (much to the pleasure of some, I am sure).

For today, I'm going to indulge myself in something of a "diary" post about the trip in Dubai, mostly because I need to get some things off my chest and gain some clarity of my own thoughts of that tournament, which was, to put it mildly, an enormous disappointment. It's a post that mixes sports science, management and my own personal reflections on my involvement with the team, and hopefully, some lessons that might be applicable to all sports.

Wales: Rugby 7s world champions

The appropriate starting point is to state that the World Champions for the next four years are not South Africa (the reason for my disappointment), not England (the joint number 1 in the rankings), not New Zealand (the historically dominant nation), not Fiji, not Samoa, not Argentina, but Wales.

The odds on Wales winning this tournament must have been astronomical. Ranked only 11th coming in, the Welsh exceeded all expectations and deserve credit for finding form and great rugby when it mattered. The big four all fell in consecutive matches in what must be one of the most astonishing sequences of upsets in all of sport - four matches, four favourites gone and the semi-final line up was a one in a million chance. Wales emerged World Champions, and congratulations to them.

South Africa - lost opportunities

As for my team, we fell at the quarter-final stage, beaten 14-12 by Argentina. As is always the case after defeat, post-mortem analysis is easy, and playing the blame-game is a routine that is done by everyone without much effect. The post-mortem often limits itself to on-field action and misses out what may be even more important than what happens off it.

On the field, knock-ons, missed tackles, refereeing decisions, lazy defence, ill discipline, kicking inaccuracies, lack of concentration - the list of possible reasons goes on, because in defeat, finding reasons is always relatively easy, no matter what the situation or even sport. However, the list may well be justified in our case, and we were incredibly disappointed in the manner of the defeat. It is a practice common to all sports, and any fan reading this can relate to how agonizing those defining moments can be when they don't go your way.

The real answers lie off the field

For South Africa, defeat came after going into a 12-0 lead, and looking completely dominant for most of the game. In sport, leads do slip and teams come from behind often. But when the same error occurs not once or twice but five times in the space of a few months, then it is a symptom of something else. That has happened to us in three consecutive tournaments, and I must acknowledge part of the blame for that. On-field performance and execution is part of this, but victories are secured not on the field, but off it, in the preparation and build up phase, thanks to the discipline of management and players.

That's where the answers need to be sought, but they are much more difficult to find, and it is easier to simply point to moments in the match that contributed to the result. Certainly, that is true, and but for perhaps three or four things that happened in the game, we would have won the match and at least given ourselves a chance of winning the World title. This is again true for any sport - moments swing matches, and "if only" is the most over-used yet ineffective review of matches. Dwelling on match performances, however, is to ignore that 99% of the effort goes on behind the scenes, in training and between tournaments, and so that's where we need to be looking for answers.

Sports science and my personal role

And here is where it is personal for me. My role with the team is that of scientific consultant and strategic advisor to the coach Paul Treu. It would be accurate to say that I'm in charge of details, finding the final 1% to add to the players' preparation and motivation to ensure that we take the field with the advantage. As many of you will know, I am firmly of the belief that sports science is not simply a VO2max and heart rate, but the integrated approach to athlete preparation.

I have written before that when an athlete takes to the line or the field, they must believe that they have done 99% of the work in training, and that the final 1% lies before them. The team that has prepared the best (99% as opposed to 90%) has the advantage. If you have done more than the opponent in training, then he needs to do more than you to win - you hold the advantage, both physically and mentally. I believe that sports science is the quest for those percentages, or millimeters, or milliseconds. It asks "What stones remain unturned, and how do we overturn them"? That is comprehensive, integrated sports science and management.

As a result of my PhD work, my personal interest lies in the role of the brain in performance, and an extension of this is an interest in the mental component to performance. I'm not a psychologist, nor do I wish to be, because I believe that the role of the mind is very much physiological. But in my role with the Sevens team, I've done a fair amount on the mental approach to training and matches, because it's impossible to separate this from the physical. "Mind over matter" is bogus, because they're the same thing.

Before the tournament, I spoke to the players about the "moments" that define them. There are ten key moments, I said, that determine the outcome of the game. We must aim to win at least six of them. But because so much of the result happens off the field, this means that we fight for every millimeter in training, every percentage in practice, so that on the field, those moments go our way. We also find these millimeters in our culture, our way of thinking off the field.

In the end, we lost all those moments. We succeeded at neither controlling what we could, or taking the chances we had.

So to lose a 12 point lead three times in three tournaments, to fail as a result of what is most definitely not a physical/fitness problem is a reflection on me, and just as I would expect every player to look first at themselves, I hold up my hand in acknolwedgement that I failed. I failed, and hence the team failed. I dare say many of our players probably did not even recognize my role or purpose with the team during the week, so spectacular was MY failure. When outcomes are determined by millimeters, I missed the mark by meters.

Now, every single player needs to do the same - "I failed, and in future, if I am to return to winning (because SA is the number 1 ranked team in the world, we are winners), then I need to look very, very hard at HOW I do things. And if I cannot do them better, then I am accepting failure, and have decided that I will remain a loser for the rest of the year". The player who does not seek improvement in defeat will remain defeated. Acknowledging failure is not being overly hard on yourself, it's being realistic and realizing that where you stand currently is not good enough to win. If you wish to win, you must move. And to move, you must work and improve.

That is fundamental to self-improvement in sport. If you are not challenging yourself to improve, then you will regress. This is the theory of overload and adaptation in physiology. If you wish to strengthen a muscle, you must acknowledge its relative weakness and then train it. If you wish to strengthen a sporting team's performance, you must acknowledge the weakness or failure, and then aim to be better. Accepting the status quo, especially in a competitive environment like the World Cup, means you go backwards.

And my impression is that most sports people and even sports scientists do not appreciate this ethos. And again, I submit myself as one culprit, with an admission of guilt and acknowledgment of failure. If the Springbok Sevens rugby team are to improve, I must improve. Hopefully, the players are adopting the same attitude, and will seek to improve ahead of the next tournament in Hong Kong (where I will also be, hopefully seeking a personal redemption for my failures of Dubai).

Accepting mediocrity is too easy

The other great lesson for me is that it's very easy to accept mediocrity. This was a tournament that comes once every four years. And while it's a odd tournament, because of its position in the calender and the other rugby going on, it's still a World Cup, and the opportunity to be a World Champion, which only arrives once in a lifetime for a select few.

As result, defeat should mean a great deal, for it represents the end of a four-year dream, with the possibility of never again returning to the same opportunities. However, having been on the receiving end of defeat, and feeling that disappointment, it becomes very easy to accept and rationalize it and resume with life as though "it's not that bad". Celebrate in the face of defeat, "it's not so bad after all". But I am grateful for the small things that remind me of the failure in Dubai:

  • Returning empty-handed to an empty hotel room, that only 12 hours before, I had left with aspirations of returning as part of the World Champion team
  • Queuing in an airport at 5.30 in the morning after the final, with no sleep and nothing to show for exhaustion other than a weak justification of why Wales, and not SA, were world champions
  • Arriving home to an airport in South Africa to be met by families and friends who offer words of consolation, when it might have been an army of thousands to welcome back the world champions
  • The knowledge that in 2013, I may watch the next World Cup and remember back to the moment that got away, when it might have been a celebration of a moment that was taken
These are the moments that sting and bring me back to the realization that Dubai 2009 was failure, both for me personally and for the team. I just hope that the players feel it as deeply. If they do not, then they have accepted mediocrity and failure. I dare say that the driving force behind the great sporting dynasties of the past is their love of victory and the absolute contempt they have for defeat. If you start to accept defeat, then you guarantee it in the future. Let's hope the Springbok Sevens team burn deeply as a result.

The bottom line - preparation is the entry point, and attitude is the key

I know this post is a personal testimony, mostly to get off my chest my own disappointments in Dubai. It is also a commentary on high performance sport, and maybe some insight for some of you into what it is like in elite competition, where the stakes are high and pressure is intense. It needn't be limited to that though.

And so whether you're an aspirational World Champion, or a weekend superstar or simply a fitness enthusiast, hopefully this post has stimulated some thought into what it is that you may be missing in your own exercise habits. The key point is that preparation does not simply involve hours a day of training to strengthen the muscles and heart, it is a culture of belief that the training brings you nearer to the finish line, so that by the time you start, whether it's a marathon or a 10km race, you've done the work. Your attitude determines your preparation, and preparation determines your outcome.

And if you are not hard on yourself, then you never leave the ground.



Duff said...

Ross: Stop beating up on yourself.
Remember regardless of what you feel, this is a team sport.

We still like your style and honest commentary.

When do we get the,"on the bright side" of your post.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Duff

Thanks for the positive comment. Sorry if it came across too negative. I'm not beating up on myself, just pointing out that everyone must look critically at themselves and raise their level. I don't believe we do that often enough, and if we're going to improve, it has to be done. And you're right, it's a team sport, so everyone needs to do the same.

The "bright side" is that if we can learn and improve as a result of recognizing the short-comings, then we'll be better next time.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again Duff

Oh, the one thing i must emphasize is that the team that bounces back is going to be the one that makes the most clinical transition towards fixing up whatever went wrong in Dubai.

I know that both England and New Zealand were both desperately disappointed with their results and the players will come back very hard in Hong Kong. So I feel almost obliged to be "hard" because the treadmill has just increased in pace!

One thing I noticed at this tournament is that the "second-tier" teams are the ones that cope the best with defeat - it's as though they accept it more readily, or have become so accustomed to it that they brush it off as "experience". Don't want to develop that habit!

I also don't want to be too negative though, maybe I hit that chord a little strongly...


Ray said...

So your series on aging is aging. Please hurry -- I'm not getting any younger.


Mircea said...

We have similar problems in Romania. Our teams have issues concerning game management and attitude, we throw away big leads, choke in front of big name opponents despite their slumping at the time of the match... Maybe some more exotic professionals like sports psychologists(of which we have pretty much none)are required in order to improve this aspect. It is interesting how "officials" notice the problem but do nothing about it. They all just complain about how we don't have a winning mentality and so on.

Well, have you at least told the players to not think about the score? That usually helps because you would be able to concentrate on the game a little better.

Then again, are you overreacting maybe? Rugby 7s is a sport that is quite unforgiving towards small mistakes, from what little I have seen, so it is possible to get very unlucky haha.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mircea

Absolutely, that's a big part of it. I am sure it would add enormous value. But it's very difficult as a quick fix. Sports psychology is often over-rated because people see it as the answer without recognizing that to be effective really requires a long term commitment to building a relationship between the player and the psychologist. That means it's not something that can be done in a once or twice a month session, it must be more committed.

And getting a team of rugby players to buy into that is a mission impossible! Of course, on the other side, many people don't see the value of a psychologist. Our coach certainly would, but practical problems make it difficult to implement.

As for the game of Sevens, you're 100% correct, it can go wrong very very quickly. And because it's so short, those moments play a very large role. But our job as coaches and management is to figure out how to control them, and that's what we didn't do. Like I said, if there are ten moments in a match, you have to win 6 of them, and we didn't, and that's why we lost. So you're right, things can get out of hand fast and luck plays a role, but we must do more in the future to minimize that luck and the impact of the game on the result!


Anonymous said...

If you´re joining Ryno and the boys in HK as well, I´d love to see some stats on sevens regards the ratio of high intensity efforts (i.e sprints, tackles, rucking etc)to walking, jogging waiting for conversions.

My guess of prevailing energy system is that it´s full blown anaerobic glycolysis most of the fourteen minutes...

Maybe like this: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/rugby/trainingneeds.htm

The fitness and power excercise (rugby like) preparation must be at least 3-4 of those six defining moments..

Cheers // Erik

Dean said...

Ross, you've made it very clear that things must change for the team prior to the next sevens round so as to not see a repeat of the Dubai failure, but do you plan on offering any insight into specifically WHAT or HOW you plan on changing things (in consultation with the coaching staff) to improve the team's performance?

What (physiologically-speaking) must be done differently next time that wasn't done leading up to Dubai?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Dean

Yes, a few things need to change. And we have a couple of ideas, but not many are physiological. I think our team is the fittest on the circuit, certainly for hot weather conditions, and we back ourselves on the final day (when the team would have to play 3 matches) to come through strongest of all. I think the final between Wales and Argentina was determined in large part thanks to the fitness levels of Argentina falling off as the day progressed.

So in terms of fitness and that aspect of physiology, not much needs to change. I think in training, the execution of specific skills must be improved. Kick-off returns, lineouts, certains aspects of the scrum, and then most importantly, defensive technique (individual players and the line). And that we can work on. Unfortunately, not much time between now and the next tournament - only two weeks. But we'll work hard at that. It just means hard work - taking 50 kickoffs, practicing defensive running etc.

But mostly, it's a mindset, and that's what I alluded to in the post. Throwing away a 12-point lead in three consecutive tournaments is certainly not a performance issue. We have what it takes, in terms of potential, it just requires translating that into performance on the field, and for 14 minutes instead of 4.

I guess one might argue for a sports psychologist, but given the short time-frame between now and Hong Kong, I'm not sure that's feasible. The call is really to step up on intensity and focus, because throwing 50-50 passes, or making basic mistakes or lazy defence is a focus problem. So we have to iron it out.

We're close, it's not that much that needs to change, but maybe the hardest part of all to change.


Anonymous said...

looks like your cricket team isnt any better than the rugby team. Appoint a captain one day, and sack him the next!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Well, completely different set of circumstances. I'm talking about on-field performances, you're bringing up an administrative issue and perhaps someone who spoke out of turn in the first place. But to me, it's a positive move, just a pity they thought AFTER speaking and not vice-versa. But a completely different scenario to the rugby, which was really a matter of performance execution, not people management.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Ross, it was a cheap shot and as an Aussie, I couldnt help myself. The great thing about sport is there is usually a chance for redemption. good Luck in Hong Kong and may you go doen to the Aussies in the final 14-12.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Rob

Well, hopefully not 14-12 when we're leading 12-0 at half-time.

No worries - on the cricket, amazing how easily things turn around and here in SA, everyone seems surprised by it. I look back on the SA-Aus series and after the 2nd day of every single test, Aus were on top. It was only a couple of great innings and that partnership between Steyn and Duminy that saw us lead 2-0.

It was always pretty clear that one bowler with penetration and wicket-taking ability, and the series might have gone 3-0 to Aus. Yet we didn't pick that up. South Africans are terrible winners - you should have seen the reaction to it here.

So now you have 2 wicket-taking bowlers, and three batsmen in form, and how the tables have turned!

And once things go wrong, then these off-field things start. And I agree it was strange management to announce the captain when he himself didn't want that. I wonder if Kallis does? Bad communication and management!

Anyway, let's continue to eat humble pie!


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross- there is nothing wrong with the coaching staff.I think you are the best, but the problem is the focus of the team.my daughter ,a student at Stellenbosch, told me that members of the team were very visisble at all the party places till early hours of the morning just before their departures to the recent tournaments.their focus is directed more on being celebrities and to impress the girls than on rugby.I think they should be brought back their roots.. they are based in Stellenbosch to train hard as a team, not to enjoy the student life of Stellenbosch. keep up your good work...good luck for the upcoming tournaments, hope to see the "old south african" team out there on the field.
Blitz bok supporter

Kiteboarding Equipment said...

One thing I noticed at this tournament is that the "second-tier" teams are the ones that cope the best with defeat - it's as though they accept it more readily, or have become so accustomed to it that they brush it off as "experience". Don't want to develop that habit!