Chok­ing the same prob­lem as trou­ble with the short ball

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Men­tal strength is a dif­fi­cult thing to ... ex­e­cute GRA­HAM HENRY

In the mad scram­ble to ap­por­tion blame for the Proteas’ ca­pit­u­la­tion in the ICC Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, AB de Vil­liers’ cap­taincy and Rus­sell Domingo’s ten­u­ous hold on his coach­ing po­si­tion were pre­dictable tar­gets.

If the tour­na­ment showed us any­thing, it was that De Vil­liers may be a bat­ting ge­nius, but he cap­tains by the num­bers. With ques­tions around his cap­taincy, it is there­fore log­i­cal to chal­lenge his as­ser­tion poste­lim­i­na­tion that he is the right man to lead the Proteas to the 2019 World Cup.

And for­get that the Proteas’ early exit ex­posed cricket’s hyp­o­crit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with coaches – the cap­tain is the man when the team wins, but it’s the coach’s fault the mo­ment it loses – Domingo won’t ex­actly have been en­thused to dust off his CV to meet Fri­day’s dead­line to reap­ply for his job.

But to blame what hap­pened in Eng­land on De Vil­liers and Domingo is to carry on with our typ­i­cal short-sight­ed­ness to prob­lem-solv­ing and ig­nore a host of other is­sues.

The first ele­phant in the room is that a bunch of hand­somely re­warded young men turned to jelly the mo­ment they had to win games in a tour­na­ment, which beg­gars be­lief be­cause, pre­sum­ably, their lot in life is to win matches.

It was in­ter­est­ing to lis­ten to the many ar­gu­ments about whether the Proteas had choked this time be­cause they sim­ply didn’t turn up.

The purists’ def­i­ni­tion of chok­ing is be­ing within sight of vic­tory and bol­locks­ing it up. But surely know­ing ahead of time that you have to turn up and play your best in a game and fail­ing to is tan­ta­mount to chok­ing ahead of time? Yet this isn’t just a Proteas thing, it’s a South African sport thing.

The best ex­am­ple came this week, when the Baby Boks (the Un­der-20s) – whose back­line ran rings around their Ar­gen­tine coun­ter­parts to qual­ify for the semi­fi­nals of the World Rugby Un­der-20 Championship in Ge­or­gia – barely used said back­line in the semi against Eng­land.

In­stead, a team in which five of the seven back­line play­ers have played fly half at some stage or an­other in their ca­reers daftly tried to de­fend a five-point lead by kick­ing pos­ses­sion away (and badly) with 15 min­utes left in the game.

The re­cent talk from the Proteas is that chok­ing is prac­ti­cally a banned word in the team, which ex­plains why they have not so far been able to con­front it, let alone over­come it.

This in an age where a book has been writ­ten about how the All Blacks have over­come their his­tor­i­cal chok­ing to the point that they have be­come the only team in world rugby to de­fend a World Cup ti­tle.

By the looks of it, not many of our sport­ing chiefs have read James Kerr’s Legacy or for­mer New Zealand coach Gra­ham Henry’s in­ter­view with the Tele­graph ahead of the 2015 World Cup fi­nal, where de­tails of how the All Blacks over­came their men­tal demons are graphic.

“Men­tal strength is a dif­fi­cult thing to un­der­stand and to ex­e­cute,” said Henry two years ago. “We had to get out­side help to come up to speed in that area. The phys­i­cal things are easy. Ev­ery­one can sweat ... but men­tal skill de­vel­op­ment is a rel­a­tively new area.

“When you are un­der pres­sure, and your brain goes to a dif­fer­ent state and you end up run­ning around like a head­less chicken, the me­dia call that chok­ing. All the play­ers have in­di­vid­ual cues to stay in the now on the field.

“If they feel them­selves slip­ping, they click on with that in­di­vid­ual men­tal trig­ger to make them stay in the now. They prac­tice that all the time. The coaches will try to put them un­der pres­sure so they choke in train­ing by over­load­ing them.”

Blam­ing De Vil­liers or Domingo also gives the rest of the team li­cence not to share in the bur­den of pres­sure.

For ex­am­ple, when JP Du­miny fails again in a must-win game, it is ex­pected it’ll be be­cause he only has four one-day in­ter­na­tional (ODI) cen­turies – against Hol­land and Zim­babwe (three).

And while we cel­e­brate Hashim Amla’s “fastest to” mile­stones and 25 ODI cen­turies, no­body asks how many he has scored in a knock­out game (none).

Yet, when De Vil­liers was out of the pic­ture, the rest of the Proteas mucked in dur­ing tricky mo­ments in games be­cause they couldn’t out­source the bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion.

The irony is that the signs be­fore the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy sug­gested the Proteas were on the right track – to get there, they need to em­brace that chok­ing is every bit the same prob­lem as trou­ble with the short ball.

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