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Sunday, August 14, 2022

There’s nothing like sport for developing focus and intensity, says retired cricket legend Vince van der Bijl


Sport is an enigma. It permeates all aspects of society. It is played in the streets and on the biggest stages of the world. It is often a hobby or merely viewed as entertainment on TV. It divides or unites nations. It can build or sever great friendships, or ignite tensions between countries.

As a top player, however, it is a way of life. It consumes you. Apart from your family, it takes centre stage as you go about your day. Sports scientist Tim Noakes once said: “To win an Olympic gold medal you must focus on that goal every second of every waking day. If you are not willing to do that, don’t bother. There are so many others who will.”

Experiences in sport remain etched deep inside you. They teach you life’s lessons of discipline, teamwork, respect, leadership and sacrifice, as well as  how to overcome despair and humiliation. It focuses your mind like no other activity. All sports people experience the full spectrum of emotions. One of the lessons it taught me was how to plan well in advance, thereby allowing me to frame my future.

When I taught and coached at Maritzburg College, I played Currie Cup cricket. Later, I realised that a week before a match, I would shut down as my subconscious worked on strategies, my opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and technique. I operated on auto in other aspects of my life, such was my obsession to play great cricket.

Colleagues taught me many life lessons.

Bruce Fordyce was unique in that he trained ferociously for a single event that occurred only once a year — the Comrades Marathon. His self-motivation presentations revealed that early on he realised that to win, he needed to calm his mind during the race. To do that he would listen repeatedly to a particular U2 album until the songs were firmly embedded in his head. During the race he would “listen” to those U2 songs reverberating in his mind. This was long before the Walkman was invented!

When we invited him to dinner, say a month before Comrades, Bruce would ask me to phone each person who was joining us, to check that they did not have a cold or cough. If they did, he could not attend, as he needed to be in perfect health. He planned in minute detail.

At the end of a long training run, he would imagine he was running the last 5km in Comrades, tired, exhausted and having to shoulder on with determination. John Burgess, a training partner, said that Bruce, towards the end of such a run, would sometimes start to sprint, as subconsciously he was running the Comrades. As he broke away from the training group, John would have to clap his hands to bring Bruce back to reality. That commitment and planning was absolute.

I asked Jacques Kallis what was going through his mind when he walked out to bat in front of the baying 110,000 Indian spectators at Eden Park. He replied: “I never heard the crowd, I just repeated to myself, ‘Watch the ball’!” Such extraordinary clarity of purpose.

Once, when heavy rain cancelled a practice round for a Golf Academy USA event, the players were waiting on the bus for a young Tiger Woods. The academy director found him, in his rain gear, hitting balls on the practice range in pouring rain. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked, exasperated.

“Practising for the British Open,” was the reply. Tiger looked surprised at the question.

These stories all vary; yet focus and dedication are the binding principles.

Every sportsperson is talented to a degree. Only those who are truly committed nurture that talent to greatness. Legendary players value preparation and future-orientated thinking. It gives them the edge. They work harder and mentally prepare better than others. That gives them the ability to calm their minds to make the right choices, under pressure. They then develop the aura of BMT (big match temperament), which the opposition fear. BMT is not a God-given gift. It is a learnt art of future orientation and planning. There is no magic recipe to success.

Life’s lessons are acquired by experience. They cannot be taught in a classroom. Sport allows children to absorb life skills as they play.

SA needs to reach out to the 94% of schools without after-school sport and provide these opportunities — 94% is the damning statistic for the effectiveness of a holistic education in SA.

Sport will greatly assist the next generations to prepare for life. Education alone is not enough and never will be.

Vince van der Bijl is a retired South African cricketer.

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