For most of the athletes at the Olympics, the Games in London are the pinnacle. They represent the greatest stage to thrive on, an opportunity to find levels of performance that normally are difficult to muster.
And yet, for one team at least, the Olympics is the culmination of a long and winding road. The South African men’s hockey side have had to overcome a lot more than most, yet this could prove to be an asset at the Games.
Sascoc chose not to recognise the Olympic standard for qualifying for hockey – which would have been winning the African Championships. The side had to travel to Japan, at their own cost, and win a qualifying tournament.
The team has played significantly fewer matches than the international standard due to financial constraints so just getting there has been an achievement.
“The team has had to re-set their goals now that they have reached this stage. Now what?”
Those are the words of Tim Goodenough, the team’s mental coach over the past few years. Goodenough is at the Games with the team, but is also on hand to help out other members of the SA contingent.
“I am a resource to Team South Africa while I am here and I am working with two swimmers (Charl Crous and Troy Prinsloo) and some other athletes from different codes.”
Goodenough got into the industry after reading about the notorious Kamp Staaldraad and realising that there was a massive gap in the mental coaching market.
Since then, he co-authored a book, In the zone with South Africa’s sports heroes, and recently launched a second book, Raising Talent.
“I wrote that with a view to establishing myself more internationally as an expert in my field.”
The benefits of mental training have not always been acknowledged, but advancements and positive feedback from training camps like the recent one undertaken by the Proteas ahead of their tour of England prove it has its place.
“The key to these types of camps is to take individuals out of their comfort zones, and help them learn from that experience. If done well, it can be incredibly powerful, if done badly – not so much,” Goodenough explained.
Goodenough admitted that it was not that straightforward to measure the impact of mental coaching.
“It is a difficult thing to measure, and that is one of the reasons why mental coaching isn’t as common with top teams as other important elements of performance, like physiotherapy for example. It is common to hear how important the mental side of the game is, yet almost all pro teams have a physio, but very few have a mental coach.”
Goodenough added that the trend was growing though.
“Ultimately, performances that ‘shouldn’t’ have happened is one of the ways to demonstrate the power of mental coaching. That and anecdotal feedback are the primary ways people start to see the value.”
For the men’s hockey side, the lessons learnt at the Champions Challenge against India in Johannesburg were vital when they were in crunch games in Japan.
“The team worked on how to close out tough matches, as they successfully did in Japan – after learning the lessons from not doing it against India,” he explained.
It is that “mental edge” that Goodenough and other mental experts are constantly striving to provide.
“In a tight situation, what having the mental edge means is that you can execute accurately what you have trained to do; in effect, you don’t let the situation affect you. Having the ability to be accurate in as many situations as possible, for as often as possible, is a massive edge and is rare at any level of elite performance.”
At the very highest levels, sports stars are always striving to gain the smallest margins, and mind games have become part and parcel of the contest. In cricket, the Aussies were renowned for sledging and for nurturing the “mental disintegration” of their opponents.
“The Aussies in cricket used that gamesmanship as part of their approach and again it suited the personalities such as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the side. Gamesmanship without the mindset to back it up and the trained ability to execute is not useful either,” Goodenough warned.
More than ever, the crunch moments at the highest levels of sport were now being won or lost in the mind.
So when the likes of Usain Bolt are putting on a show ahead of the 100m final, it is not just for the cameras or the crowds. It is also part of the goal to gain that vital, mental edge. And that can make all the difference.