At the end of the 90mins of carnage delivered by an outstanding All Black side last week, the Springbok coach said he was offering no excuses. However, he went on to do exactly that. Allister Coetzee said his side walked into a ‘perfect storm’ revolving around the New Zealanders and that they ‘executed almost perfectly’ which meant they were ‘too classy’ for us. We had the intensity and energy he said, but just couldn’t get the job done when it counted the most – that’s all it was. Even our captain said he would like to believe it was a once-off thing. Nothing to panic about – just a bad day at the office.
I have a few problems with such reactions and explanations to what we can only call a horrific defeat. There was no perfect storm which created the exact conditions necessary for performance at exactly that one moment for the All Blacks. We were not helpless bystanders caught up in events beyond our control. High performance, almost by definition, is about execution under pressure, composure when it counts, delivery of performance week in and week out. When did we begin to think high performance was anything else? The All Blacks are a high-performance team doing exactly what high-performance teams do. No storm needed.
When we are okay with a ‘perfect storm’ excuse, I think we are in real trouble. Yes, we can and should applaud effort, but we also need to be careful about slipping into a mindset that tolerates mediocrity. When we become okay with ‘Don’t be negative, they gave their best and that’s enough’ or ‘Wow, we lost by fewer points than last time, that’s fantastic’ we are moving away from what elite level sport is all about. There will always be the teams and individuals who are there to fill up the numbers and for them sport holds a very different meaning, as it should. For these teams and athletes, it’s about the journey, achieving personal gaols and following a passion – all wonderful and valid reasons for participation. But the best of the best are not satisfied with this.
All great teams and athletes are not happy to just be there. They are focused on being the best in the world. Do you think Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete ever by being satisfied with just being at the Olympics? Or being alright with losing by split seconds? What about Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant? They may love competing, but all of them are not satisfied with it. Quite simply they are obsessed with being better than anyone else on the planet. That’s it. That is an elite performance mindset.
I am not saying champions always win, we all know that’s not realistic in sport. Everyone fails or loses sometimes, and inherent in this are valuable lessons and growth. What I am saying is that, at the elite level, we need to be careful of slipping into an acceptance of mediocrity. I recently spoke with an athlete that was quite horrified when they realised that they had started to become okay with second, third or fourth place. They would rather stop competing than begin to settle for results they would have never accepted in the past. This is a high performance, elite champion mindset.
We may say that we in SA sport don’t tolerate mediocrity – of course we want to win and do well. But I don’t think we are being honest with ourselves. Yes, we need to take positives from performances, but at its core, if you want to be the best in the world you need to be willing to look inside and face some difficult truths. Mediocrity is an insidious defence mechanism in many ways. It creeps in sometimes unnoticed when we have been disappointed or don’t want to be disappointed. It feels somewhat easier and safer to say there are lots of positives, we put in effort, we are progressing. We don’t have to expect thigs of ourselves then. You may be able to live in the elite sports world with this attitude, but you won’t flourish in it.
Doc Rivers, LA Clippers coach and former NBA player, said ‘Average players want to be left alone, good players want to be coached, but great players want to be told the truth’. The truth is sometimes a cold, harsh place, but without an honest assessment of performance how can be become great? And as they say, the truth will set you free.