South African rugby fans were dumbfounded when the Springboks lost to Japan in the Rugby World Cup. How could their team, ranked third in the world, lose to a relative minnow?
During the days prior to the team’s next game against Samoa the nation was on tenterhooks as the psyche of defeat had transformed national pride into national dread. What if it happened again? I did note that many felt empathy for the ‘Boks’ and some tolerance, in spite of the national agony.
After the loss to Japan, both coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers apologised to South Africans for their performance. But they didn’t make excuses about why they lost. That was a good thing. They took responsibility for the team’s loss.
They also commended Japan on their valiant effort, which indicated team maturity. If they had not congratulated Japan, or tried to diminish their achievement by making excuses, this would have shown pettiness and would likely have been a forewarning of more losses.
That the Springboks managed their loss well enabled them to bounce back and not linger in the psyche of defeat. The torment of defeat gave way to the elation of victory when the Springboks defeated Samoa.
The psyche of defeat
The psyche of defeat is always underpinned and justified by many excuses – for instance, not used to the playing conditions, or poor refereeing, ad infinitum. The South African fans were also gracious in defeat and acknowledged the outstanding performance by Japan by giving Japanese fans a guard of honour.
The captain and coach, although displaying disappointment, also displayed mental toughness, dignity and humility. A team, and its members, must display a will to win but should also be modest. This is not an easy ask.
Rugby is a gladiator sport. The fans pay to watch their heroes entertain them. They are answerable to their public. A team that demonstrates overconfidence cannot do this as they can only see themselves as individuals and do not recognise their collective responsibility to their spectators. After all, without an audience they would not be heroes.
In team sport, the psyche of defeat is linked to various things. The most important, in my opinion, is the team’s maturity. This, in turn, is linked to its captaincy, level of preparedness, confidence in coaching staff and personality characteristics of individual team members.
It must be remembered that individual sportsmen usually have some egotistical characteristics and tend to display arrogance (and sometimes aggression). But this is not necessarily true of team sport players, even at national level. Nonetheless, if an individual is not a team player and wants glory for self, a team will be troubled and will often display the psyche of defeat, which can be inferred from newspaper reports about “trouble in the team” or constant replacement of national team coaches.
Problematically, when the psyche of defeat has set in it is very difficult to change. An example of this is the South African national football team. It won the first African Cup of Nations it competed in after democracy in 1995. But since then nothing. Its world ranking has continued to fall and both international and home based coaches have been unable to dispel the psyche of defeat that haunts the team.
Both the Springbok coach and captain noted they would work hard to do better in the coming week. This showed determination and resilience. This is another important factor in the psyche of defeat. Teams that are not resilient do not win. They “choke” and lose again. South Africans are resilient. The majority of the population is still “rising”, like the proverbial phoenix, referred to by Thabo Mbeki in his transformative speech, “I am an African”.
Change in rugby
It can be argued that Meyer’s track record vis-a-vis the lack of racial equality in the team (known locally as transformation), poor team cohesion and recent team losses has placed him in hot water in the public eye. This is especially true over the issue of racial transformation, with many South Africans echoing the sentiment that this is what is needed to transform the Springboks into a winning team.
But Springbok player JP Peterson, who is black, rose to the occasion by scoring three tries against Samoa. The nation cheered as one. The whispers of change in rugby gave us this player. I hope that in future the winds of change will ensure that many more players of colour will fly over the try line.
I don’t know if the Springboks are going to win the World Cup for a groundbreaking third time but I do know that they did not display the psyche of defeat. Onwards and hopefully upwards, like the phoenix.
Sadly, De Villiers announced his retirement from rugby after an injury incurred against Samoa. This, I think, will also add to the team’s determination to do well – they will unite to pay tribute to the fallen hero.