How the Boks can tackle the burden of expectation and bring light to the nation – Dr Greyling Viljoen

South Africans are firing up their braais, stacking their fridges, and getting ready for the Rugby World Cup in France. On social media, we have been fed a constant diet of the Springboks as they get ready to take on the world’s rugby titans. Nelson Mandela saw sport, and especially rugby, as a way to bring South Africans together in 1994. The moment has been immortalised in books and the movie Invictus. And, once again, we are pinning our hopes not only on a rugby win for the Boks, but also that it will lift the gloom of a troubled country. In this interview with BizNews, Dr Greyling Viljoen, a sport psychologist from Pretoria who is a former Springbok canoeist and has also won the Berg River Marathon, delves into the psychology of winning, why sport uplifts us and has some suggestions on how the Boks can manage social media comments, deal with the pressure of being the defending champions, and cope with the weight of a nation’s expectations.Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 01:29 – Dr Greyling Viljoen on why we feel so good after watching the Springboks
  • 04:45 – Nelson Mandela and the unifying effect of the Springbok jersey
  • 06:03 – On the players must deal with social media during the world cup
  • 07:14 – How do they manage this psychological element of a weight of expectation of a whole nation on them
  • 09:15 – Springboks chances in the world cup
  • 10:50 – What is the psychological advantage or disadvantage from looking at the media and looking at social media
  • 14:11 – For sports players where does that absolute drive come from
  • 16:28 – Conclusions

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Excerpts from the Interview

Why the Springboks and Siya Kolisi gives us such a warm glow

There are a few reasons why we get this good feeling about sport in general. I can also talk from a South African perspective, where we get this particular warm feeling when Siya leads the men onto the field. I think that, first of all, it gives us a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. We seldom watch sports individually. We always say we are going to watch sports. We watch sports with our family. So, that sense of togetherness is one aspect of the emotional feeling that feeds us. And I must also add that sometimes sport gives us moments of ecstasy, but it can also be at times of agony. It depends on what’s happening on the scoreboard, but it does give us this very strong feeling.

There’s another aspect to the emotional or the feelings that sport gives us. It gives us a venue for emotional expression. So, to a large extent, we become anonymous in the crowds. We disappear into the crowd, and that creates the opportunity to express emotions. So, sometimes with people who are normally quite introverted, they become wild and they can shout and scream and so on. That’s quite permissible and even encouraged to express the feeling.

Another very important aspect, I think, is just escape. We have these 130-kilogram men, but they play rugby, and it’s that aspect of playing. We work, we love, and we play, and it is as if we play with them. When they play that, we escape into that world onto the field. I think that’s a very important aspect, and hopefully that will remain

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Boks carries much more than the World Cup on their shoulders 

I think our generation has such wonderful memories of those moments, not just when Mandela put on that jersey in 1995, but also at the inauguration, when there was that sense of the rainbow nation and a sense of unity. I think the current South African team does create that, with people who are representative of us as South Africans. So, I think this team carries much more than the World Cup on their shoulders, and that is really representing the nation.

How the Springboks could manage the weight of expectation

I think they will be coached, and they do have psychological coaches who work with the team. The important thing is that they don’t internalise too much of the external expectations. What the nation, the fans, and even closer to home, family members expect. The expectations should be internal, and those expectations that they set themselves should be in relation to their form. We know that the current Springbok team is in pretty good form, collectively and individually. So, the expectations are high, but the expectations, I think, would probably be realistic based on their own form. So, not on external expectations, but on what they can do on the field. And then it’s not just psychological expectations, but the expectations converted into actions, into tactics, and into how they play the game on the field so that it becomes tangible. In that sense, then it wouldn’t be overwhelming because it’s things that they practise, and then they are expected to just go implement a plan. It’s not as if they expect more or different from themselves than what they have been doing and what they have been practising.

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Media and Social Media: Use it to inspire, don’t take it seriously

I think the advantage would be that it’s motivational. The Springboks feel that we are behind them, we are supporting them, and they can read it and they can see it. But the negative feedback and social media afterwards, I think one also can’t take it too seriously. They have their own professional analysis of the matches and games, where they would discuss, digest, and dissect a game, and then take that forward into improvements and so on. So, I think that kind of feedback they do take seriously. As a professional athlete, as a sportsman, one should also learn, whether you read it or not, not to take it too seriously. They really have to really try and distinguish where this comes from.

South African Sporting Ability: The Weather and the Genes

Well, I think it’s the outdoors, but I think it’s also in the genes. If you look at all the different cultures in South Africa, there is some thinking that the genetic makeup of South Africans is why they are good at sport. And for sure, the outdoors has a lot to do with it. I sometimes can’t imagine living in some of the European or other colder climates, where you have to go and play outdoors, whether it’s football or rugby. But here, we can play outdoors for ten months of the year.

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