Pressure to perform in schoolboy rugby too great

2014-04-25 00:00

WHILE most people put their feet up, helped out with Easter egg hunts and enjoyed a long weekend away from the stress and routine of work, there were plenty of schoolboy rugby players who had anything but relaxation on their mind.

Around the country, the Easter long weekend has become a tradition of school rugby festivals, where everyone claims to be the best, with the top schools participating.

A sport enthusiast finding himself with four days of leisure at his disposal can pack a chair, take some eats and make a day of soaking up the autumn sun watching schoolboys take each other on in the name of rugby.

It’s great to watch and is always a talking point afterwards. But let’s stop and think of the massive pressure placed on the teams and players to perform every 48 hours over the course of these festivals, the battering they take, the risk they run of injury and, of course, not forgetting the mental games swirling through their minds when they know they must face up to the mightiest team from the platteland or from across the Vaal River.

Their school and fans expect them to perform every time they run out for a game, regardless of who they play. Nothing less than a win is expected, and before any ball has been touched or kicked, before the whistle heralding the start of the match has been blown, the cloud of having to play for a win and nothing less hangs over every player.

There’s not much in the form of encouragement that comes from the sidelines and stands any more. Instead, this has been replaced by shouts of sheer frustration, criticism and exasperation as a win-at-all-costs negativity creeps in and spreads like a cancer, ruining what used to be a contest where the best team won.

It’s no wonder that many a dazzling schoolboy rugby talent has disappeared in the wind once school days are over. Naturally talented players have given up the game, eager to pursue business opportunities or take up something a little milder like paddling or golf, where there is no one screaming at them if they wrap their boat around a rock or shank a drive into the trees.

The pressure to perform just becomes too great and the easiest solution is just to walk away from it. It’s a known fact that many a school markets their wellbeing, their status and strength on the performance and record of their rugby side. Schools are deemed weak, no good, not up to scratch when their first rugby team starts filling the points against column rather than the points scored tally.

Again, word spreads like a disease that the school has suddenly slipped from being a foregone one of choice by many in the community to a has-been, one that has made a complete turnaround because their rugby team are now weak.

Schoolboy rugby was designed — or we like to think it was — to encourage a fair contest between two schools, played in the right spirit where no player is bigger than the game and the side that tackled best and played with the most flair invariably won.

Then winning became a greed. Like having pots of money, it was never enough. It could always be more, could always improve. After one or two wins, there was a sudden momentum and there were more actions off the field and behind the scenes to ensure winning remained in the frame.

The age scandal reared its head with players drafted in to sides who were way over the average matric pupil’s age, players from the “mighty” rugby schools are offered sport incentives to join another school, simply to boost the rugby standing of the particular school.

It starts becoming a form of abuse. Players shifted and carted from one school to another, changing provinces, leaving parents behind and seeing them once a month if they are lucky — the list goes on.

And it’s all based around rugby. Professional coaches are the norm these days and schoolboy players are sometimes put through more vigorous training and gym sessions than a provincial side.

The debate rages on and the most offered “excuse” for maintaining such a high standard of rugby is that it prepares the boys for the demands of professional rugby after school.

The question is, are there schoolboy players who really want to progress into that world after the pressures of performing at school?

It’s frightening that after a game lost by a supposedly high-ranking rugby school, a pall of darkness descends, the most damning effect being staff bemoaning the fact afterwards, openly criticising the team and branding them as no hopers.

It’s a reflection on life these days — there is no time to think of your fellow man. It’s a ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality with no concern for the damage and destruction done along the way.

Perhaps that is why club rugby battles and many talented schoolboys tarnish their lives after school. Who can blame them for not wanting to play further and seeking other, more stress-free methods to release their frustration?

Just let them play, win or lose. It’s only a damn game at the end of the day.

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