Duane Heath

Bok fatigue all in the head

2004-09-10 07:23

Jake White's biggest fear when he rounds up his Tri-Nations troops for the end-of-year tour should not be that he will have to deal with players who will be physically exhausted after a gruelling Currie Cup campaign.

His chief concern should and will be mental exhaustion - burnout of the brain - which looms as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Springboks and a historic grand slam.

The majority of White's Boks will, by the time they gather after the Currie Cup, have played a taxing semi-final and final. No doubt they will be exhausted.

But a critical distinction needs to be drawn between physical and mental fatigue.

Physical fatigue doesn't just come about because you play too much rugby. It happens when there is insufficient recovery in relation to the amount of game time.

Players have little say in how much they are required to play, but that is reality and something they cannot change.

But the side of the equation they can influence, is recovery, and thanks to the miracles of sports science and modern supplementation, any players suffering from physical burnout needs to take a look at what he's putting into his body before blaming his state on too much rugby.

The human being is a remarkably hardy organism; we're genetically wanderers at heart, and our DNA points to the ability to undertake long daily journeys on foot.

But the same cannot be said for the real problem facing today's players: mental exhaustion.

Setting new challenges

When a player is injured, he is given time off, away from the game, depending on the severity of the injury, to recover.

But in no training regime is place made for the mind to recover to the same extent.

Endless amounts of scientific studies have shown that the body is physically able to continue long after the mind has told it it's too tired to carry on.

Therefore it can be deduced that, as long as the mind is kept fresh, through setting new challenges, physical exhaustion can be averted - as long as correct nutrition and rest periods are observed.

When the Boks won the Tri-Nations, they summited a sporting Everest of sorts; physically and mentally, they were up to the challenge of playing four tough Tests in the space of a month.

But what happens is, after the elation has subsided, mental exhaustion seeps in if time isn't set aside to reset the mental batteries, regain perspective, and set new goals.

That's why we all take holidays - to get away from the daily grind so that we can come back to work refreshed.

The Boks weren't allowed to take time off, but thankfully they got the next best thing: a holiday on the field.

Running around like spring chickens

Did you see how much Marius Joubert and Breyton Paulse, to name but two Springbok stars, were enjoying themselves scoring tries almost at will against Griquas and the Pumas respectively?

They are supposedly physically tired, we are told, but in actual fact were running around like spring chickens. Why?

I know this flies in the face of common theory that only strength-versus-strength competition is good for our players, and anything else encourages only bad habits.

But perhaps finally there is a use for these mismatches: what they are doing is providing returning international players with a chance to unwind and reset their mental clocks without having to go on holiday.

That's why players like Percy Montgomery and Jaco van der Westhuyzen will have it so good in the coming months.

Forget about the fears that they won't be sharp because they haven't been playing intense matches in the build-up to the tour.

They'll be running around in Wales and Japan, having a ball, enjoying the space and time that lower quality matches in these countries will provide, and the Boks will benefit come November.

Physically, they will more or less be exerting themselves as much as the local players fighting it out for the Currie Cup: they'll put in roughly the same amount of training; and rugby is played over 80 minutes whether you're at Newlands or Newport.

Low-quality affairs

Jaco will, at NEC, be given a much-needed mental holiday. He'll have games far removed from the intensity of Currie Cup playoffs and finals, and so will be able to have some fun, reset the mental batteries, find perspective, and then set new goals - winning the Grand Slam.

Which brings me to the reason for my initial fears as to the mental states of most of the Bok players.

My fear is that the Boks may suffer not because they will be physically exhausted, or because their players have to play low-quality affairs against the likes of the Pumas.

My fear is for mental burnout, after the strains of a tough Currie Cup playoff and final (for most of them, assuming it's WP v Blue Bulls), and the possibility that there just won't be enough time before the tour to mentally recharge for the biggest challenge of the year.

And that's one problem no amount of protein powder can solve.

Do you agree? Tell Duane what you think.

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