Naas is baas

2008-12-19 00:00

Everybody has their own opinion, but if anybody asks me to name the most impressive sportsman I have seen my answer is always the same: Hendrik Egnatius Botha.

Muhammad Ali could certainly box a bit, Pele could play a bit, Michael Phelps can swim a bit and Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Diego Maradona, Thierry Henry, Carl Lewis, Don Bradman, Gary Sobers, Graeme Pollock, Sachin Tendulkar and Gareth Edwards are all worthy candidates.

However, for me, there is no debate — Naas will always be the ultimate baas, because he was pure class.

First, he was gifted. Nobody has ever kicked the rugby ball so far or so accurately, few have handled the ball so skilfully, very few have read a game so expertly and no team player has ever looked so capable of winning a match all on his own.

The second reason is his longevity. It’s easy to forget how the witkop flyhalf utterly dominated SA rugby on and off the field for 17 consecutive seasons, from 1976 until 1992, a length of reign at the very top of the game that seems unimaginable today.

Third, he was incredibly consistent. If he missed touch once, there was an audible sigh among the crowd at Loftus Versfeld. If he missed touch twice, the sigh became a groan echoing through the stands. If he missed touch three times in one match, journalist Neil Steyn would write a front page article in Monday’s Transvaler under the headline ‘Wat’s fout met Naas?’.

Fourth, maybe above all, he worked harder than anyone else. He used to practise his goal-kicking every day, following a ritual of taking three kicks from the left of the posts, three from in front and then three from the right, and refusing to go home until he had sent all nine kicks between the uprights. If he succeeded with eight but missed the ninth, he would start all over again. Some afternoons, the practice lasted just 10 minutes; other days, he would be kicking for several hours, in the dark, as long as it took.

These memories were this week prompted by the release of a book entitled Outlier: The Story of Success, in which Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell challenges the consensus that so-called “genius” performers, like Botha, are born not made.

He quotes a study conducted in 1990 by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at the Academy of Music in Berlin, in which the school’s violinists were divided into three groups: first, there were the “stars” with the potential to become top soloists; second, there were those judged as merely good; third, there were those unlikely ever to play professionally. All were asked the same question: “Over the course of your career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?”.

It emerged that each of the students started playing around the age of five and that, in those first few years, everyone practised approximately two or three hours per week. Differences started to emerge at the age of eight, with the first group of top performers practising more than everyone else: six hours a week by the age of nine, eight by age 12, 16 a week by age 14 … until, at the age of 20, they were practising over 30 hours a week.

By then, each of the elite violinists had completed more than an aggregate of 10 000 hours of practice in their lives. The merely good students were totalling an average of 8 000 hours, and the future teachers just over 4 000 hours.

As hard as they looked, Ericsson and his colleagues could find no “naturals”, musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did; nor could they identify any “grafters”, people who worked harder than most and yet just did not have what it takes to reach the top.

The study concluded that once a person has sufficient ability to get into a leading music school (or a top provincial rugby team, or any elite group), the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.

Naas Botha would certainly agree.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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