Leadership in Sport, like in the corporate world, has a major influence on the culture, connection, and mindset of each team member, and as a result the momentum of the team.  In 2018 Rassie Erasmus was appointed as director of SA Rugby and head coach of the Springbok rugby team. He joined when The Springboks were in a classic slump.  For what felt like an eternity for the South African fans, there was a period of struggle for our national team to gain clarity, traction, confidence, momentum and thus dominance on the world stage. It took 18 months for Coach Rassie’s leadership to take full effect on the team, and as soon as that happened the team began to build momentum. In 2019 the team finally began to find their feet again.

Before I share with you my analysis of how the leadership modelled mental toughness, I first need to acknowledge that competing in a World Cup needs another level of mental toughness. National teams are in the spotlight as representatives of a country and of course are being constantly compared to other national teams in the world by the press, the fans and the naysayers. The team and leadership’s responsibility to deliver the goods consistently is not only a duty to themselves, their team-mates and coach, but to an entire country! How a coach handles this pressure has a huge impact on the team. I have been studying coach Rassie Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi for some time now in the months leading up to the World Cup. I have also been analysing the team during this World Cup period. I would like to share with you a few nuances to their mentally tough leadership that I observed, which may have played a pivotal role in the successful unfolding of this competition for our Springbok team.

Steps to Leading With Mental Toughness

  1. Honesty, Ownership, Hard work and a Higher purpose

When asked the question on what pinpointed the Springbok turn around in Coach Rassie Erasmus brief eighteen-month tenure, his answer really stood out to me. From my experience, without this critical psychological foundation, mental toughness is much tougher to develop.  Rassie was honest with the players from their very first meeting directly sharing how their paychecks from other obligations and their personal brands need to take a back seat. He spoke about how their mind-set had to shift to making “The Springbok” come first, on and off the field. Captain Siya reiterated how they all bought into the coach’s priority for the team to put The Springbok first with regard to their goal for winning the World cup and beyond. He commented on how they all bought into Rassie’s larger purpose for the Springbok Team beyond their personal goals. They began challenging each other to give of their best both on and off the field. Rassie reported how the team, “took responsibility and ownership of what it means to be a professional rugby player… Now they understand how hard they have to work, really hard. Players are pushing one another. “

  1. A World Cup Campaign: Unifying a Team with Hope & Redefining the Pressure

He reframed their pressure of representing a country by not speaking of their “responsibility” to their country but speaking of their role as Springboks and in the World Cup as a “privilege” that they had been given by their country. His intention for this World Cup campaign was for the Springboks to create hope for the South African people. He said how they had many team conversations about what pressure really is in South Africa. They recognised that pressure in South Africa was about not having a job or having a relative that could have been murdered. It was, therefore now their privilege as a team to create hope and this was not to be done with words or “tweets” on social media, but with “how hard they work and how well they play.” Hope would come when fellow supporters at home come together to watch and support with a common goal, with common hope that the Springboks would win, despite their political, racial, ideological and religious differences.

  1. Open and Positive Leadership

Coach Rassie and for many of the team it was their first World Cup, which intensifies anxiety and pressure. Rassie expressed to many on the team that for him this too was a first and he shared that it was also tough for him, despite his role as coach. He admitted that he, and the whole team, struggled with the pressure before their first match against New Zealand. However, this acknowledgement of how “terrible” they all felt would have given them insight into and experience of how to better deal with the discomfort of pressure in the matches to follow.

The humble and positive manner in which the captain and coach handled this loss was their first mental toughness test passed. Coach Rassie shared in an interview how New Zealand deserved to win the first and probably the most important game of the Cup. At the same time, he did not share the failings of his team in a negative manner.  He commented that New Zealand had great discipline with only two penalties against them as opposed to the 10 penalties against us. It is said that no team has ever won the world cup having lost a game in it, however, Rassie countered this fact with the statement, “That’s a challenge we will have to take head-on. History is there to break… We will have to fight now. We can’t moan about this performance. They played well and we just have to work really hard!”

Captain Siya reported how Coach Rassie had prepared them beforehand for the possibility of the first match going either way. After their loss Siya explained how Rassie had reinforced to the team, “nothing great was achieved in easy conditions.” Most importantly Siya shared, he (Rassie) kept telling us we can do it… each and every time…Rassies’ open, honest, and unyielding backing of his team despite losing their first game fostered The Springboks with a momentum that appeared unstoppable, clearly seen by their enormous wins against both Namibia , Italy, and Canada. Against Japan (a more tenacious opposition) the momentum was beginning to subside using the scores and the dynamism on the field as a guide. Yet again Rassie’s leadership bolstered their confidence and presence on the field in preparation for the final.

  1. The Power of Humility, Simplicity, and Praise

Before the final Captain Siya acknowledged the pressure of this final and how the whole team understands this opportunity for them and for the country they represent. He reported how the intense pressure needs to be channelled into their plan and as captain he needs to simply focus on his role in the team. The captain’s humility is again illustrated when he speaks of how his leadership was being supported by his fellow awesome leaders like Handre Pollard, Duane Vermeulen and Eben Etzebeth, the latter two having had captain experience.

Even after they won, the first thing Captain Siya spoke of was the joy he saw on his teammates’ faces after their win, as well as how grateful he was to their Coach.  Siya explained to the media, “Our coach kept it simple… to go flat out and physical, and that we have to believe in each other. To keep doing what we do well, but better. He kept telling us how good we are. He drove us to work hard and to go to places we have never been before.”

The Humility of both leaders, Coach and Captain was demonstrated throughout the reporting of the World Cup. Their interview after their historic win, which rocked our nation, underscored the ‘wholeness’ of these two prominent individuals in South African Sport today.  Coach Rassie spoke humbly of how some luck contributed to their journey to the final. He admitted how irritating it can be to sound clever about how your strategy worked in retrospect, when in actual fact the win may have much less to do with the planned strategy. Instead, he spoke of how he believed it to be the preserving of the energy of his team by using the 6-2 split and having additional forwards available. This would preserve the mental and physical energy of the backline.

To end the interview Coach Rassie described his captain Siya Kolisi as someone who has experienced the depths of an impoverished life; at times growing up with no food, no shoes, no transport to school. He alluded to how Captain Siya Kolisi can be open and honest about where he came from and yet he has the inner worthiness to move beyond his social-economic and political background and lead like a ‘whole champion’.

The qualities that define the leadership of this Springbok team written in one sentence represents the’ wholeness’ of the great people of South Africa. These qualities were expressed by two men from vastly different backgrounds, who had the courage to dig deep into their resources, bring out the best of themselves and use the Rugby World Cup 2019 as an opportunity to express the honest, humble, hardworking, simple, open, and positive people that reflect the bulk of our remarkable Rainbow nation.

By Toni Gaddie