By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Sticking to the age-old professional code we won’t reveal any identities. So, that Team SA member who said – and it’s not a voice in the wilderness – “Have you seen the Prof? He’s h-o-t. And he’s such a good listener!” will forever remain anonymous.
This is new territory for Team SA. No, not that there’s an easy-on-the-eye member in the squad, but that there is a psychologist in the camp. Other countries have had that professional help for many years, so while it’s an overdue and welcome appointment, it’s a huge step forward for South Africa’s Olympians. They’re hoping that he’ll be sprinkling his gold dust around the Tokyo village.
“I have been really busy at these Games, but it has been so enjoyable and hopefully my input is proving beneficial,” says Prof Pieter Kruger, who has proved himself to be one of the leading professionals in his field. That this former pro-am cyclist is working for Team SA at these Tokyo Olympics is a huge coup for the country.
He is a professor and consultant clinical psychologist working across four areas: elite sports psychology, organisational resilience, corporate executive coaching and clinical psychology. He is a director of a couple of companies including Cognacity, whose offices are in London’s famed Harley Street, basically the global home of private health-care services excellence.
Prof Kruger’s CV is as long as his suntanned arms. Being a son of the South African soil there is a strong “Saffa list of clients” which include rugby’s the Sharks, Lions, Springboks, Blitzboks and Proteas netball, while his international clients have included club rugby franchises Harlequins, Munster and Brumbies, F1’s McLaren, UK Athletics, Great Britain Rowing and Chelsea FC.
Mention of the latter especially piqued my interest; one of my sleepshirts that I brought from home bears the famous CFC logo and I have been supporting the club since before Prof Kruger was born. “I worked particularly with a player who was short of confidence during the latter parts of the Champions League and he played a great game in the final,” he said. I immediately shot a name back at him. There was no reply, nothing given away. He was wearing his mask but his eyes didn’t shift, not a blink. Client confidentiality, putting the pro into the professor.
There’s an accent, “a hybrid” he correctly offers, as if it has been brought up in conversation a thousand times before. Part South African, part English. “I have live and worked in London for the past 16 years,” he explains.
So, let’s chat about how we have got to this point, where he’s now part of TeamSA at Tokyo 2020.
“You want the short version or the long version,” he asks. “I’ve got all day,” I reply. Although that won’t be necessary. He speaks quite fast, stats, facts and opinion rolling off the tongue with ease and confidence.
So, let’s sit back and let him do the talking.
“I have always been fascinated by sport, having played provincial rugby at school and cycling semi-professionally. I loved playing sport and loved being involved, but with my skill level it was never going to be a full-time success. So, to stay in sport, I studied psychology. However, in South Africa you can’t do a sports psychology degree so I took the clinical route – psychology honours then sports science honours and then two years clinical psychology, followed by a PhD in performance psychology. It proved to be a long road but it afforded me to cover the entire spectrum. I started practising in 2002 and haven’t looked back.
“In 2005 I got married and that’s where the whole England journey began. I had been offered a one-year contract at the Sharks at the time, but it was only a one-year contract. My wife Suzanne, who is a GP, suggested we go overseas like so many other South Africans have done to broaden their horizons.
“There I met my colleague and we started our own practice in London called Cognacity as a three-man band. We now have five directors and about 60 staff members and associates that we look after a large number of elite UK sports organisations. We incorporate UK Athletics, the PGA [golf], LTA [tennis], four football clubs, premiership rugby, county cricket. We have a foot in the clinical management side of sport in the UK, combined with a bit of the performance side, plus a lot of corporate work and other clinical stuff as well.
“In 2015 I got approached to head up what is now called the Centre for Health & Human Performance [CHHP] at North-West University. I said I could do it on condition that I kept my work going in the UK. I’ve been in a hybrid world ever since – 10 days a month in London and the remainder in South Africa. In fact, lockdown was the first time in a calendar month since 2006 that I didn’t spend time in the UK.”
And, how did the placement with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) to work with Team SA at Tokyo 2020 come about?
“We got got approached via the Centre for Health & Human Performance at North-West University and were asked if there were services we could offer to SASCOC because the team that I run has a division for biokinetics, one for sports science and one for psychology – so it’s a sort of one-stop shop. We have the High Performance Centre, the facilities, altitude and that’s how we started getting involved with teams, putting on training camps and the like.
“They opened up a role for Team SA to all psychologists in the sports fraternity. I’m a clinical psychologist by trade but specialise on the sports side of things, so I put my name in the hat and they decided that the blend of skills I bring could [hopefully] add value.”
And that’s how we are sitting around a table, facemasks on and two metres apart, in the Athletes Village in Tokyo.
The importance of a psychologist in an Olympic environment is not to be understated. Prof Kruger uses Team Great Britain as an example.
“Team GBR won 19 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They then invested heavily in the mental side of things for the next four-year cycle and went from a handful of psychologists to increasing it almost to every sport, working with Team GBR heading into the 2012 London Olympics. There they won 29 gold medals and finished third on the medals table. At Rio 2016, they finished second on the medals table. It’s not the be all and end all, but even if it’s a five percenter at this level it makes a difference.”
Of course, one needs to have the fundamentals to begin with. It has often been said that at the elite level of sport, the most important measurement is the one inch above the eyebrows, but Prof Kruger knows that without the fundamentals the mental side of things is rendered meaningless.
“I’ve been around for long enough to know that the key building blocks will always be: physical, technical, tactical, nutrition. If you haven’t got those things going for you nothing is going to happen. But psychology becomes the glue in keeping things together. You can stack the most most beautiful bricks, but if they’re not cemented they will come tumbling down once the first bit of pressure is on.”
The recent example of tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon also shone the spotlight on mental-health issues that affect even the biggest sports names in the world. USA gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition at Tokyo to concentrate on her mental health. What’s his take on this?
“Research in the UK shows that regardless of the sport more athletes are susceptible to mental-health challenges than the general population. The percentage of mental-health issues in the general population is some 20%. In athletes it varies from 12.5 to 43%. Top athletes are as human as everyone else. You can’t just focus on the performance side of an athlete and not on the human side. It’s a fine balancing act. Not having mental-health challenges won’t make you any better, but having a few challenges will make you worse.”
No individual clients have been named in this interview, so I’m going to try again. We know about Harlequins, the Lions, Chelsea, Team GBR and more previously mentioned, so I decided to throw in a late verbal bouncer. “Have you ever been star struck and, if so, who by?”
I’m effortlessly dispatched over the ropes. “No.”
“It [celebrity] has never been a fascination. I have been so exposed to it, especially through my London practice. I’ve dealt with Hollywood actors, well-known singers, sports people … behind everyone’s social media shell and profile they’re all human. When they start talking, they have the same brain, same physiological aspects, the same neurological process is involved. I look at the processes and try to get the job done.”
That said, the job with Team SA has only just started. Whatever the involvement of Prof Kruger in Tokyo, or any other sports psychologist after these Games, the real results will only present themselves at Paris 2024.