Inside the Bafana headspace

Clinical psychologist Dr Manoke Kalane offers insight into the enigma that is the national men’s football team.

The answer to why Bafana Bafana have the uncanny ability to do relatively well when they aren’t expected to and struggle in matches that they should, by all accounts, win comfortably is quite simple, according to Dr Manoke Kalane, a clinical psychologist based in Pretoria.

“Our players are not mentally strong,” says Kalane, who worked with Bloemfontein Celtic during their fight to avoid relegation under Khabo Zondo. “Bafana Bafana doesn’t have a history of winning, so as a collective players aren’t confident. We tend to be complacent when we play against the small nations and they end up hurting us. We come with this attitude that we’re more advanced in terms of technology and infrastructure so those games won’t be a contest and then we struggle. But when we’re the underdogs, we raise our game and that’s when we unleash our potential.”

Bafana have made it somewhat of a habit to botch contests that are considered “easy” (think about their performances against Mauritania, Cape Verde – who hadn’t played competitive football for a year – or Ethiopia). Name any former Bafana coach and he has a horror story of being stunned by a so-called minnow.

Bafana’s banana peel

Current head coach Stuart Baxter is no different. He’s no doubt been battling with this demon leading up to Bafana’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifiers against Seychelles. The first of the two matches will be played at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday. Bafana will then travel to the tiny island to take on Seychelles on Tuesday at Stade Linité in Victoria.

Everything points to a comfortable Bafana win. The islanders recorded their last win three years ago, and have already conceded eight goals in two Afcon qualifying matches. The Seychelles team comprises amateur footballers with day jobs ranging from a mechanic to a pastry chef and a messenger.

But this is precisely what makes the Seychelles a potential banana peel for the men in yellow. As history has come to suggest, when Bafana are expected to clean up and qualify for major tournaments, they instead leave the pitch having messed up terribly.

Baxter says: “While in London for the Fifa conference, I bumped into Nigeria’s coach [Gernot Rohr]. I asked him about the pitch in Seychelles and how the players approached the game. He said it was very difficult until they scored their first goal [in a match Nigeria won 3-0]. Libya also had the same problem [before winning 5-1] because you don’t really know where your headspace is. We have a lot to win, let’s focus on that. What we have to lose, I couldn’t care less … If we concentrate on how strong we want to be and we put the risks aside, we will get the results. Let’s focus on what we can do. Is it easy? No, it’s not. Have we been good at that in the past? Probably not.”

Solution for this problem

Baxter has already suffered the indignity of leading Bafana to losses against a so-called minnow in the form of two consecutive defeats to Cape Verde during the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers. For the sake of retaining his employment contract, he certainly wouldn’t want a repeat against Seychelles.

Kalane has a solution to this problem. He says: “The coach’s job is to work on the tactical and technical problems, this needs someone who can work on the players’ minds because that’s what it comes down to. Having a psychologist around will make them stronger mentally.”

The SA Football Association (Safa) hired sport psychologist Martin Scheepers after the Cape Verde shockers. Scheepers spent one session with Bafana Bafana leading up to their match against Burkina Faso, at a time when angry fans threatened to boycott the national team. His impact could be seen as positive, as Bafana thumped the Stallions 3-1. 

After the session with Scheepers, Bafana defender Morgan Gould was quoted as saying: “I said to Itu [Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune] that this guy has made so much of a difference to us because what he does is [to] take the social stress away from you. He tells you: ‘Your problem is that you are on social media too much. You expect people to talk good about you there all the time. When people say bad things about you guys, you must listen to what they are not saying.’ People have been crushing and criticising me left, right and centre. But what I taught myself is that ‘what is that guy not saying?’ If you say to me, ‘Morgan, you are the worst,’ at the back of my mind I think that this guy wants me to get to the other side of the fence [and be the best].”

Arrogance as fuel?

This time around, Bafana have no sports psychologist to aid their self-awareness, so it’s up to Baxter to find other ways of training his players’ minds to not overthink the Seychelles matches, or, even worse, underestimate their opponents.

One way of doing this, perhaps, is empowering players, such as Kamohelo Mokotjo, whose confidence is laced with arrogance that could be potent if channelled in the the right direction. The Bafana player said: “There is some pressure obviously, but we enjoy dealing with that pressure. It’s just important that we perform and give a good result … My mentality is my strongest attribute.”

Mental strength will be key in the anti-pressure of facing a team comprising a mechanic, messenger and pastry chef who dabble in football when they aren’t doing their day jobs.

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