Calder’s eye for an edge

Dr Sherylle Calder’s visual awareness training is helping to improve the skills of England’s players, writes JON CARDINELLI.

What value will Dr Sherylle Calder add to the England set-up? The question was put to Eddie Jones shortly after Calder’s appointment as visual awareness coach in January. The England coach began his explanation with a reminder of her impressive record in top-flight rugby.

‘She’s got two gold medals, mate,’ Jones said in reference to the World Cup titles won with England in 2003 and South Africa in 2007. ‘I used her when I was coaching Suntory Sungoliath in Japan, and we won everything – three or four trophies.’

Those in the know applauded Jones and the RFU for contracting Calder through to the 2019 World Cup.

‘If I was still coaching a Test team today, one of my first coaching appointments would be Dr Sherylle Calder,’ said Clive Woodward, who brought Calder into the England mix before the 2003 World Cup. ‘There is no reason she can’t become a triple World Cup winner.

A few months later, and SA Rugby magazine caught up with Calder at her office in Stellenbosch. The Six Nations had been concluded and she was back in South Africa for a few days before her next assignment.

Calder talked about her involvement with sportspeople and teams from around the world, more specifically about the Miami Dolphins wide receiver she worked with before the 2016-17 NFL season and the golfers she planned to help when she travelled to the United States from late March.

Two decades into her career as a visual performance coach, Calder hasn’t lost her drive to give athletes the ‘extra 1%’ that can make all the difference in a big match.

England equalled the tier-one Test record of 18 consecutive wins and captured their second-straight Six Nations title.

According to Calder, who has been working with the players since the training camp in Portugal earlier this year, subtle improvements have been made and more should be expected as the team builds towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

‘Most people think that visual awareness is about improving hand-eye co-ordination,’ she explains. ‘It’s a heck of a lot more advanced than that. For example, we saw more instances of quick hands in the Six Nations. We saw better running lines. We saw players timing their runs a lot better, and that is so important at this level. Eddie and I chatted about these improvements after Elliot Daly scored in the game against Italy. There were some good hands by the players in the buildup and then Daly ran a great line to finish the try.

‘Eddie recognises the difference that’s been made in a few short months. From my point of view, it’s been great to work with a coach like him; he has an unbelievable rugby brain and is always looking to give his team an edge. The players have embraced it, too.

‘We’ve made a good start, but there is a greater mission to consider. The team is not even close to realising its full potential,’ Calder continues. ‘In terms of visual awareness skills, we only worked with the backs in the lead-up to the Six Nations. We’ve still got to work with the forwards, and then we’ve got to combine the forwards and backs.

‘I think back to how the Boks progressed between 2004 and 2007, and how sharp they were in terms of skills at the 2007 World Cup. That shows what can be achieved after four years of training. You can imagine where England will be in this regard by 2019.’

Calder is no stranger to the pressures of international sport, having played 50 Tests for the South African women’s hockey team. Indeed, it was in her days as an elite athlete that she began to understand the link between visual awareness and performance.

After her retirement from the game in 1996, Calder took this a step further when she researched the subject for her PhD and eventually developed the EyeGym programme. More than 20 years later, Calder has accumulated extensive experience in the field. Crack rugby coaches like Woodward, Jake White and Jones – and indeed a host of other coaches and athletes across various sporting codes – recognise the value of her input.

Before the 2016-17 NFL season kicked off, Calder worked with Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills. At that point, the player was dropping passes with alarming regularity and was not fulfilling his primary role. His career as a pro appeared to be in the balance.

After working with Calder, Stills topped five touchdowns in a season for the first time (bagging nine in total), and became the first Miami player in 30 years to post three 50-yard touchdown catches in a season. Calder also worked with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins progressed to theNFL playoffs for the first time since 2008.

‘Look, it wasn’t about giving them skills they didn’t already have,’ says Calder. ‘Later, we looked at the games in which Kenny had scored touchdowns, and we noted a big improvement in terms of his awareness. He wasn’t only catching the ball, but taking in his surroundings at the same time. On one occasion, he made a great catch and then beat two defenders to score a touchdown.’

At the first England training session Calder attended, she noticed that one of the better players in the team wasn’t catching the ball correctly. While he did enough to avoid dropping the pass, his understanding of space was not up to standard.

‘It’s a tragedy when a player is doing something wrong and nobody tells him. That could lead to errors in a game, and even one error can mean the difference between winning and losing. Fortunately, we started working together and he went on to have a great Six Nations. Taking lineouts, taking high balls. It boosted his confidence. If you’re not in a confident space, you’re not going to take risks. And if you’re not going to take risks, then you’re limiting yourself and your team. I train players to live on that edge.

‘You can’t replicate the intensity and speed of a game situation on the training field,’ Calder continues. ‘What I can do in my EyeGym programme is train players at a higher level than what they are used to in a match. The upshot is that players are more than prepared for what happens in a game, and appear to move in slow motion.

‘That’s what we mean when we say a player has all the time in the world, or when a cricket player sees the ball as if it’s as big as a beach ball.

‘Remember when Bryan Habana or Jean de Villiers used to intercept the ball for the Boks in big games? It was never a case of intercepting by their fingertips. They summed up the situation so quickly and got into position so that when the time to intercept arrived, they appeared to be moving slowly. So that intercept is no accident, but the product of training.’

South African rugby fans may have mixed feelings about Calder working with Jones and company in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, a tournament that could well see England and the Boks competing in the same pool. Indeed, many may ask why Calder isn’t working with SA Rugby and the Boks after a 2016 season that witnessed eight losses in 12 Tests. To say the skills of the players in this country require sharpening is an understatement.

Calder is a proud South African and would love nothing more than to work with the national side. In the wake of the 2007 World Cup success, however, no Bok coach has thought to add her to his management team. While SA Rugby has admitted that South Africa has a skills problem, it hasn’t considered that Calder and her acclaimed programme may provide an answer. Calder believes she could make a difference at the Boks, just as she’s made a difference in the England set-up.

‘Everybody can see how a player’s physical conditioning is linked to his performance. The same rule applies to the eyes. If you don’t train and condition them, you can’t expect your skills to be of a high standard. It doesn’t take much time to train them either. It’s only 10 minutes a day, three to four times a week. Four to six weeks of that, and the player will be ready for the challenge.

‘Some people look at a player who is struggling with a skill, and say he will never improve,’ Calder says, when asked if South Africa’s rugby players simply aren’t good enough. ‘Remember how Percy Montgomery struggled under the high ball early in his career? We worked very hard to turn that weakness into a strength. Percy didn’t drop a ball at the 2007 World Cup. Some players will go through their careers avoiding those skills or situations they don’t enjoy. But you can’t hide at the top level and you need to be able to deal with high balls and so on.

‘It’s not only about the execution of the pass, catch or kick, but what comes next, as I explained in the case of the American football player,’ she adds. ‘You can’t just execute in isolation, you need to be in a position to decide what comes next. That goes hand-in-hand with awareness. It’s a trainable skill, though. I would love to help out in South Africa.’

The 2017 Super Rugby tournament has seen the South African teams playing with more attacking intent. A shift in mindset, however, may not be enough to obtain the desired result at this level, Calder adds.

‘If you haven’t trained properly for the Comrades, your performance is going to be affected. In the same way, if you haven’t trained and developed the skills needed to succeed in a more attacking game, your performance is going to be affected.

‘Rugby is played at high speed, and one of the prerequisites for performing in such conditions is good visual awareness that translates into good decision-making. That would be the first thing I would focus on, improving the level of awareness to improve the execution and decision-making.’

– This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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