South African vision coach Sherylle Calder stands to win her third World Cup medal when she travels with England to Japan, writes JON CARDINELLI in SA Rugby Magazine.
What would it mean to Calder to win another World Cup medal?
The vision coach has worked closely with the All Blacks, the Australian Test cricket side, South African golf legend Ernie Els and many other elite teams and athletes over the past 30 years. She was on the winner’s podium when England won the World Cup in 2003 and – most significantly as a proud South African – when the Springboks triumphed in 2007.
Calder has been on the England coaching staff for the past three years. If all goes to plan for Eddie Jones’ side over the next month or so, Calder will collect her third World Cup medal and consolidate her place among the tournament greats.
‘The prospect of going to another World Cup excites me,’ she tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I know from experience that it’s a stressful, cut-throat environment. I love it, though, and I believe I can make a difference.’
Calder is based at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, yet spends much of her time travelling the world to train with teams and athletes who are looking to improve their skills, awareness and decision-making. When SA Rugby magazine catches up with Calder, she has just returned from a pre-World Cup camp in Italy. Kenny Stills, the Miami Dolphins wide receiver who took his game to the next level after working with Calder, recently got in touch.
‘We’ve had some good results with the Dolphins in recent seasons, and with Kenny specifically,’ says Calder. ‘He told me he wants to make his next season in the NFL his best yet. He’s asked if he can get back on the EyeGym programme.’
Formula One driver Valtteri Bottas is another who has benefited from working with Calder.
‘He tells me that when he’s in the car, everything slows down,’ she says. ‘Certain players and athletes appear to have more time to make decisions than others. EyeGym trains them to make those decisions and they can have a big impact on the race or contest.’
Rugby World Cup winners such as Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana swear by Calder’s methods. Jones is another believer, having worked with Calder before at the Boks and at Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.
When Calder joined the England camp in 2017, the press asked Jones about her role in the team. He responded by pointing to the World Cup medals she’d earned with England and South Africa, and as individuals in the side progressed in subsequent years, Calder started to receive credit for her input.
‘I’ve noted how fast Bottas has become on the race track and how much sharper his decision-making is nowadays,’ she says.
‘I believe some of the England players are getting close to his decision-making score. I’m glad I’ve had an extended opportunity to work with the players. The more you work with someone the more you can do with them and the more you can increase the impact they have on their sport. Look at Henry Slade and Jonny May, who are starting to intercept a lot more. Jonny in particular has improved so much. He had a great Six Nations campaign.
‘It comes down to timing as well as identifying space. I worked with the Boks for four years and every player, from Os du Randt to Bryan Habana, made a significant improvement. One of the things that set those individuals and that team apart was their timing.’
The game has come a long way since England won the World Cup in 2003. Calder remembers a time when coach Clive Woodward kept her away from the media as if she were a secret weapon.
By 2007, however, Calder and her methods were more well known.Nowadays, every team understands the importance of training skills and awareness. Coaches, players and even fans have come to appreciate what it takes to break down sophisticated defence systems. The phrase ‘identifying space’ is commonplace.
Calder trains players – forwards as well as backs – to excel in this department.
‘We’ve improved Mako Vunipola’s reaction time dramatically,’ she says. ‘How many times do we see players collecting those tip or pop passes when a team is on the attack or those sharp passes close to the tryline? On the other hand, we also see examples of tight forwards knocking on in those situations.
The way the game has evolved, those skills have become all-important for players 1 to 15. The game is also much quicker than it was 10 years ago.
‘Decision-making and smart thinking under pressure are going to decide this World Cup,’ she adds. ‘It’s a trainable skill. There’s nowhere to go these days with defences pushing up so quickly so you have to be able to identify space and make a call very quickly. When you train under pressure it becomes second nature.
‘It’s the same with defence. You should be looking for an intercept or a way to turn defence into attack. When Bryan Habana made that intercept against Argentina in the 2007 semi-final, I knew we had a good chance of winning the final. The timing was so on point. The South Africans were just so in sync. Opposition teams started to worry about passing because they knew that the Boks could punish them in that manner.’
The game and the conversation has progressed. So too has the attitude to women in the sport. Women’s rugby is on the rise, and women in the men’s game are more accepted now than they were 10 to 15 years ago.
‘It can improve, though,’ says Calder.
‘There are still certain environments where people don’t accept you. I’ve learned to handle that. I won’t say it doesn’t affect me, but I don’t show it.
‘At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the head coach in terms of what environment you have and the culture that’s developed. I suppose there are certain cultures where they believe women don’t belong on the field; not for a guy’s team anyway. That’s all right, though.
‘I’m professional enough to get on with my job.’
The attitude to South Africans working with teams outside the country is also changing. Indeed, we’ve seen players such as Cheslin Kolbe and Rynhardt Elstadt receiving plaudits after winning the Top 14 with French side Toulouse. Former Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold has taken the USA national team to new heights, and there are several other South African coaches making waves in Europe and Japan.
‘It’s way more acceptable now than it used to be,’ says Calder. ‘I was probably one of the first to go abroad and help an international rugby team. I used to get chirped by South Africans when I got off the England team bus. If you look at the England team now, especially the coaching staff, it’s way more diverse than it was before. It doesn’t matter where you are from.
‘I was lambasted after I returned to South Africa after England’s World Cup win in 2003. However, I did learn a lot while I was away and I was able to help the Boks between 2004 and 2007. It’s really about taking what you’ve learned and giving it back to South Africa. That’s where my heart is. At the same time, I’m a professional, and whichever team wants me, I will give my best to that team and work towards improving the lives and careers of those players.’
HOW CELL PHONES SET PLAYERS BACK
‘Extended use of a cell phone can have a huge impact on your eyes and motor skills,’ says Sherylle Calder. The vision coach raised a few eyebrows a few years ago when she called for England’s top players to limit their time on a mobile device.
‘How you focus and how you react is affected when you’re spending so much time in front of a cell phone screen. It’s probably one of the biggest threats in the modern game. You see players using their phones non-stop. So we’ve tried to impact that from day one, as it makes a difference in the long term. Judgement skills are affected, which can in turn affect catching, passing, seeing space, kicking, tackling, getting up for lineouts, throws, restarts … in other words, everything.
‘When you narrow your focus to the screen of a phone, you de-learn your awareness and judgement skills. You obviously can’t succeed on the rugby field if you don’t have a greater awareness. You won’t be aware of your opponents closing in, or of where your teammates are on the field. Those little offloads in contact won’t be possible. We’ve created programmes that counter that.’
– This article first appeared in the bumper World Cup issue of SA Rugby Magazine