The eyes have it: England vision coach Calder closing in on unique prize
South African-born doctor looking to be part of third triumph at a Rugby World Cup
England prop Mako Vunipola practices his reactions with vision awareness coaches Sherylle Calder (right) and Christi Botha during a training session at Fuchu Asahi Football Park in Tokyo. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Dr Sherylle Calder working with Ernie Els at the Qatar Masters at The Doha Golf Club. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Potentially the most successful coach in the history of rugby union is hiding in plain sight. Maybe it is because she is a woman and gives relatively few interviews. More likely it is because people do not see her on the touchline or in the coaching box each week. Whichever it is, her visionary work will be staring everyone in the face in Saturday’s World Cup final.
Should England win she will also be entitled to a unique place in rugby history. Only a handful of oval-ball legends – Richie McCaw, Steve Hansen, Kieran Read – have shared in two World Cup triumphs. No one, male or female, has ever achieved three. Step forward England’s unobtrusive secret weapon, Dr Sherylle Calder, now just 80 minutes away from an unprecedented global hat-trick.
Sixteen years ago, when many were dismissing the concept of a “vision specialist” as a gimmick, Calder was a valued member of Clive Woodward’s backroom staff during England’s lengthy climb to 2003 success. In 2007, in the green and gold tracksuit of her native South Africa, she helped the Springboks conquer the world. And now here she is again, back in the red rose fold at the behest of Eddie Jones, who knows a winner when he sees one.
Have you ever wondered exactly why, say, Jonny May looks a more rounded, confident player; why Henry Slade is snaffling more interceptions, or noted the increasingly deft handling of Maro Itoje and England’s other big forwards? A significant part of the explanation can be traced back to the regular eye exercises Calder has conducted with Jones’s squad for almost three years.
In her previous role with the Springboks she turned the winger Bryan Habana into world rugby’s greatest try poacher to the point where Habana was still going through last-minute reflex-sharpening work with her just seconds before the 2007 final against England kicked off. As a former South African hockey international, Calder is that rarest of mentors: someone who both understands the psyche of top athletes and can provide specific tools to help them improve on a daily basis.
Her EyeGym programmes have helped improve the performance of everyone from the golfer Ernie Els to the Mercedes F1 driver Valtteri Bottas but, having grown up in Bloemfontein, rugby has always been on her radar.
“As a kid I used to watch South Africa in the early hours of the morning with my parents when they played the All Blacks. If you’d told me then I’d ever be involved in a World Cup I wouldn’t have believed you,” Calder says.
“If you’d told me I’d be involved in three World Cups I’d have said: ‘You’re dreaming’. If you told me I’d win even two World Cups I’d have said you were completely crazy.”
Famously, Calder is on record as saying that spending too long on mobile devices, not least on match days, hinders athletic performance because it does not encourage peripheral vision, spatial awareness or increase eye movement. Her focus, instead, is on helping players to train their instincts and, as a result, make more effective decisions under pressure. “Handling is only one aspect. Your eyes will show you, for example, which running line to take or where not to go. Timing of tackles, timing of runs, judgment of kicks and passes . . . people forget that for the past three years the players have been training that.”
So when Itoje scoops a ball improbably off his toes or Tom Curry emerges almost overnight as a top-class lineout option, it is not quite the happy accident it might appear at first glance.
Habana, for one, felt Calder’s exercises made a massive difference to his game. “He used to say to me: ‘Thanks for making my eyes as fast as my feet’. He felt that even though he was really quick that didn’t mean his timing of runs and tackles would be correct. Timing comes from what you see. High balls? I believe all players should be able to take them. When commentators say: ‘That’s a great catch’, I think: ‘That’s what he should be doing.’”
Calder is adamant her techniques can be applied “to every walk of life” and all ages. “We do a lot of work with young kids. Parents started coming back to us saying: ‘Our kids’ academic results have improved’. If you can read information quickly, comprehend it immediately and then use it effectively . . . that’s exactly what happens on a sports field as well. It’s about picking up information early and then being able to execute it.”
The proof of her worth will be even more glaring if England can replicate their 2003 triumph this weekend. Calder still has fond memories of that era, having been convinced for a long while that Martin Johnson’s squad would rule the world.
“They were definites to win, I always knew that. But they also did the right things, both as a management and as a player group. That’s what wins World Cups. I remember talking to Jonny Wilkinson on the field afterwards. ‘Wow, fantastic’ I said. ‘Well done’. He replied: ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for my game’. For him, at that moment, to have the presence of mind to say that shows what a quality bunch they were. They were an amazing combination of people together.”
Winning with the Boks in 2007 – and subsequently at the Suntory club in Japan – also cemented her professional respect for Jones. “I see him as a rugby mastermind. That’s my experience of him. He’s great at what he does.”
She also knows the Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus but any split national loyalties will disappear out of the window should the Webb Ellis Cup once again find its way into England’s – and her own – hands.
“It would be marvellous. Words probably couldn’t describe it but I’m not a person who counts their chickens before they’re hatched. I’m just blessed. I created the science, I love what I do and I know it makes a difference.” – Guardian