I was really interested by a Facebook post made yesterday by Kevin Neighbour, a former Gateshead Thunder rugby league player – and later coach – of the highest distinction, who now resides on the other size of the globe.
With both Super League and the Australian NRL into the end-of-season play offs, with the Grand Final carrot dangling ever closer, Kev wondered about the mental recovery required when one massive game is followed just days later by the heightened pressure of another.
It’s safe to assume that anyone playing at that level already possesses the required technical ability and (notwithstanding the understandable effects of the sport) the physical strength and fitness to compete; but how does the mind refocus after eighty vital minutes of intensity to enable the body to produce its best maybe just days later, on an even bigger stage?
Let me state from the outset that I don’t know the answer; for the glaringly obvious reason that I could never have been described by the word “athlete” (let alone “elite”). I absolutely loved all the sport I played... the cricket, the badminton; I even quite enjoyed the running... well some of it, but I cannot talk from the experience of showcasing my albeit dubious talent at any kind of notable level.
That said, I noticed this statement on a poster left in response to Kev’s posting: “If you’re too frightened to lose, you don’t deserve to win”, and I found this fascinating from a personal perspective.
Please keep bearing in mind that I was only an amateur cricketer, but like the overwhelming majority of people that play any sport, you want to be the best you can. By definition, most of us will fall short of becoming instantly recognisable – and rich – from reaching the pinnacle of our chosen sport, but that should never distract from the enjoyment of competition, as well as the pride in achievement.
I was never afraid of losing. My fear was of failure. Personal failure. It wasn’t the worry of not producing my best on a given day, because I would always be trying my hardest; no, the fear was making a fool of myself in front of an audience. I suffered from the “yips”, or whatever you want to call it, on the cricket field, as well as the equivalent when facing a dart board.
I could bowl a cricket ball, and I could throw a dart... most of the time. But the first time I couldn’t control it (and it happened around the age of 18-19), then the prospect of it happening again was there, dominating my thoughts, detracting from my performance... my basic ability. The mind was in total control of the technical aspects of the game and whilst I would never draw any kind of comparison between the sports I enjoyed and the incredible physicality of rugby league, I would suggest that mental and physical attributes are far from being mutually exclusive.
The first time I bowled a ball into orbit, I was mortified. When I was still at school, I’d practice for hours on my own in the nets, bowling at a ten pence piece placed on a perfect length just outside the off stump. The implication is that I could hit it every now and again, but I can’t remember the clink of leather on coin happening all that often, but hopefully you get the picture that I was reasonably proficient at getting the ball to land reasonably close to where I wanted more often than not.
How far the batsman then hit it was another matter altogether!
The effect when things went wrong was probably worse than was outwardly apparent. It didn’t matter if I was playing in front of one person, or over a thousand, the thought that I might do something that would make me look stupid often became overwhelming.
But in 1994, during what was my debut for the full Durham Senior League XI, I made a complete hash of a caught and bowled. It was a skier, but not a difficult chance, yet I didn’t even get a hand to the ball... which hit me very hard indeed, full on the chest. For a moment, I was totally embarrassed, but all of a sudden, that feeling was replaced by one of anger. I was furious with myself not just for dropping the catch, but the manner in which I’d dropped it, but in an instant, any negative thoughts were brushed aside by a wave of determination and resolve I hadn’t experienced very often, if at all.
The next delivery clean bowled the batsman.
Somehow I’d had the strength to channel all the emotion into a positive outcome. It felt fantastic, but in hindsight, it demonstrated the difference between the decent and the outstanding. That ability to either produce our best, or even raise performance to even higher levels demands the fulfilment of all the technical and physical criteria, but can only happen when the mind can be directed to an extent where positive thought can result in positive performance. I had experienced it, but I wasn’t strong enough to control it...
As another example, over the past few days, whilst throwing a few darts in the garage, I’ve completed legs of 501 in eleven and twelve darts. Admittedly a small oasis in the middle of a desert of darting filth, but reasonable nonetheless. If I could throw in public like I can in my garage, I wouldn’t be the next Phil Taylor, but I’d be an average pub or league player, however although I’ve spend a lot of time this year challenging my perceived weaknesses, I’m still not able to fully shrug off the possibility of failure.
And to a degree that’s the difference. There will be plenty of people who can hit 180, make a century break at snooker, serve an ace on a tennis court, or chip in from off the green on a golf course. But the best players can do it under pressure... when people are watching... when championships (and money) are at stake...
Elevate those principles to the sporting elite and the rugby league field and you have a situation where the play offs consistently pair closely matched squads in terms of physical strength and ability. Games will be decided by a moment’s brilliance, or a glaring error... the influence of an individual in a sport where the team is theoretically everything...
I suppose you can never completely rule out the influence of “Lady Luck”, but would it be reasonable to suggest that the players who can make the game-changing plays are not just the most gifted, or those blessed with the best vision, but those with the strength of character to successfully throw the miracle pass (irrespective of possible consequences) rather than wait for someone else to make the crucial intervention?
And taking it one step further, do the best athletes have powers of recovery that allow them to exert control over both extreme physical and mental fatigue, and still produce moments of inspiration when those players who can’t are probably already sitting at home looking ahead to next season?
It must be possible to educate and train the mind, much as you can improve fitness levels, but I do believe that as with latent talent, certain people are blessed with a strength of character or resolve that will enable them to overcome obstacles that the majority couldn’t – or wouldn’t even attempt to – negotiate?
Whatever the case, it’s fascinating stuff, and something that makes top level sport so consistently compelling.