“There’s no skill in athletics.” Discuss.

Yesterday, I managed to watch not one but three sports live at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Hockey in the morning, followed by three hours of gymnastics and a night at Hampden Park watching athletics. With such an array of talent and variety of skills on show, it reminded me of a controversial comment recently made by a friend of mine: “I hate athletics, there’s no skill in it.”

I will clarify two things from the outset. That comment was made by a hockey player – and a scarily skilful one at that. Secondly, I love athletics. Despite the constant (and sadly often accurate) allegations of doping and the occasionally irritating prima donnas, the idea of athletics having no skill cut me rather deeply. I grew up training and competing on the track, watching athletics on TV and idolising running stars. My favourite home video is of me doing laps of the dining room table as a toddler with full commentary by my Dad. My first sporting memory is watching Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell win golds at Barcelona ’92.

With my hockey career currently ‘on hold’, I am seriously tempted to dust off my spikes and head back down to the track. After 10 years of full time training for hockey, I’m pretty sure I would now be faster and stronger than I was as a 14-year old kid, but would I be as good? Potentially. But – and here’s an allusion to my side of the argument – not without some practice. I’m convinced athletics involves skill. Some of the events (I’m thinking pole vault, high jump and hammer) are inherently characterised by technical ability. They may be influenced by genetics and physical attributes that are ‘improvable’ through training, but they take years to master and most people would find them extremely complex to do.

Even running, an activity I would regard as possibly the purest form of human movement, is a technical activity to my mind. Perhaps it does come more ‘naturally’ to some than others, but it is obvious when you are watching a skilful runner. Speed and efficiency may come in different guises, but Michael Johnson, Cathy Freeman and Haile Gebrselassie are beautiful runners. They haven’t just won medals, broken records and made history through superior genetics. Their success has come from technique, tactical awareness and mental strength. I know it’s “just running”. But I still believe there is a skill to running a great race that makes it more than purely a physical battle.

As mentioned, field events are largely skill-based and as such require a combination of technical ability and physical prowess for successful execution. In the same way that we aren’t born with an innate ability to drag flick a hockey ball or do a double back somersault, I think it’s safe to say that a successful discuss thrower has finely tuned his or her specific skill through practice. I know this could be seen to contradict my argument that running is skilful – in that for most people, learning to run is a natural and progressive human action. However, I would simply reiterate my assertion that whilst most people can run, not everyone can run skilfully.

As the title of this entry does say, “Discuss”, I suppose I should provide some balance. It could certainly be argued that other sports involve a wider set of skills. Hockey is an obvious example of this that I am probably well-qualified to asses. A great hockey player will be technically proficient in many skills, specific to their preferred position or style of play but with wide ranging abilities to execute techniques in different situations. I think it’s fair to say that being described as “skilful” is a more sought-after compliment than “hard-working”, “quick”, “strong” or “tactically aware”, despite these being essential parts of a great hockey player’s armoury.

Given the breadth of techniques used by a single player, it probably is the case that overall hockey is more skilful than athletics (decathletes and heptathletes may disagree!). I suppose what I’m getting at is that I see this as a scale, not a black and white classification. Sports are just skilful in different ways. For example, gymnastics is undeniably physical. It requires strength, flexibility and power in bucketloads (not to mention a healthy portion of bravery). Although gymnasts may specialise in a particular discipline or apparatus, most top competitors perform on all apparatus and the coveted title is ‘All round champion’. This requires a number of techniques to be mastered to the top level, with more difficult moves scored accordingly. On my scale, gymnastics perhaps falls somewhere between hockey and athletics.

As with most things in life, this discussion will be seen in different ways by different people. Perspective and experience are key. Sometimes, a sport we have never tried looks easy, sometimes it looks incredibly difficult. Any champion in just about any sport needs skill in my book. Anyway, even if you don’t agree with my take on athletics, there’s always a way to twist any argument to make it work!… As this whole entry was inspired by a quote from a friend, perhaps it’s fitting that I should finish it with another. As my Dad just said to me, “There is a skill in athletics – don’t get caught.”


Road Rage on a Page

middle lane sign

This is a risky post for two reasons. Firstly, I’m leaving myself open to getting seriously criticised for my own driving should I break the rules I’m about to harp on about. Secondly, I’m probably going to generalise horribly and probably offend someone I know. Oh well. Stop middle lane driving… and I’ll stop moaning!

People who hog the middle lane
This causes traffic, encourages frustrated undertaking and is generally a quite simple rule of the road to obey. If you’re not overtaking, keep left. Not too complex is it? Seeing a lorry-shaped dot in the distance means you will have time to get back over to the overtaking lane when you need to, so stop using that as an excuse not to move over. You can now receive a £100 fine for hogging the middle lane and I’m all for this. Having said that, has anyone out there actually been fined yet?!

People who don’t indicate on roundabouts
There is little in life that requires less effort. Depending on your preferred steering wheel grip, you may even be able to indicate just by flicking out your little finger. There’s a quite dangerous roundabout near where I live and I’m sure the number of near-misses you see during rush hour could be dramatically reduced if drivers made the tiny effort required to point out where and when they plan to turn off. 

People who pull out when you haven’t let them
Indicating in itself doesn’t give you a divine right to change lanes or pull out from a junction. You still have to check if it’s safe. I’m looking at you sports car drivers and white van men.

People who don’t say thank you
We had a discussion about this at home, the opposing argument being that if someone isn’t very good at driving they may need to concentrate on that rather than gesturing to show their gratitude. However, I believe in manners. I don’t think a quick hand or thumbs up up in acknowledgment is too much to ask, particularly if I have sat waiting for an eternity you to finally drive past.

People who stick out unnecessarily at junctions
Being from Jersey, I know what kind of roads actually require you to get your nose out. Essentially, if you have to stick your bonnet out of a reasonably standard junction purely because you are driving a ridiculously big car, your choice of vehicle may need a rethink. I am realistic about the fact I may never advance beyond driving a hatchback for this very reason.

People who get into a lane at the last minute
I appreciate that being warned a couple of miles before a lane closure may not require you to get into the correct lane immediately. But it does make me chuckle when a few fellow drivers are clearly feeling the same irritation as I am at the road users who think it’s okay to overtake the whole queue and then scoot across 10m before their lane officially closes. I enjoy being part of a team effort to block their route back in.

Of course, it’s not just people in cars who can cause road rage. There are the motorcyclists who weave dangerously fast through traffic. There are ‘roadworks’ with a million cones and no actual ‘work’ to be seen. And there are those speed bumps that are impossible to drive a small car over – regardless of your total lack of speed. The stupid thing about this post is that I actually do enjoy driving. What I don’t like is a few of the habits of the other people out there doing it alongside me. I’ve got a five hour drive to Cornwall later today. With the heat wave and the start of the summer holidays, it’s bound to be a fun-filled journey. If I’m lucky, maybe a few fellow travellers will see this and stick to the left hand lane if they’re not overtaking…

Awkward Social Situations… Or is it just me?

(from dailyedge.ie)

(from dailyedge.ie)

When I was a kid, it’s fair to say that my tomboy clothes and short hair contributed to a few “Excuse me, do you know this is actually the girls’ toilets?” moments. As a 10 year old, my response usually turned the awkwardness around on whoever had asked pretty quickly, so it never bothered me too much. Having said that, I grew my hair out not long afterwards, partly because I suppose I didn’t really like the situations my ‘boy hair’ created. My hair continues to cause trouble though. My hairdresser is lovely, but a number of slightly awkward social situations tend to arise whenever I get a haircut.

It all begins with the hair washing. They normally ask you if the water temperature is okay. I don’t know what’s so difficult about being honest here, but I would only admit the water was too hot if there was a genuine risk that my scalp could set on fire. It’s probably partly because my mind is on something else: the head massage (easily my favourite bit of the whole appointment). Is it weird to have my eyes open for the shampoo and conditioner but to close them for the massage? It really is relaxing, but I don’t want to unwind so much I let out a sigh of contentment. You are then led to your chair and asked if you would like a magazine to read. As I have discussed previously, I don’t like women’s magazines. However, having said no, I have little to do but stare at myself in the mirror for half an hour, which is not an attractive alternative. I also struggle when my lovely hairdresser decides that a good time to strike up conversation is whilst blowdrying my hair. You can only make so many educated guesses and requests to repeat the question without sounding like an idiot.

There are of course other situations where it’s difficult to hold a conversation. I’ve spent enough hours lying face down on a physio bed to know it is physically impossible to converse normally whilst being sporadically prodded in the back and winded. A back massage should only be accompanied by questions that are viably answered by a grunt. The dentist should also know better than to expect you to be able to enunciate properly with your mouth open abnormally wide and whilst attempting to avoid dribbling everywhere. The dentist makes me feel quite pathetic in general really. I usually cry when the hygienist starts poking around in my gums with a dagger (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what she is using) and you’re always made to feel inadequate about your toothbrushing skills however hard you’ve tried. I don’t even think they trust me to answer truthfully about whether I’ve been using floss. It’s all very demoralising.

Although I wouldn’t say I am bezzie mates with the hairdresser or the dentist, I do at least know them a bit. Social situations with ‘real’ strangers can also be a bit awkward. For example, the social conventions around meeting new people can be quite confusing. Is a handshake or a kiss on the cheek more appropriate? This is even more puzzling in Holland, where there can be up to three kisses involved in a greeting. With people you know, sometimes they will confuse things still further by only kissing twice. You don’t want to be caught going in for that third kiss if the other party is pulling away: it’s hard to back out of an unreturned pout with your dignity still intact.

Then there are people we just share a fleeting awkward moment with. There is no widely accepted method of passing somebody on a pavement when your paths are about to clash. This means we are faced with the left-right-left-right shimmy. Obviously in Britain this is followed by repeated, embarrassed apologies by both parties. Playing a team sport for most of my life means I’m pretty used to getting changed in the presence of others. I’m not an exhibitionist – but I’m not one of those people who attempts to put my entire outfit on under a towel. But it can still be a bit awkward when you make eye contact with someone at the same time as undoing your bra.

Much as I like to think I don’t waste much time worrying about what others think of me, I suppose most of the awkwardness in the scenarios described above ultimately comes from minor concerns about social acceptance and wanting to be seen as normal. Luckily though, most of the time these situations don’t linger long in the memory… and presumably (by which I mean hopefully) I’m not the only person out there who dribbles at the dentist or occasionally shakes hands with a bemused new acquaintance who was expecting a peck on the cheek.

What a Weekend of Sport: When Words Aren’t Enough…

Because sometimes, a picture really does tell a thousand words…

David Luiz scores for Brazil vs Colombia in QF of World Cup 2014 (from www.sportstransmission.com)

David Luiz scores for Brazil vs Colombia in World Cup 2014 QF (from http://www.sportstransmission.com)

Petra Kvitova - Wimbledon Women's Singles Champion 2014 (from www.indianexpress.com)

Petra Kvitova – Wimbledon Women’s Singles Champion 2014 (from http://www.indianexpress.com)

Arjen Robben and Tim Krul celebrate Netherlands QF victory over Costa Rica on penalties (from www.au.eurosport.com)

Arjen Robben and Tim Krul celebrate Netherlands QF victory over Costa Rica on penalties (from http://www.au.eurosport.com)

Le Tour de France Stages 1 and 2 in Yorkshire 2014 (from Le Tour de France Facebook page)

Le Tour de France Stages 1 and 2 in Yorkshire 2014 (from Le Tour de France Facebook page)

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the British Grand Prix 2014 (from www.bbc.co.uk)

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the British Grand Prix 2014 (from http://www.bbc.co.uk)

Novak Djokovic - Wimbledon Men's Singles Champion 2014 (from www.bbc.co.uk)

Novak Djokovic – Wimbledon Men’s Singles Champion 2014 (from http://www.bbc.co.uk)

An amazing weekend of sport, captured in pictures and shared with the world. All photos as credited above.


Free Your Mind and Your Legs Will Follow

Free your mind and your legs will follow

Free your mind and your legs will follow. (Rule #6 from ‘The Rules’ of the Velominati)
“Your mind is your worst enemy. Do all your thinking before you start riding your bike.  Once the pedals start to turn, wrap yourself in the sensations of the ride – the smell of the air, the sound of the tires, the feeling of flight as the bicycle rolls over the road.”

After offering a friend the advice, “You should do something that scares you every day” (thanks to Baz Luhrmann for that little gem), I decided that I probably ought to practise what I was preaching. I had seen a bike ‘Sportive’ was to be held not far from home, and whilst I’m not interested in competitive racing, the idea of following a pre-determined course and getting a free t-shirt for completing the challenge at my own pace was a combination of scary and appealing. Despite being quite nervous about cycling much further than I ever had before (and about doing it as a lone ranger), I laid out my rather foxy gel shorts and set my alarm for 7am on Saturday morning.

Not really sleeping much on Friday night wasn’t the best preparation. I’m not sure if it was down to nerves or that annoying thing your body does when it knows you have to wake up early. In fear of sleeping through your alarm, you can’t seem to drop off for hours on end, resulting in even greater sleep deprivation than the early morning was already causing.

Five hours of restless snoozing later, I made it down to the Wycombe Wanderers stadium on time, filled in my entry form and wheeled my bike over to the start. I started to wonder if I was a bit out of my depth when I noticed the first female biker I saw had an Ironman tattoo on her leg. My fingers were firmly crossed that she was doing the ‘Epic’ course, or even the ‘Standard’ one. I had entered the shorter ‘Fun’ event, which frankly I found a slightly demeaning name considering it would probably still be quite challenging for everyone who had chosen it… i.e. me. 65km with a few sizeable hills isn’t just a casual Sunday afternoon ‘pootle’ as far as I’m concerned.

Click to view larger image

Click to view larger image

It was a bit tricky figuring out how to pace myself to begin with and I was definitely overtaken by more people than I overtook in the first few kilometres. However, once we encountered our first proper hill I managed to make up some ground. It turns out my first bike buddy was right when she told me I’d be a decent climber owing to my power to weight ratio. When it comes to cycling up hills, I definitely have an advantage over the MAMILs (‘middle aged men in lycra’). Unfortunately for me the weight advantage was reversed going back downhill and I’m sure they were all happy to peg back the midget who had passed them a kilometre earlier without standing up on her pedals.

I don’t really know what I spent most of the ride thinking about. It’s a nice feeling just pedalling along outdoors. Rarely in my life have I been as excited about a flapjack as I was at the feed station. I concentrated throughout on avoiding stones and potholes because I’m pretty under confident about repairing a puncture. I may have the gel shorts and shiny shoes, but it’s definitely a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’ as far as bike mechanics go. Bikers’ code dictates you ask fellow cyclists who have stopped for repairs if they are okay or need any assistance. Bearing in mind the only real help I could offer would be phoning a marshal – which they presumably have the capability to do themselves – I just end up being a combination of useless but courteous in this situation.

One MAMIL actually did need my help after a pretty spectacular crash. Whilst going down a hill, I watched on from a few metres behind as he headed into a bend a bit too fast. Seconds later, he skidded sideways, flew four or five metres over his handlebars and dive-bombed in the hedge. I slowed down (carefully, might I add) and walked back up the road to where his bike had managed to land surprisingly neatly against the verge. No sign of the man. The only clue to his whereabouts was a hole in the hedge. After a short, quite surreal conversation with the bodyless voice, we established that nothing was broken. He emerged out of the hole absolutely covered in nettles and weeds, bringing new meaning to my understanding of the phrase ‘being dragged through a hedge backwards’. Thankfully he was nothing more than nettle-stung and embarrassed, but I definitely took extra care not to go too fast from then on.

The last half an hour or so was the only time I really started to look forward to being finished. It rained pretty heavily and to be honest I was starting to get bored of my own company. I was pleased to receive my ‘Finisher’ t-shirt and medal, but more pleased still to get a cup of tea. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for them in general, I even had a bath when I got home. I enjoyed my first sportive and I’d recommend doing one to other amateur cyclists like me. I’m sure I’ll do another at some point, but I feel like I fully earned a day on the sofa watching the World Cup the next day. In case you were wondering, I slept like a log on Saturday night. Despite my bath though, the next bit of Baz Luhrmann’s advice I’ll be following is without a doubt, “Stretch”.

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