A slightly smug 3-minute story about meeting David Beckham

#Becks&Bex

Maybe I should chase down world famous people more often. I’m vaguely disappointed with myself for bragging/writing a blog/getting so excited about spending approximately 20 seconds with David (pretty sure we’re on first name terms now?), but then I just think to myself ‘WHO CARES? I MET DAVID BECKHAM!’

How did this all happen? Becks was watching his son Cruz play in a prep schools rugby tournament at Wellington College, the school where I work as a hockey coach. He had turned up with his puppy yesterday morning looking very ‘hunting and fishing’, and inevitably the word got out. I was torn between intense jealousy (one of my colleagues had managed to get a good photo) and the guilt / cringeworthiness of intruding on him being a good supportive dad. I say torn… I jumped in the car two hours early on the off-chance I could stalk him down on the school pitches.

I apologise for the shameless name-dropping I’m about to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few people you might consider to be famous. Wolf and Lightning from Gladiators (this totally counts for anyone who grew up in the 90s), Tim Henman, Kelly Holmes… When I was 11, I presented Princess Anne with flowers and then in a totally unrelated incident I found myself having dinner with her at Buckingham Palace 15 years later. I should mention that others were also present – it wasn’t a candlelit meal for two or anything. Anyway, these all pale in comparison to meeting Becks. Whether I think about it from the point of view of a lifelong Man United supporter, a sports fan, a sometime-charitable-donor, someone with the power of sight, I come to the same conclusion: The man is a god.

It’s quite nerve-wracking meeting God, as it turns out. A few metres away and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to stop him from watching his son for the five hundredth time that day. Heart rate through the roof. Hands shaking. And once I pulled myself together and asked for a picture, I realised I was suffering from a temporary loss of brain function in the overwhelming excitement and couldn’t remember how my iPhone camera worked.

Most asked question: Does he smell good?
Answer: I don’t know. I think I forgot to breathe.

Never have I been so relieved at keeping my eyes open in a picture. I asked how Cruz’s team was getting on (1% out of genuine interest, 99% out of an awkward desire to keep my special moment with Becks going for a little bit longer). I am concerned I might have winked as I thanked him for the photo. Or was it him that winked? Let’s say it was him.

Don’t worry – I’m acting like myself again this morning rather than some kind of crazed David Beckham stalker. That is to say, I’ve only looked at the picture on my phone a couple of times rather than every five minutes.

Changing the Game: Why Sport Needs Mavericks

Jonah Lomu

I woke up this morning to the sad news that Jonah Lomu has passed away aged only 40. Glowing tributes for Lomu have since been pouring in: “legend”, “gentleman”, “special”, “inspirational”. These words are not being used lightly – this was the man who changed the face of rugby union.

Meanwhile, Australian cricketer Mitchell Johnson this week announced his international retirement. Described by many as the best fast bowler of his generation, Johnson could be woeful or brilliant. He was both ridiculed and feared. As Tom Fordyce, chief BBC sports writer says, “The firm rule in Johnson’s career had always been to expect the unexpected.”

And what of Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The talismanic striker struck two goals last night in Sweden’s victory over Scandinavian rivals Denmark, ensuring their qualification for Euro 2016. After the match, Ibrahimovic claimed, “[the Danes] said they were going to send me to retirement. I sent their whole nation into retirement.”

For anyone who is familiar with my fundamental philosophies about sport, it won’t come as much of a surprise that in general, I have a soft spot for sportspeople I consider to be mavericks. I love watching top performers expressing themselves, being creative and taking risks.

However, I don’t necessarily believe these qualities alone are always enough to mean a player should be selected. Work ethic, group dynamics and contributing positively to the team environment may all have relative degrees of importance that need consideration. Think of Kevin Pietersen. His exclusion from the England Cricket set-up was highly controversial, but I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t his cricketing ability that had the question mark next to it. Do I think KP is unbelievably good at cricket? Yes. Would I pick him? I’m not so sure.

Mavericks exist in different guises across the world of sport. They’re pioneers and superstars for different reasons. When I was younger, Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho set the football world alight with their skills; fast-forward to 2015 and we have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronda Rousey and Nicola Adams are pioneers in UFC and boxing because they are breaking new ground for women in combat sports. Serena Williams plays tennis with a combination of skill, speed and power that no other female player can consistently get close to – and she’s done it for fifteen years. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have transformed men’s tennis, bringing previously unseen levels of athleticism and skill. Argentina’s Luciana Aymar was an eight-time winner of the World Hockey Player of the Year award for good reason – she’s a game-changing magician with a hockey stick in hand.

I absolutely agree when coaches say that good basics are key, and that the best players execute fundamental skills extremely well. Some coaches inwardly translate this to a preference for predictable players, people that might be described as reliable and dependable. Maybe every team needs these players to a certain degree to allow creativity to flourish elsewhere. However, the problem when coaches overemphasise ‘reliable and dependable’ is that it can stop players reading the situation in front of them. In many sports, patterns of play and team understanding are very important. But what do these things really mean in the heat of battle? So often, the ultimate success of a team is down to the player(s) who can change a game.

In simple terms, I believe there are three characteristics that game-changers combine that make them different:
1. Technically highly capable of executing a range of skills
2. Imagination, creativity, the ability to see a situation in several different ways
3. Making good decisions about which skills to use based on the situation

What I’m really getting at here is that sometimes using the ‘difficult skill’ is actually the best decision. The situation may dictate that while a technique might seem flash or hard to execute, it’s actually the perfect time to go for it. When Messi scores by chipping the goalkeeper, it’s because 1. he can; 2. his eyes are open to the opportunity; and 3. he generally knows when is the time to try. It doesn’t mean it’s always the right option (could he pass to a team mate for a tap in?) but fluffing the chance didn’t mean it was the wrong option either.

The other thing that is obvious (but often forgotten) is that ‘difficult’ skills become easier when you practise them! I doubt KP hit a reverse sweep boundary in a test match having never tried it in the nets. Nadia Comaneci may have innovated gymnastics, but her perfect 10s were born in training, long before she was thrust into the Olympic limelight.

The problem with my approach, is that if and when things go wrong – which they inevitably do sometimes – there’s always somebody ready to jump on the sporting maverick’s back. My counter-argument is that we need to be imaginative when we watch, coach and analyse sport too. Pause the tape. Try to see the situation through the player’s eyes before you judge. What did they see? What didn’t they see? And perhaps most importantly: Was it the easy option, or the right option?

Just as rugby needed Jonah Lomu, sport needs mavericks. Without the pioneers who see and do something different, every game would be the same.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Henry Ford

Follow me on twitter @inkingfeeling

 

Giant Killings and Unlikely Heroes: Are Shock Results Good for Sport?

Sporting Shocks

Sporting shocks remind us that even the most successful players and teams aren’t invincible. The possibility of an unexpected result gives us a reason to back the underdog and a chance to celebrate the against-the-odds story. Sometimes we can be most inspired by the seemingly unrealistic dreams of an unlikely hero, because they make us feel like anything is possible.

Last week, my Surbiton team lost a domestic hockey game for the first time in over 18 months. It wasn’t a top of the table clash or a playoff final – we were defeated in the second round of our National Cup defence by Barnes, a side who play several league divisions below us. Of course, this is what the ‘magic of a cup run’ is all about: David vs Goliath, giant killings and the underdog progressing against the odds. This result might not make headline news outside the world of English hockey, but it’s definitely an outcome that surprised a few people.

On a wider scale, a shock can become the unforgettable or defining moment of a sports event. Despite the All Blacks’ record breaking victory, in some ways the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be best remembered for Japan’s astonishing last-gasp victory over South Africa in the pool stages. Germany’s 2014 Football World Cup victory was amazing, but I think I’ll remember it more for their 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi final. What about Greece winning Euro 2004? They started the tournament as 150-1 outsiders who had never won a game in a major tournament.

Of course sometimes a little shock can be the precursor to a seismic shift in sporting power. There’s a reason we talk about new stars ‘exploding’ onto the scene. Roger Federer had to start somewhere… when he beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, perhaps it seemed like a tremor. In the following decade, that tremor became a tsunami of Grand Slam titles and tour victories.

Shocks definitely provide some good material for headline writers. Unless a lucky punter wins a huge, unexpected payout, most of the time they’re not too bad for the bookies either. And for a player or team who wins against the odds, it might just be the best experience they ever have in a sporting arena.

Of course, if you’re on the wrong end of a shock result, it’s not a very nice feeling. In addition to the disappointment of defeat, you often have to deal with a bit of embarrassment too. However, I believe that the greatest sportspeople are humble in victory and gracious in defeat. So learn lessons and try not to let it happen again – but when you shake hands with the opponent who has just handed you a shock defeat, look them in the eye and mean it when you congratulate them.

There’s a kind of raw beauty to the feeling of shocking yourself. This can happen at every level of sport. You might surprise yourself by managing to finish a tough work out, by reaching the top of a hill without getting off your bike, by completing a run more quickly than you thought you could. At Olympic level, I’ll never forget Kelly Holmes’ face when it dawned on her that she had won 800m gold at Athens 2004. More recently, the wide-eyed disbelief of lightweight rowers Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland when they realised, “We’ve won the Olympics!” was a defining image of London 2012.

For me, that’s why sport needs shocks. It’s not about headlines or big wins at the bookies. It’s about how seemingly unbelievable outcomes can make us feel, irrespective of whether we are watching or competing. It’s about those moments that make your heart jump and your eyes pop out of your head. Sometimes magic happens when you least expect it.