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
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