Mum or Manager? Getting it Right as a Sporting Parent

pushy parents

Parents in Sport Week – 2nd – 8th October 2017

For many young sportspeople, their parent(s) are the most significant influence on the early part of their sports career. While I’m a little way from watching any of my own sprogs run around a sports field, my coaching and playing experiences mean that I see and hear behaviour at both ends of the weird and wonderful spectrum when it comes to ‘hockey parents’.

There’s a fine line between being supportive and being ‘pushy’. When integrated in a healthy and positive way, sport can create a powerful bond, a weekly routine, a topic of conversation and a sense of purpose in the wider fabric of family life. However, when a parent projects expectations or ambitions for sporting success onto a child in the wrong way, this can be detrimental or even damaging.

My immediate family has always been very supportive of my hockey career, but I feel fortunate that this never transmitted itself as a pressure to play or achieve something. My parents watched games, provided a taxi service and took an interest, but never made decisions for me, and didn’t make me feel bad or externalise blame when something didn’t go my way.

I think of this approach as being interested rather than involved. For me, interested means creating an environment where a child has the space and (where possible) the means to develop and prosper in their own time and way. Involved is the overbearing, highly opinionated adult who seems to ‘want it’ more than their child does.

Talented juniors usually have a packed schedule, but self-sufficiency is a learned skill. A little help is allowable, but if Mum or Dad is constantly making decisions or communicating with coaches, teachers or mentors on their child’s behalf, this doesn’t encourage them to develop into a responsible and accountable individual on the field (or in life).

There’s obviously nothing wrong with having dreams and working extremely hard to achieve them, but the pushy parent often forgets (or even actively ignores) the importance of having a balanced life outside sport alongside this work ethic. Study, spending time with friends, making mistakes and learning from them… just being a kid every now and then is vital.

Incidentally, the pushy parent rarely goes unnoticed. As a coach, it can take considerable time and patience to manage the demands and expectations of this type of parent and ultimately this only reduces the intellectual and emotional energy we can invest in developing our players and teams.

Of course, this requires a bit of trust on the part of a parent. Most of us coach for the right reasons – we are passionate about helping every single one of our players reach their potential… **including your child! A friend of mine recently attended a Q&A session with ten-time Paralympic medalist David Weir. When asked the biggest piece of advice he would give the parents of a promising 14-year old sportsperson, his answer was, “Just let the coach do his/her job”…

In hockey, there now appears to be a sense that a player’s ultimate success will hinge on doing as many 1-to-1 training sessions as possible and being fast-tracked or playing 1X1/adult hockey as a teenager. These may play a role in the performance pathway, but I don’t believe there is such thing as a perfect route to the top and every player has their own story.

To illustrate this point, I didn’t play National League Hockey until I went to university and I know several GB Olympians, including Rio hockey gold medalists, who didn’t represent England at junior level or play Premier League hockey until they were in their 20s. If a player isn’t involved in first team hockey aged 15 or misses out on a selection, it doesn’t always mean drastic action is needed. With a supportive and nurturing background response, it might actually be the best thing that ever happens to them in terms of development.

Setbacks – whether an injury, disappointing result or missed selection – are an inevitable part of sport at any level. This might sound a bit weird, but I believe resilience is part grit and part love. Grit is what you do (crack on when it would be easier to stop) and love – of what you do, your team and yourself – is the reason why you manage to keep going. If you don’t love or at least value these things, it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep doing it when the going gets tough.

Ultimately, pushing kids might be a factor in propelling them to a certain level of success, but it doesn’t tend to make them mentally tough or self-sufficient, and most importantly it might mean they aren’t fostering a love of the sport for their own reasons.

Why is this important? I believe that loving the game has motivated, protected and strengthened me during my hockey career. Some of the setbacks I’ve had have hit me pretty hard mentally and emotionally, but I am convinced that I was able to play under some tough circumstances (and even enjoyed playing during these times) because the drive came from within me.

Clearly some players with pushy parents will “make it”, but is this what it’s really about? Wearing an England shirt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually reached your potential and standing on a podium doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be happy beyond that moment. Grit and love can be just as powerful and important as ambition and hard work in the grand scheme of things on and off the field.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a sporting parent is figuring out whether your hopes and dreams for your child are the same as their own. Maybe one day I’ll learn that this isn’t as easy as it looks, but I hope I’ll remember to try and be more like a mum than a manager.

 

@inkingfeeling

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, I’d highly recommend the following:

‘Parent Power: In Support of Parents in Sport Week’
http://www.ukcoaching.org/blog/parent-power-support-parents-sport-week

‘How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over Parenting’ [TED Talk]
https://www.ted.com/talks/julie_lythcott_haims_how_to_raise_successful_kids_without_over_parenting

Parents in Sport Week 2017
http://thecpsu.org.uk/parentsinsport/

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BBC Sports Personality / Performance / Popularity Awards: What is it really about?

spoty-review

As always, the BBC Sports Personality Awards show has thrown up some serious debate. A quick look through social media, digital or print news and you’ll see hundreds of opinions on last night’s show expressed with varying degrees of class, open-mindedness and decency.

The purpose of this article isn’t to add my two pennies’ worth to the ‘Leicester City vs GB Women’s Hockey’ argument (although I will refer to it), but to examine why awards like this always seem to elicit so much discussion.

The obvious answer is that the nature of the award gives everyone a reason to have an opinion. It’s fundamentally difficult to challenge why someone has won a league trophy or a ‘Golden Boot’. This silverware is given out on the basis of statistics, so our opinions don’t come into play. However, when we try to answer subjective questions about who is ‘the best,’ our own biases – and perhaps more importantly, our emotions – start to affect the answer.

This is largely why it’s basically impossible to find a definitive answer to single-sport debates like who should win the Ballon D’Or or ‘Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic vs Murray’. The team or individual we support, the qualities we particularly value or admire in a player, our age, nationality and gender may also impact (consciously or subconsciously) on our preferences, and indeed on the strength of our feelings.

We also love to try and decide who is the greatest of all time, but how can we truly compare Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams while also trying to account for changes in technology, equipment, professionalism, social attitudes and different contemporary competitors? These variables also make it trickier to compare the achievements of Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt if we look beyond the simple statistics.

The Telegraph recently published the results of a project titled, ‘The UK’s Greatest Ever Sportsperson’. This throws another factor into the mix: how do we compare performers from different sports?

Our feelings about the Sports Personality Awards are complicated further by the fact that (despite its name) I’m not sure anyone really knows exactly what many of the SPOTY trophies are based on anymore. Is it about personality? Performance? Popularity?

So let’s have a quick look at the debate about the 2016 SPOTY Team of the Year Award. It’s difficult to directly compare the achievements of Leicester City across the course of a 38-game season against the GB Hockey Women’s 100% win record and gold medal in Rio. Leicester were 5000/1 to win the Premier League before the season started; GB women were around 9/1 to win Olympic gold. Their journeys and their challenges were very different, but both of these teams have achieved amazing things in the last 12 months. Incidentally, so has every other team that was nominated for this SPOTY award.

The thing I haven’t read anywhere in the debate this morning is that both Leicester and GB Hockey have achieved their success based on similar qualities: Trust in one another, commitment to and belief in a shared goal, and a few outstanding individual performances set against the backdrop of teamwork. Rather than comparing the differences between their achievements, wouldn’t it be great if a few more people could identify the similarities?

Both teams will also face challenges in their quests to match the heights they have done in 2016. Leicester have struggled to get close to their performances last season in this year’s Premier League, but have done well in the Champions League so far. The GB Hockey women will have to manage retirements, new players and the challenge of replicating their success in upcoming tournaments with the unfamiliar tag of ‘favourites’.

The slightly muted reaction of Leicester City’s players on winning the award seems to have contributed to some of the negative reactions. This may be contentious, but to be completely honest, I don’t regard their reaction as being particularly important. You’d like to think the award means something to the recipient, but it isn’t given out based on who wants it the most.

Meanwhile, I’m sure a few criticisms about the result are based on the fact this might have been an opportunity to buck the trend and celebrate a female sports team. However, I think SPOTY is one of the few mass-broadcast sports ‘events’ that is gender-balanced and I’d argue social change isn’t the role of this particular award.

Ultimately, both teams have been extremely inspiring and exciting examples in their sports and beyond, and I have no doubt that not a single player would trade the Premier League trophy or an Olympic gold medal for the title of SPOTY Team of the Year.

Playing in Pain: Courageous or Crazy?

playing-in-pain

Pain and sport go hand in hand. To a degree, pain is an inevitable consequence of pushing our bodies to their limits and to actively engaging in activities that place our physical wellbeing at risk. Pain is accepted, managed and even embraced by sportspeople from amateur to elite level – that’s why we refer proudly to our achievements taking ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ and when something hurts we pop a paracetemol, hold ourselves together with tape and take to the field anyway.

“There is a difference between the brave that will be there at any cost and the ones that a little pain can make a difference”

The not-so-subtle message behind these words from Jose Mourinho yesterday: toughen up. Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw aren’t the first footballers to be confronted with this type of accusation. Daniel Sturridge is praised for his talent but criticized for how often – and apparently how easily – he is on the injury list. Is it fair to expect sportspeople to suck up the pain and get on with it, or are we being too hard on them? Does playing through pain indicate courage and selflessness or shortsightedness and stupidity?

In recent months, back page headlines have been dominated by accusations of systematic doping in Russian sport and the release of information about TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) granted to athletes to allow them to take certain prohibited drugs for medical reasons. The debate about doping in sport asks many varied ethical questions, but perhaps the one most relevant to this issue is why we punish athletes for masking pain chemically, but allow, encourage and expect them to handle it psychologically. If you have an illness or injury bad enough to require restricted medication, should you be competing at all?

This leads me on to what pain really means. Firstly, let’s consider what the impact of pain on an individual level. It’s important that we distinguish between pain thresholds and pain tolerance because playing in pain isn’t just about what hurts and how much, but also about what an individual person’s ‘ceiling’ is: what we can manage or where our physical and mental limits to cope lie. Pain threshold will affect how bad it feels when a boxer is punched in the face or a rugby player is smashed in a huge tackle. Pain tolerance is what determines whether or not they can carry on playing, and how much it does or doesn’t affect their future performance.

The second aspect of this is how important being at your physical optimum actually is. In sports where performance is primarily determined by peak fitness – whether in speed, endurance or power – a relatively minor injury can be hugely significant. In sports where a more complex blend of physical capacity, strategic awareness and technical execution are required, an injury may have an impact, but doesn’t necessarily make it impossible to compete. Typically, this is why a sprinter doesn’t compete with a tight hamstring, but a hockey/football/rugby player might call it a niggle and crack on.

In some situations, these decisions are taken out of a sportsperson’s hands. Recently updated rules on concussion in many sports are a good example of the wider health of an athlete being prioritized over getting back onto the field of play. A blanket ruling reduces the potential effects of commercial interests and external pressure on sports doctors on duty of care towards athletes, but it is unrealistic to expect every case of pain and injury in sport to be assessed and managed in this way.

“Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever”

There are numerous examples of sportspeople playing on despite bad injuries or severe pain. What is it that made Terry Butcher keep heading the ball despite bleeding profusely out of his stitched-up forehead? Why was Kate Richardson-Walsh prepared to endure extreme pain and risk further damage when she played on after having her jaw broken by a hockey stick during London 2012? Perhaps the craziest of all was Terry Sawchuk – an ice hockey goalkeeper who played before helmets were mandatory and had more than 600 stitches to his face during his career.

Maybe the decisions of these sportspeople are made simpler by what their sports mean to them; perhaps playing in pain is about more than toughness or tolerance. Perhaps it’s a symbol of what you’re prepared to endure for a lifelong goal or giving everything for your team. Having said that, bravery comes in many forms. Sometimes, asking for help or admitting you don’t think you can handle pain might be just as brave as soldiering on. If you can’t do your job properly, you might be letting your team down by putting on a brave face. Is winning a medal or being the tough guy (or girl) enough to risk your long-term health or a ‘normal’ life beyond sport?

There’s often a fine line between brave and stupid, and perhaps in the end it comes down to hindsight. Playing in pain is a bit like attempting an audacious goal – if you go for it and it works out, you’re a hero. If it turns out to be a bad choice, you’re an idiot. It just depends whether you can handle the situation and whether you think the risk is worth it.

Magic, Gods and the Baying Mob

ryder-cup-crowds

I can’t quite make my mind up about golf. I’m sure it’s partly because I’m not very good… not too shabby with a 7-iron or a putter, absolutely abysmal with a driver. I’m vaguely hoping that once I’m at a stage of my life where breaking into a run is less appealing, I might get really good at it. I enjoy going to the driving range, but I think golf clubs tend to be pretty snooty. I quite like watching the majors on TV when they’ve reached the exciting stages, but other than that… meh. But the Ryder Cup. That’s different. The Ryder Cup has a bit of magic.

We talk about fans worshipping sporting gods, but without trying to draw a comparison that’s too sweeping, maybe there’s another parallel between sport and religion: there seems to be an extraordinary power created by the feeling of being part of something much greater than yourself. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I can appreciate the significance of the sense of community and a shared value system that religion creates for many people.
In a sports context, anyone who plays in a team sport can probably already identify with similar feelings to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sportspeople who often compete on an individual basis can often bring out the best in themselves when they are representing a team, country or continent. Andy Murray is Britain’s Davis Cup saviour, Team GB’s Olympic athletes are driven to success as part of something bigger, and the cycling domestique commits repeated acts of self-sacrifice in order to help a team mate to glory.

Of course, an athlete has to truly buy into it if it is to make a difference to their performance. During Rio 2016, former GB sprinter Jeanette Kwakye wrote an interesting article about the changing mindset of the British Athletics relay teams, noting that in order to succeed, the GB women had recognized the need to, “Park their egos [and] personal ambitions and come together with one objective only.” I believe quite strongly that you can’t fake this: you might be part of the team, but is the team truly a part of you?

As example of this, and to bring us back to golf, some have criticized Tiger Woods for failing to truly commit to Team USA and subsequently never really performing at the Ryder Cup. Conversely, Justin Rose was one of only a few golfers openly passionate about being part of the Olympic Games (and in his case, Team GB), and his charge to a Rio 2016 gold medal subsequently seemed to have a feeling of slightly magical inevitability about it.
So is it possible to define the ingredient that makes an atmosphere become particularly special? Sometimes the size, importance or long-standing tradition of an event alone can create a special atmosphere, such as the final of a Grand Slam, the Ashes, the FA Cup final or the Super Bowl. I’d also argue that there are examples in lower level sport, because emotional meaning isn’t just created by the scale of an event. Having said that, more often than not, a crowd creates an atmosphere – and that’s why although there may be a gulf between the relative performance levels of competitors, the atmosphere at the Olympic 100m final and the London Marathon isn’t so very different.

Crowds use many kinds of marker as powerful indicators of allegiance. Patriotism and a sense of identity are indicated by coloured clothing, chanting, cheering, jeering and applause. Crowds vary across sports and between events – and it’s pretty easy to identify the differences between the polite applause of snooker, football stadium chanting and the pub-like atmosphere of darts. The traditions of a sport or competition tend to dictate the expected crowd behaviours, and this is where the Ryder Cup becomes an interesting example of an accepted – but disputed – challenge to the norm.

Many Ryder Cup commentators declare themselves to be opposed to overly vocal crowds and some of the players getting involved in (or in some cases, fuelling) the atmosphere. There are undoubtedly conversations to be had about the lengths spectators should be allowed to go – because there is of a course a fine but distinct line between ‘banter’ and abuse. However, my overriding feeling is that golf might just be on the verge of a big decision about the direction it wants to take as a sport. The Ryder Cup – and arguably the Olympics – have drawn some great performances from players who have already established themselves as great golfers, but there seems to be something extra in these atmospheres that has the power to create the special or spectacular. As well as considering different formats and how it can broaden its appeal from a sport-specific perspective, maybe top-level golf would do well to consider the emotional experience and attachment of the crowd too.

 

Challenging tradition can be dangerous ground, even when it seems obvious logically or even ethically that change is needed – just look at how difficult it can be to implement technology in football or contest antiquated rules about women’s golf club membership. Rightly or wrongly, there is also almost always opposition to change. Maybe it wouldn’t be sustainable for the Hazeltine atmosphere to be reproduced at every event across the golf calendar – for the players or the crowds. Tradition and etiquette can’t just be thrown out of the window either, because they are part of any sport’s identity. And most of all, perhaps the magic of the Ryder Cup lies partly in the fact that it’s unusual… because can something be as special if it becomes the norm?

 

N.B. It’s Women’s Sports Week. Please don’t think I’m writing about the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup without due consideration to their equally worthy women’s equivalents. I have no doubt that the Fed Cup and Solheim Cup hold just as much meaning to the incredible sportswomen who play in them and supporters who watch them compete, and I hope that in the not too distant future the media and the world of sport itself makes it a bit easier to use them as widely known examples when I’m discussing topics like this one…

The Story of a Not-Quite Olympian

The story of a not-quite Olympian

As I write this, it’s 114 days until Rio 2016 gets underway. However, despite loving sport in general and the Olympics in particular, on August 5th this year I will probably be hiding under a rock somewhere.

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Lots of things have stopped me – shyness, embarrassment, not wanting to say something I’ll regret, wanting to be honest but not knowing how much of the truth to tell. I know I’ll never be able to convey in a few hundred words how and why my experiences and near misses have been so significant, so tough, so defining. I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not fishing for compliments. It’s not about blame or assessing why I didn’t get picked. So why am I writing this? I guess I just want to let the unlucky few who share similar experiences know you aren’t alone and that you will find a way to handle it. And for everyone else – those who play, those who watch – maybe in the coming months it will help you remember to spare a thought for those whose Olympic dreams aren’t made, but broken.

I know this sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I need to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – I know I’ve been fortunate to experience some pretty incredible things during my hockey career. I made my senior international debut aged 17, I’m a Commonwealth and triple European medalist, I’ve played at a World Cup, I’ve been national champion multiple times with two clubs. I’ve travelled the world thanks to a bit of ability and a lot of hard work with a hockey stick. I still play for a brilliant, successful club with a great bunch of mates. I’ve got a lot of good stuff to look back on. But ultimately, I won’t be able to look back and say I’ve achieved my dreams in hockey.

The problem with dreams is that if they were easy to reach, they wouldn’t be dreams. They’d just be plans. Intentions. Actions. When I was 22, I had my first experience of not being selected for something. Unfortunately for me, that something was Beijing 2008. As reserve, I trained at the preparation camp in Macau with the girls then had to stay there on my own for a week (as a bit of an emotional train wreck) when the team travelled to Beijing. Four years later, I was involved in everything until selection, but missed the cut for 2012. The London Olympics was brilliant, devastating and totally inescapable.

I’m aware that people suffer far worse things in life than not getting selected for the Olympics, but this is where words fail me a bit. I can’t really describe how it feels to miss the tournament you’ve given everything for and dreamed about since you were a kid. I could tell you about things that have happened to me. Randomly bursting into tears at Tesco a few weeks after selection when a cashier asked me how my day had been. Surviving four months on three hours sleep a night. Being a bookworm, but unable to read a whole page for six months when all I wanted was to be able to escape into another world. Sitting with a teammate on the bus home from training at the Olympic Park and admitting to an irrational sense of extreme guilt at letting my family down. I’ve never felt as alone as I did in a stadium of 16,000 people in London – I was inconsolable when the GB women lost their semi final and inconsolable when the GB women won a bronze medal two days later. I could tell you about those and a hundred other things but in the end none of them really get to the nub of what you actually feel like inside.

There’s all this stuff going round in your own head and heart, but of course the world goes on, and thankfully I’ve always been lucky enough to have some pretty special people around to help get me through. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing when people say they can’t believe you haven’t been picked (it still is). Selection, the big pink elephant in the room, has made me feel like an awkward friend/housemate more times than I care to think about (it still does), but the mates I know have really got my back never make me feel bad about it. Sharing a look with one of my best friends when she was on her bronze medal victory lap, and her taking a second to share my pain instead of revel in her elation, was something so powerful to me I don’t think she even realises.

It’s been over two years since my last cap, I’m not even in the GB squad any more and I still find it impossible to get my head around Rio being so soon. It kills me feeling like the odd one out in large parts of my friendship group, not having that same daily routine and camaraderie and sense that I’m part of something. I still believe I should be an Olympian and I still believe I should be in with a shot at Rio, but I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it exactly, but I guess I’ve learnt to look at things in a different way.

Some time, some perspective and some travel have reminded me of a few things. If I’m going to define myself as a hockey player – and maybe even as a person – based on whether I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve realised I’m devaluing myself. And as for anyone else who judges me on that? I probably don’t need to worry about their opinion that much. Instead, I try to focus on enjoying myself and pushing myself to be better, on and off a hockey field. In that end, that’s what I want to define me.

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.