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

 

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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.

Seeing the Positives in Social Media

The modern world

Just as I thought I’d made a decision to try to embrace social media a little better, I saw a photograph that sums up the world we now live in. You’ve probably seen it too – it went viral, which was simultaneously powerful and ironic. In the picture (which you can see at the top of this post), a large crowd of people watches an event. Everyone is capturing the moment on a smart phone. All except one lady that is, who watches on with her actual eyes rather than through a screen. This hasn’t made me rethink my decision exactly, but it has made me think a little more about the good, the bad and the ugly of social media.

Let’s start off with a few statistics. It is estimated that globally, the number of people who are active on Facebook at least once a month is now 1.5 billion. That’s about 20% of the world’s population. Twitter and Instagram both have over 300 million monthly users. I’m stating the blindingly obvious when I say that social media is a huge, influential and growing part of our daily lives.

There’s an obvious irony in the phrase ‘social media’. Whilst the various platforms enable us to communicate, connect and share experiences, most of us have at some point looked up to realise that we are sitting with a group of other people and none of us are doing those things in ‘real life’. What usually happens next? Someone makes a comment along the lines of, “Well we’re sociable today aren’t we?” followed by everyone muttering, “Ha ha, yes, it’s terrible isn’t it,” before gazing back down at the screens in front of them.

Technology does and always has changed the way people live. Whilst it’s true that ‘big news’ – whether that’s a friend’s engagement/pregnancy/graduation, or the latest political, sports or entertainment bombshell – now spreads across the world via digital platforms, once upon a time developments like the printing press, wireless radio and television revolutionised the way in which information was communicated. A quick status update is an easy and efficient way to spread news instantly. I suppose the problem is that depending on the news, the rest of the world (or even your friends and family) might not actually be that bothered… but they’re forced to see it anyway.

This is where my own opinion about what’s interesting and what isn’t starts to get in the way. I know the only way I can avoid this is by steering clear of social media entirely… but there are some things I’m just not interested in. Depressing (or worse still, cryptic and depressing) Facebook statuses, incendiary political tweets, corny selfies or anything to do with the Kardashians sometimes make me want to delete the whole Internet. Equally, I’m aware that articles about sport or philosophy and videos of cute kittens/puppies falling off items of furniture don’t appeal to everyone, but at least they intrigue or amuse me. The challenge, the lesson, the issue – whatever you want to call it – is in filtering the things you do and don’t want to see on social media without wasting your entire life doing it.

I also read an interesting article about the use of Instagram this week. The writer was arguing that people are so obsessed with creating a perfect ‘insta-world’ that we aren’t documenting life as it really looks and feels. As a recent convert to Instagram, I understand the rationale behind this idea, but I think if you flip it around it can probably help us focus on the positives too. I believe that looking for a ‘photo opportunity’ can help you to look at the world in different ways: it can make you see the beautiful in the mundane or the tiny detail in the bigger picture. Creating a photo can actually make an experience more fun or memorable. Maybe on some level it does make me want to have some kind of pseudo insta-life where I’m having fun and amazing experiences all the time. The key thing is though, if that’s what I’m trying to represent, I’m also more likely to try and make that a reality.

Ultimately, social media can both bring us together and tear us apart. I think I’m starting to figure out my own attitude towards it: I don’t want to spend more time looking at a screen than interacting with the world around me and I don’t want to miss out on experiencing something because I’m too busy trying to record a diluted version of it to look at later. In fact maybe it’s a bit like writing this blog. I want to use it in a way that makes me and others smile or think. The fact is, like that lady in the picture, in order to experience, capture and share special moments through authentic words or powerful images, I have to have my eyes open to see them happening in the first place.

And now, the ironic plug… don’t forget to follow me on twitter @inkingfeeling or instagram @herbie17

Kiwi Adventures 2015: Weeks 3 and 4

Kiwi Adventures Weeks 3-4

“There and Back Again…”
This is the equivalent of that postcard you scribble out on the flight home and pop in the postbox along the road from your own house. I reckon it’s a pretty good sign when you’re having too much fun on your travels to find the time to write about it…

“Not all those who wander are lost…” J.R.R. Tolkien

After an adrenaline-fuelled first couple of weeks swinging off bridges and rafting down rapids, I got behind the wheel once again and did some road-tripping. After playing a game in one of my favourite places in NZ, Taupo – we’ll gloss over the hockey for now – I continued through the North Island up to Tauranga. Having (theoretically) ‘grown up’ in Jersey, I have good reason for being a bit of a beach snob. However, after trekking up the summit path of Mount Maunganui in the sunshine to look down on the white sand of Maunganui beach, I can safely say that this place ticks some serious boxes. It’s pretty mindblowing to look out across the ocean knowing that the next landmass is Chile – about 6000 miles away.

One of the awesome things about this trip has been having the chance to catch up with friends – Brits abroad and Kiwi mates who live further away than I would like them to. The day after Tauranga, I also managed to pop in and visit my fantasy cousins in the Shire. Maybe this just makes me a weird Lord of the Rings nut, but there’s something pretty magical about going in a hobbit hole and drinking a cheeky (hobbit-sized) beer in the Green Dragon Inn. A hike up to Wairere Falls and our brilliant day in Middle Earth was complete.

Time flies when you’re having fun and 2000km of road-tripping later, tournament week in Whangerei, Northland was suddenly around the corner. We stayed in a beautiful location in Tutukaka and relaxation is pretty important when you take on the challenge of seven games in nine days. The standard of hockey was definitely better than last year and the ‘Central Caterpillars’ and I gave it everything. We essentially just missed out on a semi-final place by one goal, leaving us all gutted. Having said that, it was a brilliant week – we played some exciting hockey and I loved being part of such a fun and gutsy team. It’s always great to have the chance to step out alongside top players you’ve admired as an opponent, but it’s also nice to see younger players making their first mark on the game at a high level. I hope I’ll get another chance to wear the Central colours…

After the tournament, I gatecrashed the winners’ party (thanks for having me Auckland!), caught up with more friends and did a final bit of exploring with my trusty tour guide and general legend, Jules. Most of our travels usually seem to revolve around food but as well as filling our boots we fitted in a day trip to Waiheke island for more beach wandering and a stunning winery, a morning at Takapuna Beach on the North Shore, and a very windy view across Auckland from One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park.

After another amazing adventure with some amazing people, it was finally time to set off on the long journey home. The really, really long journey. I’m very happy to be safely back home with the boy and feel ready for the special and exciting few months ahead. But there’s just something about New Zealand that makes me feel like a little part of me belongs there too.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The Lord of the Rings

 

Find me on twitter @inkingfeeling and Instagram @herbie17 for updates…

Kiwi Adventures 2015: Weeks 1 and 2

Kiwi Adventure 1

This entry comes from New Zealand… It’s a pretty spectacular place and as well as being very well-looked after by my brilliant adoptive Kiwi family, I’m doing my best to make the most of being here. Rather than my usual ramblings about sport and whatever else gets my ideas flowing, I thought I’d write a bit of a blog-postcard about my travels.

After a few days of waking up outrageously early, acclimatizing to NZ’s wind and rain, and a bit of training with the Central NHL team, I’ve settled in nicely for this year’s Kiwi adventure. The first game was on Saturday and we started with a great 3-2 victory… although only a few days after a 38-hour 4-flight journey my body did not feel like it was winning. We then had a fund-raising dinner and I was definitely more nervous about taking the stage for a Q&A with an All Black and two of the greatest ever Blacksticks players than I will be for any of the hockey games!

I road-tripped down to Wellington on Monday – the furthest South I’ve ever ventured. The roads here are a little different to the motorways back home. ‘State Highway 1’, which as its name suggests is a reasonably significant route, is over 1000 kilometers long in the North Island alone. It’s mostly single carriageway, with occasional passing lanes to let you overtake the truck you’ve been stuck behind for miles on end. A bit of a contrast to the good old M25…
I spent most of the day in the ‘Te Papa’ Museum of New Zealand. We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to free-to-access museums in London, but this museum was right up there. Exhibitions on the World War I ANZAC campaign in Gallipolli, Maori history/culture and colonial emigration kept me entertained for a good few hours. I finished my day with a trip to a lookout point on Mount Victoria for some 360° views across the city and the Cook Strait, and a toe-dip in the ocean at Oriental Bay – not as cold as I feared.

“Do one thing that scares you every day…”

A couple of days later, I went to the Mokai Gravity Canyon with two of my Central team mates. After spotting a website promotion, we decided to forsake our dignity to get the experience for half price by wearing onesies – luckily Georgia’s outfit made Pip and I look almost normal. A technical glitch meant we couldn’t stick to our original plan to go on the ‘Flying Fox’, a 160kph zipline. Instead, we faced the stomach-dropping option of NZ’s highest bridge swing, which involves a free fall of around 50m. My inner adrenaline junkie tends to make me laugh – ok, giggle – in the face of danger and I’m pleased to say the other two embraced the idea of doing something that scares you every day.

One day of excitement in the great outdoors wasn’t enough for me, so I set off at 6.30am yesterday for half a day of white water rafting. The amount of rainfall meant that the river level was right on the safety limit for rafting. This led to a bit of standing around until the guides decided we were safe to navigate the Grade 5 rapids. Our guide told us the Rangitikei is a technical river, “which basically means there’s lots of rocks.” He also mentioned about five different spots where people had drowned whilst rafting, including an instructor. Good to know.
Most of my fellow rafters seemed to be “proper travelers”, bus-touring and backpacking around NZ. Thankfully, a Mancunian-Aussie, a Kiwi PE teacher and a Belgian Catholic priest let me join their gang for the morning. I don’t tick many boxes when it comes to organized religion, but if we had hit a big rock/capsized/become Rangitikei River horror story no.6 for our instructor to tell his next crew, I figured at least pity might be taken on our whole raft. Having said that, I later saw Father Louis drinking a pint in the lodge wearing full on cassock and collar so…

I’m already looking forward to game two this weekend in Taupo (the location of my skydive last year). After that, more travels and catching up with friends.
Until the next adventure!

 

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Talking a Good Game (Part II): The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Coaches

It’s taken me five years, but last month I finally managed to complete my Level 2 coaching qualification. While I haven’t yet coached to anywhere near the level I’ve played, I always try to use my playing experience to improve my coaching skills. Just as every player is different, every coach is different – and that’s a good thing. However, I believe that to be a great coach you must be a great communicator.

I spend much of July and August working on summer hockey camps. This means I have to figure out very quickly how to communicate effectively with loads of different kids, often several days or weeks in a row. Sessions need to be safe, fun and understandable. The way I communicate can have a major impact on my ability to build rapport, and of course this isn’t just about what I say, but how I say it: my words, body language and demonstrations must all be chosen and adapted as appropriate to the group of players on any given day.

Broadly speaking, the same threads run through communication when coaching adults. Your tone may change and you might convey more sophisticated messages, but generally, the objectives for a coach are similar: create a learning environment, provide feedback, and make things safe and fun. Winning can be important too, but often that’s a by-product of those objectives: get the processes right and the outcome takes care of itself. One of my biggest priorities when I’m coaching is to be consistent and energetic at every session. As a player, I respond best to coaches who have these qualities –it’s easier to understand their expectations, trust their feedback and be open and honest in both directions.

On the field, I believe that an enjoyable environment tends to generate a steeper curve of improvement. That doesn’t mean every session will be fun, and it certainly doesn’t mean that training will be easy. However, as I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I think often having fun = playing better. Players motivated to push themselves – whether through hard work, concentration or repetitions – are likely to make more effective, robust progress. In terms of communication, that means rewarding improvement, giving constructive criticism and sometimes allowing the players to work out the answers for themselves… and knowing when each of these things may be required.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen we would have two mouths and one ear”
Mark Twain

Game day brings further challenges. Depending on the situation, a coach has to judge when to motivate or pacify, praise or criticise, stay calm or get riled up. Often, coaches are dealing with similar expectations, frustrations and anxieties as players, so communicating during competition needs real perceptiveness and an ability to detach oneself from the often emotionally-charged environment.

Of course, the role of a coach extends far beyond the field. The biggest communication challenges may relate to selection, disciplinary problems and dealing with poor performances or results. The approach taken in these scenarios can make or break player-coach relationships, the dynamics of a squad and even the psychological or emotional well-being of a player in the longer term. It’s important to recognise that these situations (and the weight of responsibility they create) can be emotionally draining for a coach too, but I honestly can’t emphasise enough how important – and how impactful – sensitive, intelligent communication can be at these times. I won’t pretend I’ve had to make any huge decisions as a coach, but even in dealing with less significant issues – an under-confident player, a disruptive child or an out-of-form team mate – my good and bad experiences as a player have definitely shaped my awareness of how the style, method and content of coaching communications can have a positive or damaging effect.

As I’ve talked about previously, I believe that while technology, statistics and equipment can be important, the ‘human’ parts of sport tend to elicit the greatest mental and emotional responses from us as players and supporters. Coaching, too, is about people: reading people, understanding people and figuring out what makes people tick. The best coaches may be tactically astute and experts in technique, but often ‘people skills’ are the essential key that can unlock the more sport-specific capabilities of a coach. I’ll finish where I started: to be a great coach, you have to be a great communicator.

 

Click here if you missed ‘Talking a Good Game (Part I): How Players Communicate’

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Talking a Good Game (Part I): How Players Communicate

Talking a Good Game

As the “Pomicide” unfolded in the fourth Ashes test yesterday, cricket journalists must have been hastily searching their thesauruses for synonyms for ‘unbelievable’. There’s always a lot to discuss in cricket – maybe it’s the amount of statistics or the brilliant banter between the pundits, or maybe it’s just because it gives us Brits an excuse to discuss the weather. Stuart Broad’s bowling was the obvious talking point yesterday, but I also read an article about how the lack of sledging in this Ashes series may be contributing to the quality and entertainment of the cricket itself. This got me thinking about how the things that are said on, off and around the sports field can affect sports performance.

In this blog, I’m going to look specifically at communication between players. There’s no doubt that communication within and between teams has the potential to significantly influence training, mindset, confidence and ultimately, performance. Sledging – where, players seek to gain an advantage by insulting or verbally intimidating the opposing player” (thanks, Wikipedia) – is probably as old as cricket itself. Sometimes it’s good-natured, sometimes it’s simply verbal abuse which has led to inevitable discussions about its place in the game. However, in general, sledging illustrates how language can be used as an attempt to directly influence or unsettle a player’s performance. It’s safe to say this happens in most team sports – who hasn’t heard (or made!) a sly remark between players in football or hockey? Sometimes one comment can be enough to sidetrack an experienced professional completely – remember Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt after an alleged insult from Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final?

In individual sports, a war of words often precedes the physical battle. One of the best examples of this is ‘trash talk’ in boxing – weeks are spent trading insults before a single punch is thrown. Of course, often these exchanges are encouraged by the media in their attempts to build excitement about the event. Even in sprinting and tennis, where there isn’t direct contact between athletes during the competition, interviewers often try to stir up rivalries or antagonisms. In F1, there is the added dynamic of competition within teams. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg aren’t just driving against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Williams’ Valerie Bottas – they seem to be engaged in a constant battle with one another both behind the wheel and on the team radio. They may be teammates, but at the moment they are also one another’s greatest rivals.

Communications within a team can have a huge impact on building a successful dynamic. In my experience of both international and club hockey, this has been a regularly revisited aspect of our attempts to create an effective performance environment. It’s always going to be difficult to find ways of communicating that suit everyone in a squad of 11, 16 or perhaps even 30-odd players. One person may prefer direct criticism, while another prefers it to be sugar-coated. One player might yell, while another prefers to discuss something quietly after the game. When you add in pressure, fatigue and the ‘heat of the moment’, it becomes almost impossible to get this right for everyone 100% of the time. My own attitude towards communication is that some things are negotiable, but others aren’t. If I’m not working hard enough, I fully expect to be yelled at (hopefully this doesn’t happen too often!). If I miss an open goal, most of the time I probably don’t need a teammate to give me aggressive verbal feedback about it.

Something that’s often forgotten is that it isn’t just about how players talk, it’s also about how they listen. Most people have a default way of saying something in a given situation: a player makes a mistake – teammate A shouts criticism at them, teammate B has a quiet word at the next break in play. We also tend to have a default way of hearing that feedback. Some people will perceive yelling as a personal insult and go into their shells, others will find it motivating and use it to spur them on. Ultimately, we can’t expect people to change the way they talk to us on the field unless we are also prepared to try and be flexible with how we listen.

Sometimes it’s also about what isn’t said. Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole forged a successful striking partnership for Manchester United when they didn’t actually talk to one another. Perhaps this Ashes series is better with the players focusing on cricket rather than on sledging. Alyson Annan, one of the greatest ever hockey players, used to practise taking penalty strokes, “with teammates throwing water at her and yelling in her ear, so she could perform the skill regardless of any distraction” (p128, ‘Beyond the Limits’). In the 1996 Olympic final, she stepped up to take a stroke in total silence – the one scenario she hadn’t anticipated. She scored and Australia won. I suppose in the end, the best players write their stories in their own words.

 
Next time… I’ll be exploring communication between coaches and players.
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