Thursday, 6 September 2012
It’s often easier to get to the top than to stay there, as the England cricket team, outplayed in every department by the South Africans, have discovered. Few teams manage to stay at the top for long. In cricket, the West Indies in the 1970s/80s and the Australians under Steve Waugh come to mind. I predict that this South African side won’t join them. In fact, I think it’s likely that they’ll lose the crown to Australia in their next series. Some people think that winning is the only thing that matters in sport, and others that competitive sport is a bad thing for children because some may perceive themselves as “losers”. Both of these ideas have been detrimental to British sport. I shall try and bring these apparently disparate thoughts together by looking at the Howard of Effingham Year 7 rugby league team. These boys only started playing rugby league in September 2011. If you’d said then that within a year they would be playing at Wembley in the prelude to the Challenge Cup final, you would have been thought mad. If you’d written a story about a team that in less than a year not only become the first team from the south to reach the final of the Carnegie Champion Schools Competition, but would actually go on and win it, the story would be dismissed as completely unrealistic. But that’s exactly what they did. By definition, they must have had the potential to have achieved all this at the start. They just didn’t know that they had it. That means one of two things: either there’s something extraordinary in the air in Effingham; or that there are millions of kids with the potential to do amazing things and we just need to find a way of unlocking it. In the semi-final, they were 10-0 down at half time against a team from St Helens. If they’d thought that winning was everything, they would probably have panicked at the idea they were going to lose. If they thought that “taking part” was all that mattered, they might have just resigned themselves to their fate. Fortunately, they’ve had some enlightened coaching at Effingham Rugby Club, and they instinctively know that the point of sport is trying to win at the highest possible level. It means trying to overcome whatever obstacles the opposition put in front of you. So when they were faced with a higher obstacle than before, they simply raised the level of their game to try and overcome it, and ran out 20-10 winners. In some ways, being relative novices might have been an advantage. They wouldn’t have had some of the negative thoughts such as “we always lose against this lot” that can come with experience. Crucially, they didn’t put a limit on what they could achieve, as most adult sides would have done. It was playing against a highly skilled team that was trying to win that forced the Howard team to raise the level of their own game, unlocking more of that hidden potential. When you look at it this way, you see that you should really want your opponents to play really well, to set really challenging obstacles for you, because that’s how you can develop your own abilities, unlocking more of your own potential. Your opponent should try and make things as difficult as possible for you, including trying to exploit any perceived weakness, just as you should do the same to your opponent. Which brings me back to South Africa: before the series started, the South Africans were facing a daunting task. They were up against the Number One ranked team in their own back yard with very little preparation time. And then a freak injury took out their talismanic keeper, ending his career .They knew that a really high level of performance would be required, and they delivered, crushing a below par England by a huge margin. Although the South Africans deny leaking emails from Kevin Pietersen, they seemed happy that he wasn’t playing in the third Test. I may be wrong, but they don’t strike me as a side that is looking to really push themselves to higher and higher levels. Contrast this with the attitude of British cycling. The British cycling team set themselves the challenge of matching their unprecedented medal haul from Beijing, although rule changes made it much harder. Having won 7 out of 10 track medals in London, they’re going to try and win all 10 in Rio in 2016. Of course, they may well not achieve this, but by setting the obstacles high, they are likely to get the best performances from their athletes. If you can take into every match the attitude that you’re not trying to defeat the other team/your opponent, but trying to overcome all the obstacles they put in your way, you will always play the game in the right spirit; you will produce your best performances when there is the greatest need, such as when the opposition is strong, or when the playing conditions are most demanding; you will welcome the pressure of a big match occasion as simply another obstacle to overcome that will push you higher, rather than distracting you; you will have your full concentration on each moment of the match, and not get distracted by “what if” thoughts; and you will unlock a greater amount of your hidden talent.