A friend who used to play international sport as a professional tells me he is enjoying his game infinitely more, and playing it better than ever, now he isn’t getting paid for it.
A friend who used to play international sport as a professional tells me he is enjoying his game infinitely more, and playing it better than ever, now he isn’t getting paid for it. And the reason is he’s relaxed; the anxiety is gone. I wonder how much better sportsmen would perform if they could conquer their fear and anxiety about failure, if they had the psychological discipline to relax and express their skill rather than conspicuously trying their guts out?
Look at Barcelona. For all their mesmerising gifts, their most precious quality is their nerve. Outplayed by Manchester United for the first ten minutes of the Champions League final, they thought nothing of it and calmly, competently, and seemingly effortlessly went about their business. The combined anxiety of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi added up to zero.
And last weekend the English national team was huffing and puffing against Switzerland, with the toxic heritage of the World Cup coursing through the side. Even Capello has now turned into a world class moaner. Afterwards the pundits and the fans called for more spirit. That’s the last thing they need. No wonder English players waste so much energy and attention trying to appease the fans by giving the impression of trying.
Concentration in sport is often defined as an active state, a ferocious awareness of the matter in hand. In fact, concentration is the absence of irrelevant stuff. By the end of his career, Zidane behaved as though unnecessary energy was beneath him: he preferred to make every stride count. And the great fly-half Danny Carter barely seems to sweat and when he scores a try he makes it seem the most natural and inevitable thing, not the epic chest pump that lesser mortals make it.
The king of zen cool, of course, is Roger Federer, who was in great touch at the French Open, looking completely at ease even on his least favourite surface — the only sign of effort being the occasional little finger to wipe a speck of sweat from his forehead. We should not shoehorn all champions into one type, of course. Federer’s nemesis in Paris, the wonderful Rafa Nadal, is the opposite, playing his tennis as if he will get punished if he doesn’t try his hardest. And Novak Djokovich smacks the ball as if driven by some inner demons, knowing that this should be, must be, his time.
But English sporting culture seems hardwired to underestimate the calmer routes to victory. As Gianluca Vialli said in his not very originally titled book, The Italian Job, he was astounded by how much English football cheered effort alone. Perhaps the sad truth is that English football will destroy you, whoever you are. If you’re detached like Sven, you’re not doing enough. If you’re one of the lads like Steve McLaren, then there’s no mystery, no control. And if you’re aloof and authoritarian, like Capello, then you’re not letting the boys relax. But it’s not the manager’s fault at all. It’s our frenzied footballing culture.
Finally, top hats akimbo please for the Independent newspaper’s admirable racing tipster, Chris McGrath, who selected the first three in the Derby in the correct order in his column last Saturday. But that eternal conundrum which has taxed so many of us who have spent too long chewing our biros in the premises of Mr William Hill — namely, ‘Do racing correspondents actually bother to put money on this rubbish they tip?’ — has been answered: No, not even when they aren’t rubbish. For McGrath, a mere tenner on his Derby triple would have netted him more than seven grand. He didn’t invest. No wonder his wife greeted him with an arched eyebrow when he returned, empty-handed, from Epsom.
Roger Alton is an executive editor of the Times.