Sport as Life


The thesis: truly great sporting skill and self-expression come best when not too structured, not too investigated, not too explored.

The counter: nearly-great performance is helped by study, stats, practice and heightened professionalism.

Stimulated by a cricket ground conversation with a good friend – and his kindness in buying me Ed Smith’s ‘What sport tells us about life’, I’m pondering the balance of thought and action, impulse and impact, standing up and standing out.

Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’ comes from matching high challenge with high skill. This suggests a linearity – progressive improvement. Perhaps for some things and some people it’s more non-linear: in life, as well as sport.

A great work, a stunning goal or a pivotal intervention – are they more likely as a ‘moment of genius’? Or perhaps as likely a moment we could potentially judge as ‘madness’, depending on the outcome. Do our greatest interventions come where we ignore risk and just ‘act’, with no conscious consideration of the chances or consequences.

There is a fate and fatalism side to these moments – whether in politics, war, life or sport. The sense that the script has already been written and destiny calls – a feeling that life stands still, the world is watching and it was meant to be.

The best goal I ever scored – volleyed low and unstoppable from a zinging cross – had that sense of time standing still. There are moments in working life too, I can recall, of almost out-of-body otherworldliness when the stakes were high, but ignored, in favour of speaking-up and speaking out.

Of course you remember the moments it came off – not when it didn’t. There’s lady luck and ‘confirmation bias’ to thank in ‘memorable’ moments too.

Perhaps what we call ‘genius’ is simply the product of a self-belief which ignores the situation and unconsidered – sometimes lucky, but often skilful – action. How many times you pull it off determines how history judges the ‘actor’.

But the ‘average’ means many must fall below, for a few to soar above. Heroes ignore the odds. Most of us consider them. But maybe we should all ignore the odds too – at least once in a while.