Re-finding the Grip on Greatness

Something my coach shared with me and I thought a lot of sportsmen can relate to:

Oct 19, 2010
Money can buy a club, but form is priceless
When a sports star hits a bad patch, his bank balance is irrelevant
By Rohit Brijnath

OWNING a club, like Liverpool, should be about sentiment. Buyers must be able to mournfully recite stats of seasons lost, recollect precisely an Ian Rush goal, leap from their seats in blue-striped suits. It is a lovely thought, but deeply impractical.

The only stats that matter here arrive from an accounts ledger. The only passion here is profit. This, we sadly understand, is business: someone mans the goal-line and another the bottom line.

Money has altered the vocabulary of sport. Players have become brands and clubs are commodities, even if there is a coldness to such a definition, for it strips sport of its essential humanity.

The opposite view of sport, as a pure romantic pursuit, appears too idyllic now, in a time of ego, drugs, scandal, but at least it is more pleasurable and less clinical.

There is a need to place a dollar value to so much in sport, effectively turning a mysterious art into a pragmatic enterprise. Totalling the dollars Singapore athletes were rewarded with after the Commonwealth Games is intriguing, though how they won their medals, with nervous hands in tough arenas, tells us more about character.

The truth is, however powerful the role of commerce, the essential appeal of sport, week in and week out, remains the simple, unending struggle for form and confidence. This is incalculable.

When Andy Murray won the Shanghai Masters on Sunday, his pay cheque – appropriately – was barely mentioned. After all, outplaying Roger Federer so completely, and the new belief that seems to have settled in Murray’s head, defies a price tag.

Money assisted in Murray’s rise – in affording coaches, equipment, travel – but on the court, without breaks for mid-match coaching, a man is left alone with his fears and his inspiration. That is a beauty that is hard to cost.

Money brings no guarantee in sport for it is too fickle an enterprise. There is no sporting store where one can purchase courage, no corner shop that offers confidence for sale. Constantly athletes grapple with the vanishing of consistency. Where did it go? How does the mind manufacture it again? Here there is no discrimination on the basis of bank balance.

Private jets and plush penthouses are not worth a damn when goals don’t go in. Wayne Rooney netted 26 Premier League goals last season, but just one this year. Some unholy mix of injury, indiscretion, arrogance has interfered with the synchronicity of his feet and brain.

Federer couldn’t miss once; on Sunday, in Shanghai, he only missed. At one point, after over-hitting a shot he once could have done blindfolded, he stood in the centre of the court, hands on hip, a picture of confusion. He once wrote virtual textbooks on forehands, but now it is as if he can’t remember the stroke. Invincibility, he is reminded, is only loaned to athletes, it cannot be negotiated at an auction.

Said Federer: ‘Missing so many important shots really, over and over again, obviously took a lot of my confidence away.’ It had taken the same flight as Fernando Torres and Tiger Woods’, all these millionaires suddenly impoverished when it comes to form and confronted by sport’s enigmatic reality: it’s hard to win without confidence, yet to gain confidence you need to win.

Cricketer Rahul Dravid, one of India’s greatest batsmen, familiar with how self-assurance dips, says: ‘There is doubt. You worry a little. You question. You fall back on people who know your game. It’s easier if you know what is going wrong, but if you don’t know what the problem is, it can be confusing. But most athletes will just work harder.’

Form’s betrayal has a hundred fathers. For Torres perhaps injury and fitness, for Rooney his manager’s eroding belief, for Federer age, for Woods the distraction of scandal. But perhaps the first response is sweat. Another 1,000 forehands, another 60 free kicks over dummies, another 200 putts from six feet. This is the universal currency all swear by.

Some athletes will trust themselves, stay faithful to established routines. Some will visit therapists, turn obsessive, fiddle with equipment. Some will compensate for failing parts by adding new ones.

A tennis player might opt to volley to shorten points. A batsman may subtract a stroke from his arsenal to avoid error. Great players, if anything, are masterful at the art of problem solving – whether conditions, opponents, tactics. They find solutions till none remain.

Occasionally, what the athlete requires is another guru, a new voice in the head, repeating old mantras perhaps but with the odd new twist. So Federer, so long his own man, opted for Paul Annacone, once the unobtrusive voice in Pete Sampras’ ear. Woods parted ways with Hank Haney and signed up with Sean Foley.

If Alex Ferguson’s mind is set against him, Rooney may want to fly, for in another club’s belief in him may lie the return of his own. Either way, most will believe the same thing: just one goal, just one big win, and the tide of greatness will wash over them again. Such faith is beyond dollar appraisal.

Amidst all the economic mechanics of the Liverpool deal, a human thought intrudes. To see Rooney falter, Federer fumble, is a reminder that every athlete, even them, has his frailty. These men do not come from other planets; they’re just human beings struggling desperately to refind their grip on greatness. And when they do, when form returns, that moment will be priceless.
rohitb@sph.com.sg

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4 thoughts on “Re-finding the Grip on Greatness

  1. It’s arguably true: athletes are masters of creative adaptation, and there’s nothing that can buy agility & the will to keep going.

    …Although Rohit Brijnath himself is a bit of a contradiction. As a sports commentator he embdies everything that his article is not: a myopia only for the greats & idealism for the lost days of his “romantic” sport.

    Being great is not a label. It is a condition. Anything more is pure hubris, in my opinion.

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