With it’s playful green and red cartoon dust jacket, Ed Smith‘s What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons (Penguin Books, £14.99) could easily be taken for a belated Christmas stocking-filler, destined for a long stay in the bathroom’s literature section. But it deserves to be taken seriously. As the inside cover says:
Sport is a condensed version of life — only it matters less and comes up with better statistics.”
I realised this myself some time ago, and periodically spend more time following sports science than business and finance. And it was one of the thematic reasons for starting the Knackered Hack in the first place, to explore what could be learned from sport in general and my own participation in it in particular, without being glib. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions…
Smith, who is captain of Middlesex County Cricket Club, offers up sport as an under-used analytical resource from which can be drawn a number of intellectual and practical lessons about education, business, politics, the study of history, etc. The book takes the form of a series of essays, each kicking off from one sporting theme and following where any beam of light is usefully shed.
Smith takes in some of the old chestnuts such as: are our sporting heroes what they used to be? (the golden age hypothesis says no) or are our sportsmen and women getting perpetually better? (evolutionary theory says yes); is sport too commercial? — you’ve heard these discussed in the pub no doubt. He also covers some remarkable new ground for me, making some startling and insightful connections.
Before we get into cricket v baseball, as Smith himself explores, know that Smith understands both games well, and bigs up baseball as a crucible for pithy life observation, just as obsessive fans would claim. And he critiques the Moneyball strategy of the Oakland As from a player’s perspective. He also reveals baseball to be most likely a French invention, overtaking cricket for popularity in the Civil War (American of course) because of rough pitches, and then being gamed by some 19th century spin doctor called A. G. Spalding, who touted it that baseball championed the egalitarian, in contrast to the effeteness of cricket. Yes, he was just trying to sell more gear. And it worked. Despite the fact that cricket had enjoyed wide social acceptance in the US earlier in the century, it fell into terminal decline as a national pastime.
I’m no expert on Schumpeter’s oeuvre — though I’ve lived through one or two creative destruction episodes. But after 87 pages of What Sport Tells Us, all I could think of was Schumpeter, Schumpeter, Schumpeter. Smith elaborates on the fluctuating fortunes of sport, not just in terms of games and spectacle. He shows how at an industry (and at a national cultural) level the individual sporting disciplines are so rich themselves in creative destruction, confounding the stereotypes that fans, commentators and team owners all too frequently apply. On page 88, Smith finally drops the great man’s name. For the reader like me it was a back-of-the-net moment, as they say in soccer. Well-scored, Ed! When Penguin offered me the book for review, I hadn’t expected to find a discussion of how the free market has worked its invisible magic to raise the salaries of “left tackles” in American football. These hulks go unwatched on the field of play because all eyes follow the star quarter-back; but their presence determines whether the star player makes the goal or ends up face down in the mud. It all made sense to me. Schumpeter, he the man!
Someone should get Russ Roberts at EconTalk to interview Smith for a podcast. Smith is a broadcaster himself, having fronted a BBC programme called Peak Performance, which is sadly no longer in their online archive. In Roberts’ podcast with Schumpeter biographer Thomas McCraw, he highlights that when we observe an economic phenomenon like income inequality, the dominance of particular corporations (or, I’d suggest, the current credit crunch) we tend to see only the present snapshot in time; we miss the continuum. This can be both positive and negative. Bad news and bad money can drive out the good. But, Smith shows us that in the larger sweep of sporting history as well, so much of the hand-wringing of the short run is misplaced.
He also despatches sporting cliches all over the ground like loose bowling. He sends the concept of professionalism for six, hits a homerun against the notion of talent’s primacy, but saves his best shot for the role of luck and our contradictory and mistaken attitude to how it operates both in games, and also how it influences entire career paths.
Believing that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, on the other hand, is actually a rather easy doctrine. (At least until you realize the idea has led you up the garden path.) The fallacy that desire and determination hold the keys to all success appeals to the inner adolescent in us that cannot bear the thought of hard work going to waste. I try, ergo I succeed; the world is just, so I will prevail; there is a fair distribution of justice, so I will be lauded. Such a shame that it isn’t true.
Of course, that logic is not reversible. Sitting around waiting for luck to come your way is as misguided as thinking that good things always come to those who ‘want it enough.’ The truth is that determination and desire are necessary but not sufficient. We have to try like crazy; we have to retain a relentless sense of determination; we have to make sacrifices and take the road less travelled. And yet still there are no guarantees. Even after all that, we may come up empty-handed. That is the bleak but unavoidable logic of anyone who has deep ambitions.”
But before we get too depressed by the potential tragedy of it all, he has a whole chapter celebrating the need to retain a sense of amateur love for the game, but not in the long out-dated Corinthian notion. Quoting Simon Barnes, quoting Brazilian World Cup Coach Felipe Scolari:-
Scolari said: ‘My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.’
[Barnes continues] This is not romantic twaddle. It is a fact that the more important something gets, the harder it is to do it well. We can all walk along the kerbstone in safety, but if the drop were not six inches but six miles, how then would we walk? Football matters too much; it matters to the players too much. As a result, the mattering gets in the way of the playing.”
In Smith’s own words:-
All professional sportsmen battle with their fears and anxieties. And by no means do they always conquer them. We live on the brink of disappointment, of failure, of being dropped, of getting sacked, of retreating back into civilian life with our dreams unfulfilled. That is the parlous state in which most sportsmen usually find themselves. All of us have experienced downward spirals of anxiety and introspection – I am losing form, my place is in jeopardy, my career could be in danger. Often you deny the problem, which secretly increases your anxiety – you are scared of admitting your fears even to yourself – and your form worsens still further.
Remove the obstacles to playing well. Anxiety is one of the obstacles. Worrying is one of the obstacles. Failing to focus simply and only on the job in hand is one of the obstacles [...] Dreading failure is one of the obstacles. Now you are thinking like a player again that is usually a beginning of a return to form.
The exposure to failure that really loving your sport entails is painful. The following paragraph(s) sang out particularly plaintively to the Knackered ears:
Trying desperately hard and not getting what you want is decent summary of what almost all sportsmen go through. The more deeply you compete and the greater the quality of your caring (to lift a line from Larkin), the more it hurts when you lose, or fail, or fall short. Each time a competitor taps into the essence of his personality in an attempt to win a sports match, he takes a risk. The risk is that he will get no reward — in the sense of a win or a personal triumph — for exposing himself to that degree of psychological rawness. It is easy to resent having tried so hard in the first place.
On the other hand, being too disengaged isn’t the answer, as the next paragraph elaborates:-
If it didn’t get us anywhere today, why should I bother to care so deeply next time? One answer is that being prepared and able to experience such deep emotions, and being exposed to that degree of disappointment, is a privilege not open to many. It doesn’t feel like a privilege at the time. It feels like hell. But it makes for a life more fully lived. After ten years playing professional sport, I have come to the startling conclusion that a big part of me actually enjoys caring about sport, even when that caring expresses itself as pain at losing. I wouldn’t rather life was more pallid. It sometimes reminds me that I am not wasting my time — and protects me a little from the resigned emptiness we all dread in sport.”
So don’t be put off from ordering a copy from Amazon.uk or Amazon.ca to steal a march on any US publication plans that Penguin has. He is good on this stuff, you know. He read History at Cambridge, and because he is younger than me, has been more exposed to counter-factualism, which he uses quite devastatingly to examine some rather controversial sporting triumphs, like England’s unexpected win in the 2005 Ashes cricket series against Australia.
And to show that someone has already deftly combined sport and philosophy
, a re-run of one of my favourites. Schumpeter didn’t make the team on this occasion, but then… that was the story of his life.