Archive for the 'sport' Category

Coping with pressure

23 May 2017

In his book Etape, Richard Moore revisits stages of the Tour de France through the eyes of the protagonists. The first chapter in the book is about Chris Boardman’s win in the Prologue in Lille in 1994, which made him only the second Briton to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. Boardman’s route into the professional peleton had been an unusual one; he turned professional relatively late, at the age of 25, after winning the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then breaking the world hour record in Bordeaux in 1993–a record attempt that took place just as the Tour went through the city.

Boardman was invited onto the Tour podium the day after his ride, although not all of the Tour riders were impressed. Luc Leblanc, then the leading French rider, said publicly that most members of the Tour peleton could better Boardman’s distance if they put their minds to it.

Boardman was always quite anxious about his performance, and before Barcelona, he went to see John Syer, a leading sports psychologist.

Prior to the Barcelona Olympics, Boardman spilled out his fears to John Syer. “What if this goes wrong? What if I can’t go fast enough? What if the other guy’s faster? What if I puncture.”

Boardman expected Syer to offer words of reassurance. Instead he said: Yeah, well, those things could happen.” Boardman was puzzled. “I said, ‘Hang on, aren’t you supposed to be helping me here?’ But he said, ‘No, this is the deal, mate–elation and despair are two sides of the same coin, in equal and opposite proportion. If you want to risk the big win, you’ve got to risk the big low. So instead of trying to deny that, why don’t we stare it in the face?'”

John Syer was the first well-known sports psychologist in the UK. He was a former international volleyball player and coach, who came to prominence from working with the Spurs first team in the early 1980s. His book Team Spirit, one of a string of books he wrote or co-wrote to explain his methods,  was published in 1986.

A story I remember well from that book was of his work with the forward Steve Archibald, a talented player who needed a certain amount of anger to play well, but didn’t need it in the rest of his life. Syer helped him deal with this by having him visualise letting a bear(Archibald’s own image) out of a cage before the game, and then returning it to the cage after the game.

I remember the story because I tried a version of this myself in the early 1990s. I had taken a job in a new role that brought me into conflict with some of the engineers in the television company, and the head of department and his deputy proceeded to try to undermine me in every way they could. Nothing was too little trouble for them. Every day–for the better part of a year–was a sea of passive aggression.

By the time I went home each day, having absorbed the best or worst they threw at me, I always felt terrible. Remembering Syer’s story, I found a box and put it in the bottom of my filing cabinet. Before I left for the night, I would go through a ritual of visualising removing their hostility and leaving it in the box, in the office. It worked well enough.

As for Boardman, in that famous Prologue win, where he rode faster than any Tour rider before or since, he caught his ‘minute man’, the rider who left sixty seconds ahead of him, which shouldn’t really happen to professionals in a ride that lasts for eight minutes. His minute man? Luc Leblanc. What goes around, comes around.


Lumps of energy

3 April 2017


I’m always interested in how professional sportspeople think about their craft. It’s intrinsically interesting, and sometimes there are life lessons to be taken from it as well.

So I was interested to see Lizzie Armitstead talking in a Guardian interview this weekend with Simon Hattenstone, about using energy, or conserving it, during bike races.

She refers to racing as a game rather than a sport. “It’s like chess on wheels. Imagine your energy as a big block of sugar. You can only chip away at it a couple of times, and you need to use that energy at the right time. If you have the instinct and logic to attack 20km into a race, it might look like a strange move to somebody else, but if it pays off, there is nothing better. It’s very tactical. On the road, it’s not always the strongest person who wins.”

It reminded me of the period after my son was born. He didn’t sleep at all well for the first eight months or so, and so I was always tired. (To borrow her phrase, my energy had become quite a small block of sugar). I found that managing my effort at work was essential if I was to function in the job I was doing at the time. My solution was to focus on the one or two things that actually mattered each day, rather than spreading my concentration and application too thin, and making sure my energy went into those.

The image of Lizzie Armitstead (left) on her way to winning silver at the 2012 Olympic Games is by Doug Shaw and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

My best 2015 Tour de France moment

28 July 2015

Steve Cummings wins Stage 14 of the Tour de France
 © ASO/X.Bourgois

My favourite moment in this year’s Tour de France, won by Chris Froome, was the stage win in Mende by Steve Cummings, the British rider who now rides for MTN Quebeka.

Several reasons for this. First, that MTN Qubeka is a “wild card” team at the Tour, one of those included by the organisers at their discretion, usually as part of a development strategy.

Second, Qubeka, which is South African-based, is an NGO devoted to improving opportunities for cycling in Africa, and half of its team are African. And since Saturday was Mandela Day, the timing was perfect. A South African friend sent me a  link to a South African report that suggested (tongue in cheek) that Cummings had had “the spectral hand of Tata Madiba on his buttocks”.

Third, it was a victory for craft and experience; Steve Cummings is a 34-year old rider who has been riding as a professional for more than a decade, riding for teams such as Sky and BMC, and has also had some success on the track, which tends to sharpen speed.

Although I like the romance of the African connection, it’s the craft element I’m going to write about here. The last four-and-a-half kilometres of the stage to Mende comprises a short-but-tough three kilometre climb followed by a fast downhill to the finish line. The young French climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot crested the climb first, Bardet followed by Pinot. Cummings isn’t a climber, but he is a good time triallist and he’d used that power to get up the hill in third, to general surprise, but was still some way back from the other two.

Fighting for the gap

The trick in professional cycling when fighting for a stage win is not to let another rider get onto your back wheel; if they succeed, they will almost certainly be able to use your slipstream as a springboard to accelerate past you at the right moment. Where the craft came in was two-fold: first Cummings knew that he’d have the advantage on the downhill stretch: climbers are typically lighter than time-triallists. As he said afterwards:

“When the road tipped and went down, the race sort of changed, it was in my favour. I had more kilos, I was more aero than the other two.”

And as he passed the French riders, he went past at some speed, giving himself a moment’s advantage as they were first surprised, and then gathered themselves for the chase. But they were back on his wheel quite quickly. Cyclists say that winning often takes a little luck; you gamble and you might not succeed. For Cummings that bit of luck was that Pinot was immediately behind him, and not Bardet, for Pinot’s known to be careful on corners, and wouldn’t take them as quickly as Cummings was prepared to.

“I caught them and went right to the front ready for the corners. I knew Pinot would be cautious and that he wouldn’t corner as fast as I could. It wasn’t really a risk. I saw that he wasn’t on the wheel and went for it, using my track speed for the final 400 metres. It’s hard for a climber to stay on the wheel of a track rider.”

Sadly I couldn’t find one usable piece of video that shows the whole sequence. The Tour’s video of the day shows him – 2’30” in, commentary in French –  catching the French riders at the top of the hill; its video of the last kilometre shows him hitting the corners at speed (Cummings is already on the front when it starts). And you’ll have to click on the links, because embedding them here seems to involve a whole new career.

Bardet and Pinot said afterwards they’d made a tactical error. But they made good in the last week of the Tour, when each of them won on one of the big mountain stages in the Alps.



6 November 2011

My own chess career was modest: I made it as far as number 4 board in a moderately good school team. But that was enough to give me a respect for the game, and especially the way in which quite small advantages in ability were almost inevitably transformed into winning positions.

So I enjoyed the account by the journalist Stephen Moss of covering the launch of a chess initiative at the House of Commons, hosted by Rachel Reeves MP, now Shadow Treasury Secretary, who two decades ago was the British girls’ Under-14 champion. Moss challenged her to a game of blitz chess (10 minutes per player for all moves) and finding her “a little rusty” duly beats her.

But then the story takes a twist, in the shape of the former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, who was also attending the launch:

He quickly sizes up the situation – that Reeves, his host for the day and the new standard-bearer of chess in schools – has been walloped, and suggests a rematch. He will, he says, intervene on her behalf just three times.

We play again. … As the game gets more interesting he can’t help lending Reeves a hand. “I’m just offering general advice,” he insists as her position improves while mine deteriorates. … “Now final, final, final shot,” says Kasparov as my position becomes dire. He has seen a way to win my queen, and Reeves eventually sees it too. Amid much laughter and applause I resign.

“I think that’s one of the best games I’ve ever played,” says Reeves with neat self-deprecation.

The image at the top comes from Chess Right, and is used with thanks.

Guards of honour

31 May 2011

Alberto Contador won the Giro d’Italia at the weekend by an impressive – or suspicious – 6 minutes 10 seconds. But what I want to write about here is an episode which shows another side to the sport. On Stage 3, the young sprinter, Wouter Weylandt, crashed and died on a descent. Travelling at between 50-60 mph, his bike apparently clipped a wall as he looked back at a group behind him  and he was thrown off, being killed instantly as hit a wall on the other side of the road.

Cycling is a dangerous sport, and crashes are common. But deaths on the road are rare, largely because of the extreme handling skills of those who make it to the professional ranks. There are about a thousand professionals in Europe – less than the number of footballers in the top two divisions in the English leagues alone.

When someone dies, cycling has its ways of honouring them. In the Giro, this was done by riding the next day’s stage, not racing it. Each of the teams in the race rode at the front of the peloton for 10 kilometres, and at the end of the stage Weylandt’s team, Leopard Trek, together with his training partner Tyler Farrar, were allowed to go to the front and cross the line together (see the picture at the top of this post). The prize money for the stage was donated to his family – his girlfriend is five months pregnant.

You might think that the spectators would be irritated about being deprived of a day’s racing. Not a bit of it: they stood by the road and applauded, paying their respects to the cortege.

Leopard Trek has set up a memorial fund to help Weylandt’s family. The picture is via the blog Endurance Racing, and is used with thanks.

Following the Ashes

4 December 2010

The arrival of a new Ashes series always sends me in search of Gideon Haigh, who is probably the best cricket journalist currently writing in English: informative, insightful, illuminating, measured, and with a keen sense of the game’s history and wider context. As in 2009, he’s covering the series for the Australian Business Spectator (free but needs registration). So far he’s hit his usual heights. Here are some extracts from the first two days play at Adelaide.

From Day One, which started a few hours after the FIFA World Cup debacle in Zurich:

Misery loves company, and there is something consoling about tradition too: no matter how many brown paper bags change hands at FIFA, Australia and England will always have each other. So there was something rather warming and reassuring about the preparatory rites of the Second Test: all rise for the national anthem, and let’s salute the red, white, blue and green, the last provided by the Milo munchkins, lined up to mix their corporate message with the patriotic ones.

Day One again, with Ponting coming in at 0-1 with Katich run out in the first over without facing a ball:

Early losses are one thing; self-inflicted wounds another. Katich’s was the sort of death by misadventure that rocks a dressing room, still to seat itself comfortably, still to obtain itself the first cups of tea, maybe still straining to detect early movement on television. Passing a batsman yet to face a ball was certainly not the manner in which Ponting would have imagined batting in his 150th Test.

From Day Two, on Andrew Strauss’ early dismissal after leaving the ball:

Because it is necessarily exploratory, opening the batting is full of such infinitesimal judgements. Strauss could even claim that his non-shot selection was vindicated by Hawk-Eye, which mysteriously pronounced that the delivery would barely have grazed the target. But leaving on length – as Strauss also did to the first ball of the second innings in Brisbane – is frankly better left until a proper evaluation of bounce is made, particularly when one is unfamiliar with the bowler, as Strauss is with Bollinger.

And on Trott’s narrow escape from being run out early in his innings:

Cook turned his partner sternly back, and the fielder at mid-wicket was a left-hander, Doherty, who had to run around the ball before collecting it, and his necessarily hurried throw missed the stumps. When the ball is new and hard, and the ball is likelier to travel square than straight, mid-wicket should really be right-handed: Trott the fielder would have comfortably run Trott the batsman out.

When you read the columns for extracts such as these, you notice two things. The first is how well written they are, with considered sentences and carefully structured syntax. The second is that I could have picked four or five, each as interesting as those above: on Cook’s batting style, on Pietersen playing spinners, on Ponting’s vulnerabilities early in his innings. There is depth along with the richness. Enjoy.

The portrait of Gideon Haigh at the top of this post is from Melbourne Cricket Club, and is used with thanks.

When England lose

29 June 2010

After England’s World Cup débacle it seems a good moment to be reading Why England Lose, by the journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski. It turns out that there are only three factors which explain international footballing success:

  • Size of population
  • National income
  • Experience of playing internationals

In general, England have outperformed those factors, a bit; but in terms of overall results there’s no quick way of changing the odds. (Population and national income changes slowly; international experience increases, but so does that of other countries). Well, almost no quick way; it seems it is possible to amplify experience by hiring in know-how, which is why there is a thriving international market in coaches with experience of managing sides in the Champions’ League.

That at least, was the theory of England’s hiring foreign coaches in the last decade. The book – which seems to have been updated for its recent paperback publiction – is  enthusiastic about Capello’s record, but at least offers the caveat that his England defeats have come against ‘big teams’; England has always managed to do well against the ‘minnows’.

So perhaps ‘know-how’ needs to be understood more broadly, and here the wider differences in expertise between England and its bigger competitors was noted this week by Paul Hayward:

Spain, the European champions, have 750 Grade A Uefa-trained coaches, compared to under 150 in England. All those English tutors instruct fully-grown men while in Spain 640 of the 750 teach five-year-olds and up. A Spanish cultural revolution 15 years ago has transformed the national team.

Can England win it again? It turns out that home advantage is worth ⅔ of goal per game, which is why South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002, Sweden reached the final of the World Cup in 1958 and and six countries – Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany and Argentina and France – have won the competition at home, in eighteen World Cups.

I took the picture at the top of the post. It’s is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Alone, again

13 May 2010

Fulham’s close-run defeat against Atletico Madrid in the final of the grandly named ‘Europa Cup’ last night reminded me, as it would, of the late playwright Dennis Potter, who is almost as strongly identified with Hammersmith and Fulham as he is with his native Forest of Dean.

At the end of the original UK television version of Pennies From Heaven, of course, Arthur Parker commits suicide (or not) by throwing himself from Hammersmith Bridge.

In The Singing Detective, the detective (Michael Gambon) observes – and this is from memory at the moment – that people go to football matches ‘to be together’. ‘Except for Fulham’ he adds, of a team which would have been in the second or third tier of the English League at the time. ‘You go to Fulham to be alone’.

The marketing is the message

20 December 2009

Accenture has announced that it has ended its sponsorship deal with Tiger Woods, and staff are supposed to have removed all of those embarrassing advertising posters which say that the company ‘knows what it takes to be a Tiger’. Well, obviously word travels slowly across the Atlantic these days, since there were big Accenture posters with the golfing superstar on them in Copenhagen and Heathrow airports on Friday. One of them, at least, seemed appropriate to the moment, even if it was shot in the days when Woods’ putting was more interesting than his private life, and the ball is impossibly placed off the edge of the green. The caption reads: “It’s what you do next that counts“.

Long distance cricket

2 October 2009


I followed most of the Ashes, the one-dayers against Australia, and the Champions Trophy games via the ball by ball coverage on cricinfo, so I was amused to read an account of the so-called ‘synthetic broadcasts’ constructed by the Australian broadcaster ABC to cover the Ashes in Australia in 1934 and 1938. (I’m indebted to Gideon Haigh’s excellent book Inside Out for this).

A panel of broadcasters convened in the studios in Sydney and reported more or less as live the ball-by-ball information sent by means of coded telegrams by Eric Scholl at the Test match grounds. Sound effects were provided by a pencil and a block of wood; crowd noises came from a gramophone record. The listening public was enthralled, staying up to listen until the small hours of the morning. Employers complained.

And how unlike the coverage on cricinfo, much as I depend on it in the absence of a Sky Sports subscription. Reading between the lines of some of the summer coverage, they have a team of writers based in Melbourne, who watch the television coverage and transcribe it into ball by ball updates. In 70 years we’ve updated the technology but the method seems all but identical. Cricinfo, it should be said, does have a journalist at the ground. He (almost invariably he) feeds colour into the ball-by-ball commentary from time, but his main role is to write the Bulletin, the analysis pieces at the end of each session of play. To describe the action, it doesn’t really matter where you are; to understand it, well, you still have to be there.