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Why is it always the sports guys who seem to open my mind?

Posted on 21 June 2015 | 12:06pm

I know some of you might think I am one of those people who always thinks he is right. And to be frank, more often than not I am. But I do have a more open mind than most and I do actually love meeting people who make me think differently.

Recently I have met a few of those. And spot what they have in common. One is Jose Mourinho. The second is retired athlete Kriss Akabusi. The third is former Wales rugby star turned gay icon Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas.

Mourinho, as I may have mentioned before, is one of the WINNERS I interviewed for the book of that name. I have seen him again since, to resume the conversation. As I recorded in the book’s main profile on master strategy, he is a disruptor who has twice now made me slightly rethink and retweak long held views on the interplay between strategy and tactics.

Akabusi is someone I have only known from afar until this weekend, having spent the last couple of days with him at a conference in Malta. He slept in and missed my presentation, but I saw his, which was terrific.

I was on just after breakfast (and given how late he got to bed, I can understand why he gave it a miss.) I did what I do more and more at speaking gigs these days, mainly get up, take a look at the audience and only then decide what I am going to talk about, yesterday after offering a few multiple choice questions on audience preference re style and content. I do this more to prevent myself from becoming bored than the audience, though the two are linked. If I am tired of hearing what I have to say, why should I expect anyone else to be interested?

Anyway it went down well enough judging by the reaction in the hall and on social media. Then I waited for Kriss, who did a fantastic resume of his life story, poor son of Nigerian parents who left him to be raised in care, into the British army, running talent spotted by a sergeant, into athletics, and glory. The climax of his presentation was him showing, and shouting his way through, the film of his most famous race, when he ran the final leg to beat the Americans in the 1991 World Championships 4 x 400 relay.  The brilliant David Coleman’s commentary was the perfect soundtrack, especially as he twice expressed his scepticism about Akabusi’s chances of holding off the Americans even before the baton got to him. It was wonderful stuff. So was the whole speech. Filled with great stories and characters, told with fantastic energy and passion.

As we walked out together I asked him how many times he had done that presentation. ‘What? You mean so far this week?’ he replied, before laughing – he was a famously loud laugh. He told me he had not gone more than a few days at most in the last 20 years without doing that presentation, or a variation of it. But what was fantastic was that because of the energy and the passion and the broader, modern lessons – especially about teamship, and the wonderful story of how he and Roger Black forced the UK Athletics management to re-order the relay team so that Black, their best runner, went off first not last  – everyone in that room felt he was talking to them, and telling them a story he had never told before.

Now I still couldn’t do the same speech again and again. But the lesson I took from it was that if you like doing something, and your audience likes it, don’t worry too much about changing a winning formula. Just keep it up to date and keep on tweaking but as mega-brain chess maestro Garry Kasparov told me in WINNERS, don’t change your strategy unless the fundamentals change.

Gareth Thomas, whom henceforth I shall call Alfie because that is what everyone calls him, said something which challenged me rather more fundamentally than either Jose or Kriss. I know Alfie well, having worked on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand a decade ago, when he became captain after Brian O’Driscoll was battered out of the tour. We became friends, and have kept in touch, including through that period when he openly and publicly came to terms with his sexuality, and deservedly become something of a hero for doing so. He also owes me forever, because I wangled him a place in the Soccer Aid match at Old Trafford with Diego Maradona, about which I never talk.

Anyway we were speaking at a conference last week in London, him on a panel about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, me afterwards about the book and the psychology of winning and what I learned from sport that ought to be applied in politics and business. As I often do I also talked about mental health and mental illness.

Afterwards Alfie was the first person to come up to me. He does a lot of work in schools now and he said that he felt there was a danger in the message I was putting out about the paramount importance of winning. Alfie, as both team-mates and opponents from his playing days know, is as competitive as they come. This was not my and other mothers’ dictum that ‘it is taking part not winning that counts.’ This was more, as he put it, that sometimes the desire to win can be such ‘that it becomes a form of mental illness.’

Earlier that day, as I had told the conference, I had done an interview with Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 about Lance Armstrong, and Alfie said the Texan cyclist may be a case in point. I had talked of the quote Armstrong gave to me, when I first interviewed him even before the Lions tour, when I still believed he was clean, just better and harder working than the rest, to he effect that he saw death from cancer and losing the Tour de France as ‘the same thing.’

‘That is sick,’ said Alfie. ‘I mean literally.’ So he asked me to have a think about whether there might be an inconsistency, or at least a considerable tension, between my campaigning on mental illness whilst exhorting the virtues of winning.

I did discover in my research that ‘maladaptive competitiveness’ – to which I plead guilty – is seen by some as a medical condition. So maybe he has a point. He has certainly got me thinking. And I am not sure yet what I conclude. But I reckon he and I should do a debate in a school and get to the heart of what we think about it.

Alfie is among the most winning winning mindsets I have come across. But he is saying there are limits. And crossing them may be a form of mental illness. That is quite a big point I would say. I intend to mull on it, and am interested in the mullings of others.

Isn’t it interesting, too, and maybe a bit worrying, that these days I find it is sportsmen and women, more than politicians, who get my brain shifting to places it has not gone before? Maybe it comes back to one of the points I make in the book, that top people in sport now think nothing of getting the best psychological support, up to and including top psychiatrists, whilst in business and politics there remains something of a taboo about admitting that we might need them? Just a thought.

  • Steve Cairns

    Why do people want to be winners? This is an extract from A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield:

    You may remember that some years ago a series of articles ran in the newspapers about plans to start a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners.

    At this time a concerned feminist wrote to the Boston Globe pointing out that if there were sperm banks there should also be egg banks, The Boston Globe printed a letter of reply to her from George Wald, himself a Nobel Prize-winning biologist from Harvard University, a gentleman and a man of wisdom at that. George Wald wrote to her :

    “You’re absolutely right. It takes an egg as well as a sperm to start a Nobel laureate. Every one of them has had a mother as well as a father. You can say all you want of fathers, but their contribution to conception is really rather small.

    But I hope you weren’t seriously proposing an egg bank. Nobel laureates aside, there isn’t much in the way of starting one technically. There are some problems, but nothing as hard as involved in the other kinds of breeder reactors.

    But think of a man so vain as to insist on getting a superior egg from an egg bank. Then he has to fertilize it. When it’s fertilized where does he go with it? To his wife?

    “Here, dear,” you can hear him saying, “I just got this superior egg from an egg bank and just fertilized it myself. Will you take care of it?’

    “I’ve got eggs of my to worry about,” she answers. “You know what you can do with your superior egg. Go rent a womb. While you’re at it, you’d better rent a room too.

    You see, it just won’t work. The truth is what one really needs is not Nobel laureates but love. How do you think one gets to be a Nobel laureate? Wanting love, that’s how. Wanting it so bad one works all the time and ends up a Nobel laureate. It’s a consolation prize.

    What matters is love. Forget sperm banks and egg banks. Banks and love are incompatible. If you don’t know that, you haven’t been to your bank lately.

    So just practice loving. Love a Russian. You’d be surprised how easy it is and how it will brighten your morning. Love an Iranian, a Vietnamese, people not just here but everywhere. Then when you’ve gotten really good at it, try something hard like loving the politicians in our nation’s capital.”

  • Stephen Wheeler

    As a native of South Wales, I’ve been familiar with Alfie since he made his debut for Wales as a teenager. He’s always been something of a cult-hero in Wales and it’s good to see he’s become something of a deep thinker since his retirement from playing. The point he makes about ‘maladaptive competitiveness’ certainly struck a chord with me.

    To recount my own experience, at school I found it very difficult to work within the strict structures imposed on me. I also saw a couple of friends, driven to excel at school, ultimately burn-out and breakdown. Like so many other young people I rejected school, largely because I didn’t want to happen to me what had happened to my friends. I think that having that drive to win and achieve is good, but trying to fit that drive into a structure like school, that might not fit the way some people work, can cause mental health issues like those experienced by my friends and, to a certain extent, me.

    It was interesting hear your old Lions manager Sir Clive Woodward interviewing Joey Barton on BBC 5 Live last year. Barton is a wayward talent if ever there was one, seen as “troubled” by some people, and his answer to being asked if he’d realised his potential was very revealing. He answered “yes”. Woodward was surprised by this answer, Barton has quite modest achievements in football, but I wasn’t. From where he came from, he’s achieved far more in life that he could ever have hoped for. Also, for the purposes of this conversation, where existing structures seem to cause him problems he’s someone who is finding ways to do things and to achieve on his own terms. In his case he’s also doing a degree in philosophy.

    From this perspective, Lance Armstrong chose to deal with winning within a restrictive structure by cheating. The truth will out and he’s a lesser person as a result. Gareth Thomas, Alfie, achieved a great deal in rugby, but always seemed to be a troubled character. He appears a happier and more contented person after coming-out and re-engaging with life on his own terms. He, like Joey Barton, seems to have grown enormously as a person in the process.

    Some people thrive within the existing structures. It’s great that the existing structures work for them and doesn’t cause them pain and anguish. For those that the existing structures do cause pain and anguish – mental illness for all intents and purposes – then approaching things differently, outside the existing structures, on their own terms, seems a rational way to move forward. It’s winning, just by an alternative route. I suspect a lot of the people in you new book did things differently.

    Working away inside existing structures did cause me problems and my own battle with depression. It was only when I re-engaged on my own terms that I began to win. I knew I wanted to achieve something in life, and after leaving school with nothing I eventually re-engaged with education on my own terms and am now at the point where, at the grand old age of forty-seven, I’m submitting a proposal to do a PhD.

    I seem to have rambled a bit hear but I hope I’ve made some relevant point. It’s something we need to have an open discussion about.

    • Ehtch

      Knew Alfie was gay before than most. Am from West Wales, and an electrician mate from Swansea told me in the end of the 1990s. Glad for him that he has sorted his shit out. Be happy! More girls for us Alfie! 🙂

  • reaguns

    Fascinating couple of blogs really, Alastair on top form.

    Hmmm… what do I think about Alastair’s question about admitting we might “need” psychological support. Well as an adult-learner I recently did an exam, and I noticed in the few days before the exam, people started talking about all these psychological crutches they were going to use to help them in the exam, positive thinking and what not. I thought “Nonsense, too late for that, what you should have done is practise, revise, etc.”

    But then in an exam situation, I have never ever felt I didn’t do as well as I could on the day of the exam itself. I have never let nerves or pressure get the better of me. I have however, often taken shortcuts and not studied properly or enough, not done the preparatory exercises and so forth, so I have done badly in exams, but due to simply not knowing the stuff, not having prepared, rather than having a wobble on the day.

    This is why I think sport is different. I have done individual and team sports, from football and rugby to kickboxing, and have found that, even when I’ve been up against similar opposition, I could be brilliant one day, awful the next day, mediocre the day after that. I always believed psychology was the key to unlocking that. I tried reading a few things, but I got too old before I could find or apply any answers. I found sport much tougher than exams. When you sit an exam, no one tries to barge you off the chair or knock the pen out of your hand!

    If I were a professional sportsman, and such help was available, then I would certainly avail of it.

    What is the lesson for politicians? Well I remember Alastair saying that even through his spells of depression, he was still able to somehow muddle through his work, except for one day when he had to ask a deputy to handle something like a press conference for him.

    I’m not one of those who takes the “They’re all idiots” view of politics. I have a good educational and professional background myself, but in terms of politics we are talking elite here. Rather the idiots are those who can’t see that these are some of the sharpest people in the country who get into the top jobs in politics, as are those scrutinising them, in other words handling a press conference in Alastair’s old job, or handling Prime Minister’s questions time would be so much tougher than any job I have ever done, any exam I have ever done, to the extent that maybe it is as tough as top level sport, hence it might be no surprise that there is more to learn from sport than academia and business.

  • Ehtch

    LADIES, guys? Give me strength! Give Ali an education, for fuck sakes! 🙂

  • Ehtch

    on the head Karen… Catch up Ali ,

  • Ehtch

    On the head son, sorry, Karen! Catch up Ali…

  • Ehtch

    Darn. But third is good, beat the (ALF GARNETT WARNING) hitlers. : ) Lloyd hatrick for US was amazing – that third goal of hers! INCREDIBLE!!!! gooooooooooooooooooooooool….