What sport teaches us about success
Andy Homden reviews the latest from Matthew Sayed, author of Bounce and Black Box Thinking, and looks for lessons about learning and “Growth Mindset” as well as about sport.
The human condition
Matthew Sayed is fast becoming my favourite contemporary journalist. Twice recognised as the Sports Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, he writes astutely and with great compassion not just about sport, but about the human condition itself.
He wants to know what motivates people to push themselves to the limit, how they have the capacity to reach the heights of achievement, while coaxing their bodies into performances of great beauty through the process of repeated practice. He wants to understand how people learn how to do things, and then perform at levels that defy expectation.
Syed and learning
In fact the subtitle of the first part of this new collection of sporting articles which deals with Building a Champion and The Mental Game could just as well have been What Sport Teaches Us About Learning. Any teacher with even a passing interest in sport, will find Syed’s insight into how we learn and the conditions that enable us to learn, compelling. All teachers should at least consider his views about, failure, belief, emotion, risk, teamwork (which at the highest level he calls “The Collective Zone”) and what he considers to be the excessive weight attached to “talent” as compared to the importance of purposeful practice.
Fans will already be familiar with some of these ideas from Bounce (provocatively subtitled The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice) and Black Box Thinking. Syed deals with important ideas, however, ones that are well worth returning to. Many teachers will recognise the influence of Carol Dweck in some of these articles, an influence which of course he fully acknowledges in Bounce.
This wonderful try is the perfect illustration of what Syed calls “The Collective Zone”. Barbarians v The All Blacks, 1973. Even if you are not a rubgby fan it is worth watching – the human condition at its joyfull, creative and collaborative best, expressed in a sporting movement.
But just who are “The Greatest”? In one way, the title is misleading, for while Syed looks at the athletes who we would all generally consider to be “Great” (and we are talking about Ali, Federer, Messi, Bannister and Phelps), he is fascinated by what he calls “The Invisible Men”, the members of the team of lesser mortals, whose intelligent, motivated and hardworking effort create the chances for the “gods” to achieve greatness – the Barcelona iceberg that enables Messi to do his stuff, the “Domestique” Bernhard Eisel in Team Sky who plays such a vital part in getting Chris Froome across the line at the head of the pack (and if you don’t know what a Domestique is you’ll just have to read the article)
The story of ordinary people
In fact, The Greatest is about ordinary people, about their achievements, about the obstacles that they have overcome and most importantly how they have overcome them. It is when he is writing about sportsmen and women who are not normally in the limelight, that Syed’s writing achieves an emotional intensity that makes him an outstanding journalist.
His stories are about parents, friends and volunteers who make things possible for other people. These are the teammates who off camera run into space and draw off opponents and allow their colleagues to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Astute and sensitive observer
Like all great journalists, Sayed is an astute and sensitive observer. He sees more than his subject. He notices details that others miss, which speak to something greater than sport and help us understand ourselves in all our complexity – our darker side as well as our potential for generosity and self-sacrifice. What’s more, Syed does all this in an approachable, unassuming style without a hint of preaching. And then you realise. The story of the Greatest, is also the story of ourselves.
Andy Homden writes regularly for ITM. One area of his treacher training work focuses on creating the conditions that enable both adults and young people to communicate effectively using the written word. He is the CEO of Consilium Education.
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