Only a blog about leadership and workplace learning written in southern England could possibly mention cricket twice in less than two months, but the lessons in life for which you are able to enrol do depend partly on the life you follow. And fascinating observations can be had – or read – in unlikely places. The June 2009 issue of Word magazine (a UK popular music and culture magazine) carries an interview with Ed Smith, former Kent, Middlesex and England cricketer, Daily Telegraph columnist, and now full-time writer: his latest book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, is a reflection on the lessons about the wider world than we can learn from the microcosm of sport.
Smith undoubtedly has a sharp mind, but also one that recognises aspects of the human experience that are, if you like, multi-disciplinary. In an earlier piece of journalism, he writes about a classical guitarist and the preliminaries of concentration before performance:
His pre-performance rituals and habits — the ways of getting into “the zone” — are almost exactly like mine before I bat. Blocking out distractions, pushing aside self-imposed pressures, thinking of ways to get around potential impediments to performance: we are both engaged in the same battle with our private, nagging negative voice. A blank slate, an absence of irrelevant thought, is what concentration feels like. Getting there isn’t always easy.”
There are a number of things that make Smith interesting reading in the Word article. His track record – not just as top-flight sportsman but a major team captain, and as a writer and broadcaster – gives his words weight that might not attach to just any bat-wielder or ball-kicker. Take passion as an example:
Anyone can go around beating their chest; it’s winning that’s so damn hard. You end up with this Kevin Keegan absurdity. I don’t pay good money to watch a conductor stamp his feet. I pay to listen to good music. The choreographer George Balanchine once said that the more he wanted passion, the more he found himself having to talk about precise, very technical things.”
Perhaps many of us are too willing to see passion as someone an opposite of skill or technique, but Smith has a point. Truly compelling performance – in any field – is about more than just passion: if passion is all that something has, what do we have to respond to but an emotive primitivism? Churchill’s wartime radio broadcasts are affecting not only because he cared about what he was saying: he had mastery of rhetoric and language too: the proof of passion was in the application.
But the fascinating elements are elsewhere in the piece. Take, for example, Smith’s comments on academies:
You could take the Platonic or Aristotelian attitude to creating winning sportsmen. The Platonic one is that you have an academy and you tell them how to do it. The Aristotelian one is, let them find out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. In the amateur days you were coached by schoolmasters and retired policemen. Some of them were useless and some were very good. But you don’t change things by putting a badge on the guy saying that he’s sub-coordinator Level 7. Sometimes we think that rebranding something as an academy gives it some legitimacy. It gives it none. Too often you get enshrined versions of mediocrity or systematised blandness. We’re too much in thrall to academies.”
The Platonic, curriculum-led model has clearly antagonised him, but his point is a good one: the balance between classroom learning on one hand and ‘learning on the job’ (and the freedom and ability to apply classroom learning with some self-awareness in our own daily situations) on the other is a vital one. And text-book learning isn’t always the whole answer, but merely a start. As Charles Handy has commented on business schools:
Business schools teach you the language of business, and that’s quite useful. It’s like if you want to go to work in France you have to learn French. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be very good in France, but it’s good to learn the language. I think that what business schools do is to teach you the language of business and some managerial skills, that sort of stuff. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be any kind of a good businessman, manager or even a good leader.”
And on professionalism, which clearly troubles him as a concept:
The problem is, professional wants to understand how that [keeping the subconscious and rational minds aligned] works. You get some young player who’s very inconsistent and try to make him consistent. The problem is, you take somebody who is intermittently brilliant and you make them never brilliant. Because it’s very threatenting to your system if someone is intermittently brilliant and you can’t control it.”
In an earlier interview, another comment is worth quoting as it much more personal in looking at ‘professionalism’:
Sports psychologists talk a lot about ambition. No-one ever talks about the dangers of too much ambition. Excessive ambition can cause impatience and crucial lapses of judgment. You’re too keen to “do what it takes”. So you say the right thing, even when it’s the wrong thing. Looking for an opening batsman to eliminate risk and bat all day? “Yes, that’s me, sir!” But it wasn’t. I listened and changed too much, and I lost my own voice as a player.”
Looking at other examples of his online journalism, what Smith seems to be about more than anything is striving to avoid clichés that have proved their own tiredness. He points out, for example, that losing teams are just as likely to have mission statements on their walls as winning ones. Let’s leave him to his own words to allow to finish on a more positive note:
Case studies – particularly ones that emphasise your own mistakes and intractable problems – are far better than blanket statements of “positivity”. The first thing any leader – or legislator – has to do is work out what cannot be fixed. Then they can devote their time to the issues that are worth it. If you can insightfully describe and analyse transferable situations, your audience can draw its own conclusions.”