Win-Win: When sportspeople pull out (Re-defining ideas of winning)

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What is success? In any competition, you can only control yourself; not your opponents. So how does a sporting team build a winning environment?

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Here is the photo that first gave humans a true sense of perspective to our whole sorry enterprise. And here we are, tootling along, blips on the passage of time and space. Not even blips.

 

And yet, mental health of humans in western societies is a field of growing interest and importance. Social disconnection, ideas of identity, role modelling and moral codes are all at play. Perhaps not so important on a planetary scale, or an evolutionary scale, but important enough for us.

 

Measures of mental health are relatively new, and yet a tsunami of ill health seems to be building in western societies worldwide. Apparently fuelled by breakdowns of the village, the family and the church, many individuals feel adrift on a sea of indifference; buffeted by the inevitable storms of social media.

 

(For now that we take social networks, opinions, sounds and scenes capturing the very best aspects of the world in our pockets, on our tablets, on our screens, our otherwise day-to-day human existences necessarily pale in comparison. We saturate ourselves in pictures, headlines, we gather likes, retweets, shares. The best of life.)

 

 

(This is a reality easily imagined, easily witnessed, and for Jo and Joe Citizen, it is increasingly lived. A further reality, a sharper, uglier reality, can be imagined for the celebrity. For the full spectrum of humanity, from fawning fans to venomous assassins, now has access to anyone with a Twitter account. Though the same essential paradigm exists for every one of us, everything is magnified in the goldfish bowl of celebrity.)

 

“you’re crap!”

 

We somehow operate in a paradigm in which popularity equals success. Success/ failure landscapes breed people who think of themselves either as winners or as losers. This paradigm is rooted in the 21st century Western idea of winning. Life as a game of competitive relativity. Competition with your rivals, your friends, your family. With yourself.

 

I studied for a Graduate Diploma of Education in 2007. I left the research world when we had a baby, believing that the best thing I could do with my energy was to teach. It was a wonderful time of exposure to big ideas. Perhaps the biggest was exposed to me by Sir Ken Robinson. His famously viewed TED talk challenges the conventional thinking around success in education (51.3 million views: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity).

 

Indeed, Robinson seeks to invoke critical thought. He asks that you think of what education means. In a quiet, understated way, this talk tapped a revolution.

 

A few years later, to my astonishment and gratitude, our local primary school showed that TED talk to prospective parents at an information night, by way of explaining their school philosophy.

 

Education could be re-thought. There was a better way.

 

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During my first year teaching, Bud Yum was born, meaning that we had two children under two years of age at home. And meaning that we, just like all parents throughout history, were rapidly learning new skills on the job. We learn through family, through the village, and through books.

 

One such beauty that resonated with me during peak toddler years, was Louise Porter’s book “Children are people too.” Here was a text explaining a new way. In a way that made sense to me. That felt right. (Guiding principles of the text include: There is no right way to do the wrong thing; If you use power you will lose influence; Children need coaches not cheerleaders; When someone is drowning, that is not the time to give them swimming lessons; If something isn’t working, don’t do it again…”)

 

Parenting could be re-thought. There was a better way.

 

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Teaching at Brunswick Secondary College brought many many interactions with many many people each day. I grew to understand that while subject content mattered, what seemed to matter almost more, was social connection. Knowing how to talk with vulnerable teenagers; being aware of changing classroom dynamics; considering the bespoke needs of 120 students across five subjects.

 

It was during these years that I first saw and understood Brené Brown and her vulnerability TED (a lazy 34.4 million views: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability). In it, Brown enlists the idea of opening yourself to exposure; to sharing your doubts, fears, shame. This is totally at odds with ideas of a fragile person needing to “toughen up.” Instead, Brown’s central tenet asserts that people open up; they respond by opening up, when ensconced in environments of love, attention and shared stories of vulnerability.

 

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My staples growing up were Nutri-Grain for brekky, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and footy and cricket on the TV and radio.

 

A fair bit has changed since my last game of competitive footy in 1992. These changes are consistent with the changes observed in education, parenting and social connection.

 

Put simply, the abilities to relate with, teach and understand other humans have increased in profile. Parts of society have noticed. And while education and parenting were early adopters of this revolution, we now see cricket and footy heading down this path.

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Reading Konrad Marshall’s Good Weekend (https://www.smh.com.au/sport/how-vulnerability-became-sport-s-winning-weapon-20180514-p4zf72.html) piece I was surprised; surprised that it took football ten years to catch up. But on reflection, it makes sense; government schools (and hospitals) are the crucibles of social advances; converting theory into practice. They are the places of great innovation. Ten years seems reasonable for businesses to start catching up.

 

Winning.

 

We know that Richmond Football Club employed methods of mindfulness, kindness and shared stories of hardship, in their premiership-winning year of 2017. No proof exists that following these practices brought the winning. Cause and effect is impossible to establish. (Maybe other clubs tried mindfulness, too. Maybe Richmond would have won without the practice).

 

We also know that other sporting bodies have noticed Richmond’s winning and have taken a keen interest. The Resilience Project is an example of one service provider in the field of mindfulness training for sporting clubs, businesses and schools (http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/the-idea-of-resilience/).

 

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Brené Brown’s vulnerability TED talk (and a second talk on the subject of shame), Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity in schools, the Resilience Project’s mindfulness – they all tap into ideas central to the philosophers of Ancient Greece.

 

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When success is defined as shiny and attainable, those without the shiny are thought of (and think of themselves as) failures. This is true in New York, London and East Bentleigh.

 

For players at a football club, probably playing in a premiership team is seen as the ultimate success. In each league, there are 21 people for whom that occurs each year. Of those 21, maybe 6 or 8 would have been confident on the Monday of being selected for the Saturday Grand Final team. So in the last week of the season, when two teams are scheduled to play each other for the premiership, of the entire pool of league players, perhaps 12 or 16 players may have entered Grand Final week feeling hopeful of experiencing success.

 

That’s a lot of failures.

 

And if people (including footballers) act and feel better when loved and accepted, the best way for footballers to experience success is to redefine measures of success.

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Western society is obsessed with success. Status is achieved in various ways; usually through displays of assets (houses, cars, renovations, clothes), income, through trophies (school selections, holidays), through Instagram likes, Twitter friend counts. All measurable. But whether anything of value is measured at all is a moot point.

 

Ideas of success have varied through human history. Simply, there is no absolute truth around success. Everybody values things differently.

 

A brief history of success would consider these periods:

 

Philosophers of Ancient Greece, understood the nature of success. And failure. Many Greek tragedies exist in which otherwise fine people mess up their lives. The central message of Greek tragedies usually is: that terrible things can and do happen to good people.

 

The Ancient Rome of Julius Caesar’s time, in contrast, was obsessed with success. Success was conquest and territorial and financial gain. When a Roman chief lost a battle, suicide was a logical next step; failure being so humiliating and shameful. There are obvious parallels here with the Australia (and US etc) model of 2018.

 

A young man gave a sermon known these days as “the sermon on the mount,” in which he suggested that “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” Such a thought was a direct contradiction of all for which Rome stood. It was seen as controversial. Because the idea of success was challenged.

 

In India a young fellow popularised the idea that all of us are deeply maladjusted; because even all the riches of the world would not satisfy us.

 

In France Napoleon Bonaparte strongly advocated the notion of meritocracy, as opposed to aristocracy. Careers would be opened to the talented, rather than to hereditary concerns. Success was seen as something for which to strive. It was placed within reach – all we had to do was reach far enough. Or work hard enough to reach it.

 

The Occupy Wall Street movement; suggesting corruption of the values of the US. Suggesting that a narrow elite have twisted the ideas of what success really is. And in so doing have created a world in which nobility equates to financial success; financial failure is not acceptable.

 

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So in a modern organisation, in modern football club, what is success?

 

Importantly, success here is defined around things that the playing group can control. The group cannot control the outcome of a match. They can influence it, but not control it. Hence all the chat about “controlling the controllables” that we hear from members of sporting teams.

 

Success might be defined as players showing effort a contest. It might be cleaning the locker room after a narrow defeat. It might be a cake and hand-drawn birthday cards from all players delivered to a property steward. It might be a player’s small revelation of personal vulnerability in a group setting.

 

For the New Zealand All Blacks: measures of success are small. They are behavioural. They are around effort, application, having a go. Choosing to be Roosevelt’s man in the arena. And as behaviour begets behaviour, Pavlov’s dogs bark. As more players (and staff) do the “right” things and are seen to be rewarded for that, others buy in. Others buy in to the achievable meritocracy of it all. Success flows when success is redefined to be achievable (if a player chooses to behave a particular way). It is Pavlovian, it is character-building. It is an exercise in building culture.

 

We understand that successful people are happier, more resilient. And teams of such people are more able to rise to common challenges together; knowing that a bond of success has been shared.

 

I was surprised how slowly the football world has turned. But I’m glad that it’s turning. Because for all the hundreds of players who will not play in a premiership this year, all will have gained valuable life perspective.

 

They will all have won. And will have learned what it is to really win. Regardless of premierships.

 

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Go well sportspeople to have pulled out.
Go well to those who have supported these sportspeople.
As Earthrise showed us, we are all we’ve got.

 

 

 

About David Wilson

Hit for a towering 6 by Mike Gatting at the Banyule Cricket Club, December 2002, theatrically attempting to reproduce the SK Warne delivery. The ball is yet to land. @e_regnans

Comments

  1. Dave Brown says:

    Interesting, ER. It’s really quite perverse the way success and failure is lumped out in common AFL discussion. One of the reasons I am spending more time disengaging with the big league. The Crows’ national anthem stance a good case in point – a yoga position designed to assist the players to focus their energy inward is now commonly associated with failure, as if that determined the outcome of the match, as if making the grand final but losing is as failing as failingness can get. No thanks.

    I’ll stick to junior footy where success is a kid executing a skill they had not done before, a teammate laying a shepherd despite the fact he doesn’t personally like his teammate with the ball. It is interesting, nonetheless, that the AFL mandated coaching course focusses on preparing kids for elite pathways. Odd that they expect us to focus on 1% of kids – don’t really get it.

  2. E.regnans says:

    G’day D Brown.
    I, too, think it’s intriguing. There’s maybe a disconnect between what matters to the inner sanctum of the team – and what matters to Jo(e) Public.
    “Legacy” by James Kerr is a good book – on the NZ All Blacks. More examples of controlling the controllables – building a culture. A measure of success for the All Blacks was whether players left the dressing room in a clean and tidy state.
    You decide what behaviours you value – and then reward those behaviours.

    When L Franklin or D Beams or A Fasolo or J Trott or any other top level sportsperson pulls out of their selected team/ event – the team may be weakened, or the event may be lost. But I guess the positive is that that is now recognised as being very small potatoes compared with a person’s fundamental wellbeing.

    (I highly recommend those two TED talks linked above.)

  3. Jarrod_L says:

    Nice one, E.r.

    I’d often worried that “the game’s not for turning” when it came to embracing such ideals. I too am glad it’s happening at all.

    As I was reading this, another article on the importance of critical thought in education popped up on my twitter feed – quite apropos to your piece!

    https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/reducing-governments-reliance-on-consultants

    “Edward de Bono argues that critical thinking is a skill that can, and should, be formally taught. Unfortunately, our current approach to tertiary education often assumes that students will pick up these skills, almost through osmosis.”

    There remain hills yet unconquered.

  4. Peter_B says:

    Yep. That these values are formally explored in footy clubs now is new. But they are ideas at least 2,100 years old since Jesus said “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. So kind, generous and wise (hard headed but soft hearted) coaches and leaders inside footy clubs have always implicitly modelled them. Think of Norm Smith adopting the Legacy boy Ron Barassi (son of a team mate killed at Tobruk).
    “People need to know how much you care, before they care how much you know”.
    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”. (Can be applied to all areas of human endeavour including footy).
    Onya ER. It’s all about connection and community. Without it “individual growth/wealth” is just spinning your wheels in ever decreasing circles.

  5. E.regnans says:

    Thanks Jarrod.
    i wonder about critical thought. I’m sure that it can be taught. It taps an innate curiosity, I think.
    I wonder about motive.
    When profit is a motive, critical thought seems quite sharp.
    But who defends the public assets, I wonder?


    Thanks Peter_B.
    Valuable reminder of the many many individuals who modelled a way through the life. Or who did more.
    And yes, it’s an old story.
    Maybe the Ancient Greek model of doing your best and being aware of flaws is coming back into vogue. Though I suspect the ancient Roman view will prevail for those in positions of wealth and power.
    That makes the elite sport declarations of mental health concerns special. Players no longer missing through “general soreness”.
    Thank you.

  6. E.regnans says:

    Here’s Brené Brown’s follow-up TED talk.
    On Shame. From 2012
    Magnificent.
    https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame

  7. David what ever happened to poor old “Lay Down Sally”?

    Glen!

  8. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Hi ER. Just caught this today. Timely piece and kudos to Beamer and Wayne Schwass, Nathan Thompson, Mitch Clark and Gavin Crosisca to name a few who are doing their best to break the stigmas associated with mental health/addiction.
    Roman Chief – Tom Wills – suicide – the tragedy re-morphs.

    I was fortunate enough to come across this quote from Anne Morrow Linbergh before reading your piece: “If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. All these and other factors combined, if the circumstances are right, can teach and can lead to rebirth.” (Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead) Cheers and thank you big fella.

  9. “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

    I remember Bomber Thompson saying (before Geelong’s success), that the team would only succeed when it learned to respect the game. And its opponent.

  10. Jarrod_L says:

    Love that motto Dips – never loses its impact, no matter how many times you hear it from athletes.

  11. Interesting piece, thank you, e.r.

    There is no manual for parenting.

  12. E.regnans says:

    Hi Glen! – Are you referring to Sally Robbins the rower? I have no idea what she’s up to these days. Interesting question.

    P Dimitriadis – Yes, thanks for mentioning those other people. And there are more, no doubt. It’s a tricky business.
    Ripper quote.
    I like this, too:
    “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”
    – Dr. Seuss

    Hi Dips – yes that is a beauty too.
    This vulnerability, this exposing I think is about overcoming fears. “Am I good enough? Do others think I’m good enough?” And that overcoming is required to harness what is within.
    Courage is found in unlikely places.

    G’day Smokie. No; no manual. Information, ideas, opinions abound. Which can be part of the problem.

    Thanks all.
    Great to see A Treloar’s “resilience log” on instagram the other day.
    It’s a movement.
    https://www.instagram.com/p/BjO2s4uhKiE/

  13. Rick Kane says:

    Hi DW,

    “Now everything’s a little upside down
    As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
    What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good
    You’ll find out when you reach the top
    You’re on the bottom”. Dylan, Idiot Wind

    If I could take your essay and its ruminations a little further, here is something I think you would find of great interest: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/

    Also, in terms of the future of work, there is significant refocus in the appreciation of what have been historically and wrongly described as soft skills (communication; relationship building; empathy etc). As automation increases its role in the workplace and society robots and computers will absorb more and more process tasks related to the widest range of occupations you can imagine (including lawyers, doctors, engineers). This will not diminish the amount of endeavours available for humans to engage but it will decrease the percentage of process tasks ratio in comparison to other competencies that make up a job or profession. That is, your creativity and communication/engagement capabilities will become more highly valued. Already the term soft skills is being replaced by the phrase, power skills. In that sense today’s definition of “good enough” relates to a skills based hierarchy. Tomorrow many of those same “skills” will be absorbed by automation but a person’s communication skills will be more highly valued. That changes the playing field (so to speak). The future lies in the matrix of the search for personal meaning as it relates to the greater good and people who can engage each other (collaboration) rather than beat each other. References: Andrew Charlton and Telstra’s chief scientist Hugh Bradlow.

  14. Stainless says:

    Hi ER
    As always, a thought-provoking piece and the sort of stuff we should be reading more of on this website rather than endless novelty football teams.
    I don’t disagree with any of the general sentiment of this piece, but let me be devil’s advocate.
    I think Rick Kane’s quote: “The future lies in the matrix of the search for personal meaning as it relates to the greater good and people who can engage each other (collaboration) rather than beat each other” is a great blueprint for how we’d all like the world to be, but it won’t ever be the vision statement of the AFL. In all this talk about soft skills, a greater understanding of and openness about mental health, changing philosophies in schooling, education, parenting and the growing trend of exploring our vulnerabilities, embracing mindfulness etc, we can’t ignore that sport has very clear, simple measures of success. Personally, it’s about performing at your best. Competitively, it’s about winning. This stark simplicity is what gives sport its fascination in a world that is otherwise riddled with complexity and contradiction. In the wider world context, your point that “success flows when success is redefined to be achievable” is great. In the context of a sporting club, it sounds suspiciously like “everyone gets a prize”. The great test of sport is that it confronts its participants (and spectators) with the harsh reality that sometimes in life you do fail. The stopwatch doesn’t lie. The scoreboard doesn’t lie. Rather than pretend that this isn’t the case by inventing new watered-down definitions of success, your key point, I think, should be about how we use the experience of sport (winning, losing, practicing, persevering) to build our resilience, which in turn, will help us navigate the much tougher trials and tribulations of the real world.

  15. Luke Reynolds says:

    Dave, well written piece. Perspective. A wonderful thing to have.
    For years, even at my level of cricket, winning was everything. Every loss would leave me downtrodden. A season with no finals would seem a waste. A decade ago, we had a season where the club had no junior teams. I re-started our junior program the next season and it changed my perspective on the game, and the club. To coach young players, to see them improve and more importantly see them grow to love the game, to see their parents become a part of the club has been a wonderful rewarding experience. It’s no coincidence that the last 10 years have been my most enjoyable at the club and actually my most succesful personally on-field. Not stressing about winning and premierships, but still giving my all, has made the game much more enjoyable. It’s a game. Premierships are wonderful, but hard to win. Playing for the right reasons and enjoying it, making the club atmosphere as good as you can, are far more important.

  16. E.regnans says:

    Thanks Rick – Victor Frankl. That’s a handy trump card to play.
    And yes, I think there’s a strong analogy here with the “pursuit of happiness” (doomed) as opposed to the “pursuit of meaning” (enlightened).
    In the sports context “happiness” can be replaced with “winning.”
    So rather than explicitly pursuing winning, teams, groups, whomever, may focus on the pursuit of meaning – and the wins (happiness) may arrive as a by-product.
    *like
    Thanks for sharing Frankl.

    G’day Stainless – thanks for your vote of confidence. It’s an interesting topic. You say that sport is essentially about winning – and I agree. That’s what makes the Doggies win of 2016 and the Tigers of 2017 so fascinating. And why the underdog ever beats the favourite. What does it take for all the parts to pull in the same direction?
    I get the “everybody wins a prize viewpoint – but I think if it didn’t work (result in demonstrable benefits), no one would be doing it. The focus on meaning seems to have a dual benefit – of resilience at the individual level AND of enhanced connection at the team level.
    The defined resilience angle is relatively new.
    But as PB says above – it has been happening in various guises for many a year.

    G’day Luke – That’s a telling story of personal awakening. I think one of the challenges of the elite sport scene is the question of how to implant this sort of awakening into a 19-20-21 year old.
    Some will have it, of course. Probably through circumstance (maybe some hardship). But plenty won’t.

    Thanks all.
    I wasn’t sure about submitting this one. But I’m glad I did.

  17. G’day David, yes it is Sally Robbins i’m talking about.

    Her sad episode took place in a time when there was less awareness and discussion of these issues. She was vilified, but sadly mental health issues still weren’t being discussed openly then.

    But yes , i’m curious where/how she finished up.

    Glen!

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