Do we ever really make it?

When has a professional sportsperson ‘made it’? Not just ‘arrived’, made it. At what point can they relax and reflect on their success with a glass of good stuff? Can they afford to during their career or does this indulgence signal the end of the hunger and beginning of the end? Should they maintain the eye of the tiger until retirement?

Before the first Test in Brisbane, opener Ed Cowan spoke honestly of his need for runs to keep his spot. I felt for him and considered the pressure he was under. I wondered how he slept the night before the Test.

Ed got his runs, securing his spot for the summer – and most probably slept comfortably that night. But it could’ve been different. Early on, he feathered a ball down the leg side but survived the appeal. If the umpire had given him the death finger would he have been retained for Adelaide or sent back to the Sheffield Shield to carve away on much less coin? Does he have a mortgage? Kids to support. Not sure.

Rob Quiney made 9 on debut. A rush of blood and nerves saw him caught on the fence hooking. It was going for six. What of his future? He may avoid answering his phone this week.

Does Michael Clarke feel he’s made it? If so, did this sense of security come with the captaincy or his 300 in Sydney? He is hungry, focused. Smart too and possibly doesn’t allow himself to relax for fear of hubris.

The line between success and failure is fine.

Ricky Ponting was dropped on nought in Hobart against Pakistan a few years ago. He went on and got a heap, keeping the wolves from the door for a while. In Brisbane, on zero, he jammed down late on an off-cutter, edging to Kallis. Both men are on the opposite side of the mountain to Cowan, Punter grasping desperately to the cliff’s edge, while Kallis, averaging 75 over the last two years, is casually strolling down at his own pace. Not wanting to let go can be as difficult as trying to make it.

Do professional sportspeople live in a constant state of anxiety and impermanence the rest of us don’t appreciate? Is this unhealthy or the key to success? Fear of failure is a great motivator.

Lee Trevino once said he doesn’t have a friend in the world. He dragged himself up from the slums of Mexico and believes you can’t be successful and have friends. His fellow golfers were enemies.

World number five Adam Scott is yet to win a major but earning millions of dollars. Does losing the Open this year burn inside him?

Simon Black is still searching for the perfect game. This keeps him out there year after year. He’s never satisfied. What would Terry Daniher make of Trevino’s philosophy?

How is success measured in the music business? Gold albums? Sold out tours? Success can hit suddenly or gradually. Did Bruce Springsteen feel it with the critically acclaimed album The River or some years later when he sold out Wembley Stadium on the back of the commercially huge Born in the USA? Is it always about the next album, next tour for him?

What about troubadour Mick Thomas? Does he count heads at a gig in country Victoria? I wonder what he feels towards Idol and kids getting a leg up in the industry. When he drives home late at night from a gig does he wonder if it’s worth it? Is he chasing commercial success or happy to be loved and respected by a small band of loyal and aging fans? Maybe he’s happy pursuing his life’s passion. If so, he’s lucky.

Friday morning I asked Dave Hughes about the recent sackings at Channel 10. That’s the biz, mate, he said. He’s exhausted and looking to cut back next year, but he’s off to Sydney this weekend for some stand-up gigs. It’s his bread and butter. Roots. He knows it can all end in a heart beat so he keeps pushing.

We saw Kenny Rogers in Tamworth last January. In his late 70s with crook hips, he couldn’t climb down the steps on the side of the stage at the end of the show. Does necessity, audience acclaim, or love of his art keep him going?

Politicians must know it’s temporary. A game. That one day the knives will be out for them. As Maxine Mckew said it’s your mate who will get you in the end. Bill Clinton played late night solitaire in the Oval Office. Ok, he did other stuff as well.

Another mate works as a rep in the alcohol industry. Cut throat, nasty, all about bottom lines, he hates it. He knows when his numbers are down – his boss avoids eye contact.

A small business owner waits for the phone to ring and for customers to walk through the door.

A teacher on a short-term contract prays for good news from the principal during term 4. While management avoid a long-serving departing colleague at the Christmas party.

A writer lives and dies on an Editor’s opinion.

We all have our pressures, I suppose.


  1. craig dodson says

    Interesting article, for mine I think the real pressure comes from working to earn money to support your family, particularly like your sales friend who is under the pump all the time to meet targets or he goes out the door. I guess the majority of the top speortspeople don’t face this challenge so i’d argue they are not under as much pressure as us average joes trying to meet the mortgage. Conversley you then have guys like that gyatt bloke who is the struggling tour pro who lead the masters after round one then went down hill, you could see the pressure build as each missed put cost him thousands of dollars.

  2. Andrew – I agree with you that a consistent line that I’ve heard from a number of top sports stars is that they were/are driven by constant fear of failure, even when they had reached a level of acclaim and security within their field where you’d expect such a fear to have long dissipated. My sense of this is that this has nothing to do with financial pressure as it applies as much to the amateur stars of the past as to modern-day professionals. The pressure is self-generated, who knows by what inner “demons”. Such people usually don’t reach a point where they feel they’ve “made it” and this is what drives their long-term success. I’ve also heard them describe their eventual retirement as being a huge relief rather than a cause to reflect with pride on a great career. Doesn’t really sound much fun does it?

  3. Andrew Starkie says

    that’s why I chose not to take a career in professional sport: the money, fame, women, travel, free drink cards etc. Horrible.

    But seriously, reading recently about Thorpe and Mitchem has been enlightening.

  4. Cathy Freeman lay slumped and relieved after winning the 400m. It reminds me in a small way of supporting your team in the Grand Final. You can’t enjoy the game, you just want the damn thing over with the correct result. Multiple viewings of the DVD await.

  5. Andrew Starkie says

    Agreed Cookie. I go watch other teams play so I can actually enjoy the game. North games are excruciating.

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Interesting piece Starkie,

    I think of Bernard Tomic and the relative vagaries of success. How many 19 year olds would swap places with him for a couple of years? Some stars are only meant to burn bright for a short time.

  7. Andrew Starkie says

    I know Philo, his press conference performance before the Olympics was appalling. he didn’t care that he was representing his country.

  8. I think if you make it to your goal for even a fleeting second you’ve made it. The rest is gluttony.

  9. Jeff Dowsing says

    Outstanding article Andrew, I like the way you drew comparisons across different sports, different occupations and at various levels. Life as a batsmen in particular is so cruel, one chance, one millimetre or ounce of luck either way can mean so much.

    It’s little wonder that sportspeople/clubs tend to create their ‘bubbles’. Hard enough managing their own expectations, let alone the media and everyone else’s.

  10. Andrew Starkie says

    Ta Jeff. Yes, have always felt for batsmen, openers in particular.

  11. Thought provoking piece Starkers.

    The growth of big money in many sports has only served to confuse the question of ‘making it’. Did Lance Armstrong make it? At one point undoubtedly yes. But what do we/he think now?

    Perhaps the only sure path to peace of mind on this is for each individual to resolve their own terms, their own sense of what success would mean, and stick to them. But who amongst us has such resolve or clarity at a tender age?

  12. You have no time to love me any more
    Since fame and fortune knocked upon our door
    Now I spend all my evenings all alone
    Success had made a failure of our home

    Wonderfully thought provoking piece Mr Starkie. it got me thinking of all sorts of examples, like Colin Wilson’s, ‘The Outsider’: both themes the book explores and the author’s own trajectory.

    Then there is the scene in the film, The Brothers McMullen, at a dinner party when discussion leads to the great achievements of JFK. While the brothers are extolling Kennedy the women are dismissive. When the women are asked why, it’s simple, he cheated on his wife.

    Making it and success are ultimately elusive and in the eye of the beholder. This leads me to several more examples. First, in comparison to Michael Thomas, I’d like to offer up Glenn Tilbrook or Chris Difford from UK Squeeze. Tilbrook continues to tour, to much smaller audiences and acclaim than he had between 1978 and 1984. A few years ago, while on tour in Australia he took his small audience at the Fly By Night club in Freo on a pub crawl while singing songs for them along the way. Which would I remember and cherish more, seeing Squeeze in a pub in London in 1981 or that wonderful night in Freo when his star had well and truly faded?

    A new American TV show called Nashville (yes, I download) explores the same sort of themes you raise in this article. The show is more soap than opera but at its essence is the friction between trying to make it, making it and the aftermath. For a shorter text on this notion read Dylan’s interview in the Nov 2012 Rolling Stone. The one with Pink on the cover. Enough said.

    My love she speaks softly
    She knows there’s no success like failure
    And that failure’s no success at all

  13. Andrew Starkie says

    As she lies sleeping
    I stay out late at night and play my songs
    And sometimes the nights seem so long
    It’s good when I finally make it home

    Kenny Rogers ‘She believes in me’

    Rick, I’m always fascinated by the troubadour. The main drag at Tamworth CMF is filled with them, all searching for that break. Their moment.

    At Coburg Market on Friday night, I stumbled across Elvis Parsnips busking under a tree. He’s Indigenous. Hair slicked back and high, guitar case on the ground, cds going cheap. Had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Said he’s been an Elvis fan since he was 14, he’s now 60ish. Legend. I smiled for the rest of the night.

  14. AS,
    I saw a Mick Thomas gig recently, and although I don’t know him,
    I reckon he loves what he does. That’s why I love going to see him
    Unfortunately I could not get to the Weddos final ever gig tonight.

  15. Andrew Starkie says

    was that the EG hall of fame? the beauty in a weddos gig was the warm, fuzzy feeling they could create.

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