Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 11: Drafting bastards but dodging dickheads




You have to be a bastard to make it man and that’s a fact.  And the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth.


John Lennon



The recent AFL draft ushered more than 70 young athletes – armed to the teeth with ignorance, fear, and the illusion of completeness – into a physical, mental and emotionally consuming industry that is beyond their current comprehension.  No longer big fish in little ponds, these inductees will see that their little pond was indeed a puddle, and their new environs more like an ocean.  How many make it will not be known for some time but the first casualties will start to amass within 12 months.


In 2010, I watched legendary AFL coach Mick Malthouse show new draftees a picture of the senior playing group from 2006.  Of the 40 or so players in the photo, fewer than half remained in the 2010 incarnation.  By doing this, Mick was highlighting to his fresh recruits the impermanence of their industry and to awaken their aspirational endeavours with urgency.


So what will these draftees need to succeed?  Let us take as given that their technical, tactical and physical competence is within, or close enough to, AFL standards for the next 12 months.  My experiences in professional sports like AFL or basketball, suggest that those who enjoy long athletic careers (let’s say 7+ years) tend to adopt (at least thematically) John Lennons’ sentiment.


Being a bastard is obviously open to interpretation but it thematically represents an attitude of toughness, warranted selfishness and self-absorption.  Not too much of course – that leads to the dickhead end of the spectrum.  And in this modern era of brand management and corporate responsibility, dickheads are becoming too much of a liability.  Indeed, it seems to me, that embedded within the common lament that nowadays there are too few larrikins in professional sport, is a consensus that supremely talented dickheads are too much work.   In the trade off between risk (of brand damage) versus reward (sublime performances) sporting organisations are more commonly becoming risk averse.


In personality psychology, being a bastard would suggest that the individual may be low in the trait of agreeableness.  Like the other four dimensions of personality (extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness), agreeableness is a continuum ranging from low to high.  Although not fixed, we do have a natural tendency to reliably anchor within a small range on each of these spectrums.  Agreeableness is especially useful in team sports because those high in this trait tend to be caring, considerate and cooperative.  They make good teammates because they innately value both team and mates, however, being too high can also be detrimental because the individual may too often just go with the flow and get lost in the system.


I think Lennon was referring to, in part, the need for experts to have the freedom of self-absorption.  It is critical, particularly when developing competence for the intention of mastery, that the individual can isolate themselves in their discipline – more so to promote sustained and maximal focus.


Being a bastard also supposes toughness – often an awakened spirit of resolve and perseverance calloused by failure, repetition and the hunger to conquer.  More often than not, great players have opted to decline time with family and friends to work on their craft – or to recover from working on it.  I’ve often wondered if the depth of their ability and esteem is relative to the degree of their commitment – and I think Lennon suggests that it is.


Clearly greatness emerges from a perfect storm of a constellation of factors, some of which fall within the boundaries and the label of bastardry.  In terms of the dimension of agreeableness, being low (but not too low) may be useful because it would, for example, assist the individual to more consistently allocate their time and resources to their craft – saying no is harder for people high in agreeableness.


It should be noted that some may object to my contentions because “life is all about balance”.  I agree that over time, and as competence increases, time spent away from ones’ discipline is beneficial to maintain longevity and motivation.  But at this stage of their career, these young apprentices need a higher degree of absorption and commitment than their more experienced brethren – it is functionally adaptive for their current circumstances.


One cannot achieve greatness through half measures and balance – the recipe for mastery demands imbalance and obsession at certain times and stages.  There may well be wellbeing issues that arise from this regime of self-interest but they are the shadowy trade offs and transaction costs when pursuing excellence.


If this is the case, it becomes clearer how crucial the acceptance and support of coaches and family can be during these early stages of the inductees’ career.  Just as infants are oblivious to the needs of others as they learn to master their movements and develop life skills, these young athletes similarly need a secure base while they immerse themselves into developing the competencies needed to navigate their professional journey.  Hopefully many of them get to the point in their career when they can abandon their needs and look to enrich the journeys of the next crop of aspiring greats.


Read more of David Stiff’s thought-provoking columns HERE


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About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. craig dodson says

    Interesting read David. As a parent I guess my interpretation is that on balance I would prefer my kids don’t go down the path of pursuing excellence…

  2. Really enjoyable and thought-provoking read, David. Thanks.

  3. david stiff says

    Perhaps this perspective may seem a bit bleak and heavy-handed and I don’t mean that nice people cannot succeed but a hard edge is useful. Hopefully my next contribution will add to this perspective.

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