Ribbons in a handbag – Celebration, acceptance and battling the delusion of merit

A pretty crippling world view would start with: “if only I work a bit harder, I will be successful.” And yet, this view dominates in both political ideology and in sports media. It is a crippling view because really there is no unambiguous path upon which hard work leads necessarily to success (whatever success is deemed to be). There is no clear relationship. And the repeating of the mantra only drives the harmful message that anyone who is unsuccessful, has therefore not worked hard enough. Perhaps all successful people work hard. But even if that were true (it is not), to argue the inverse (that all hard-working people are successful) is a clear logical fallacy.


I am old enough to know that time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, the present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.” – Sebastian Barry, “The Secret Scripture”


Did Robbie Flower not try hard enough? Nathan Buckley? Does Kade Simpson (280-odd games, no Grand Finals) not try harder than Zaine Cordy (25ish games, one premiership)?
-If you try hard enough you will win.
-You can do anything.
-You can be anything.
-Work a bit harder.


It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.
-Babe Ruth


Matt Zurbo writes with knowledge and experience and candor about footy and footballers. He knows more than most; he expresses himself as few are able. His piece this week looks at attitudes and associated behaviours that required of players if their teams are to play in the finals.

I think Matt’s excellent piece hits the nail of “all successful people work hard” squarely on the head. The fact remains, though, that even if you’re the last on the track every night, if you’re sleeping with your footy, if you’re running and presenting and tackling, and if you’re staying late for a drink and if you’re arriving early to clean up the clubrooms, the fact remains that you may still never play in a premiership.

You may even be diagnosed with MS. Or you may be hit by a car.



It is a pity that doing one’s best does not always answer.
-Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre


There is a lot to be annoyed about in top-level sport.

Media values eyeballs, clicks, popularity, and the advertising that flows from that. And decision-makers in mainstream media have been slow to realise that evidence-based knowledge and thoughtful, reasoned, funny opinion are more important to viewers than employing a “successful player at the highest level.” Look at the Channel 9 cricket commentary roster. Or the Channel 9 football department. It doesn’t help that these people have been “successful,” because they invariably attribute their success to their lived experience. The logic being that if only you or I or Player X did what they did, we/they would be successful, too.


AFL decision-makers seem to value profit over everything else. Why else would we have moving, flashing advertising signs at games? Why else would such an audio-visual assault be waged on one’s senses upon entering a venue? Why else would the stench of AFLX waft over the public? Why else would variable ticket pricing even be considered?


It is easy to imagine the latest merchant pitching their idea at AFL House; armed with a laser pointer, a PowerPoint presentation and an Old School tie. Pitch, pitch. Maybe it’s a pitch for a countdown clock, a twilight Grand Final, a new game such as AFLX. Maybe it’s a pitch for a rule change, or a new award. Always pitched with the motive of profit. And the AFL Kings decide which ideas will be supported, and which will die on the vine. Kings and kingmakers. Such little Kings.

But who pitches for the status quo? Does anyone arrive at Docklands with a shiny suit and a PowerPoint presentation that says: “Hold on – we like things just as they are”?

Why do some people have the power and not others?


Being born’s a hell of a lottery
– David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks


But we are here, and things are alright.

My team has struggled this year. But things are alright. I expect that all players, coaches, administrators have worked hard. Maybe their opposition have worked harder –  but who really knows? No one knows.


“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
– George Monbiot


But for administrators, for coaches and for players, luck is the elephant in their rooms. For to acknowledge luck is to admit that not everything is under their control. And control is everything. Everything.
Control is a log book of activity, diet, thoughts. Control is GPS tracking. Control is forward scouts and ice baths. Control is control is control.



It’s a question of attitude. If you really work at something you can do it up to a point. If you really work at being happy you can do it up to a point. But anything more than that you can’t. Anything more than that is luck.
-Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance


But the player slips when lunging. The coach turns left instead of right. A baby in the next room has an unexpectedly wakeful night. A virus strikes today rather than tomorrow. Butterflies flap their infernal wings in Brazil, and everything goes haywire. The football bounces.


Oh, I am fortune’s fool!
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


But none of that stops the hordes. In previous decades, the outer may have rung with thunderous disdain at another defeat. Heads shaken, tickets hurled, voices barbed. But like every social interaction, a new and powerful home has been found for supporter dissatisfaction online. And just like with schoolyard bullying, we are learning that much damage occurs when we marry the old ways with new technology.

In previous decades, schoolyard bullying, as loathsome and hurtful as it was, each day stopped at the school gate. Victims could return to their homes in relative safety. But with the rise of online social media, schoolyard bullying can morph into cyberbullying and suddenly, for the victim there is no escape. No where, no when. Not even their own bedroom is a safe place; not even late at night.

Sadly, many footy “fans” now issue their spiteful, antagonistic sprays online. Usually these critiques suggest that their target is either (i) not good enough; or (ii) too lazy.

Whereas a verbal complaint has a necessarily limited reach in time and space, a written diatribe can reach very far, for very long. I imagine that it would be harrowing to have my working days’ performance passionately critiqued by thousands online; to be told that I was not good enough. Or that I was too lazy.

I imagine that my job satisfaction would fall. Perhaps my self-esteem would fall, too. If I had built an idea of myself as a footballer, and valued myself against this image, then I would be at great personal risk. Only if I saw myself as a person of value – away from my football identity – would I be able to carry on in this trying environment. But even then, I expect that playing would not be enjoyable.

-You’re getting well paid – shut up and play!
-I would kill to be given the opportunities you have


So I think we should celebrate the game.
Celebrate the having-a-go.
Sometimes your team will win, sometimes they will lose.
But at least you have a team to support. At least you are alive to it.


“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”
-Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


In AFL lands we saw this spirit alive in the AFLW season.
Games were celebrated, simply for being held.
Players were celebrated for having a go.
It was healthy and affirming. And the equally affirming inaugural Women’s Footy Almanac will be launched tomorrow night. Come along.


I reckon it is worth remembering that male players are people; trying, struggling, living. Doing their best.
The same is true of administrators and the media, too, though the motive for them to be involved seems to be about making profit – which does change the equation.
The rest of us would do well to recognise that everyone is indeed trying, struggling, living. Doing their best.


Timothy Boyle wrote another outstanding piece on the conflicts of top-level athletes, expectation, and the living of a life. It appeared in the Sunday Age and if you didn’t see it, I recommend it:



Acceptance, really, is something that everyone in the feverish world of top-level (and even local level) sport could tap into. I recognise the conflict between the idea of acceptance and an athlete’s relentless drive for self-improvement. But as the siren goes, as the whistle is blown, as the ankle snaps, as the car begins to roll over, acceptance really is the only path to follow.


“And then, you may find peace of mind is waiting there..”
-Within you without you, The Beatles


And at the end of the game, at the end of your career, or at the end of your day, at the end of your life – you may find that you did win. By playing, by simply turning up – you won.
There’s a fair bit to be annoyed about.
But there’s a fair bit to enjoy, too.
Play on.


“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. ”
– Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon U.S.A.



About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Very good points here ER. I can’t stand the advertising that schools currently put out into the world; this notion that students must reach for the stars (if they all did there would be no stars left!), to achieve success. Surely we must define success first? What are they reaching for?

    “The rest of us would do well to recognise that everyone is indeed trying, struggling, living. Doing their best”. Very true. Or put another way, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Profoundly true.

    I’ve learned an enormous amount watching people with Down Syndrome going about their lives. They have a wisdom and a gentleness that the modern world has lost. The Special Olympics Oath – “Please let me win, but if I can’t win, let me be brave in the attempt”, should be written on the wall of every junior sporting club in the land.

  2. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    So strange, Mountain Ash, cause I felt inclined to write a piece about luck and fortune this week! Sparked by a chat with the saleswoman at our local Greek bakery about fate and an interview with eloquent Swan Dan Robinson in which he was asked whether it was lucky that Joey Kennedy’s calf tightened up to let him back into the team. He questioned the use of the word luck. ‘Then you could say that it was unlucky we lost the first six,’ he replied and then changed the interviewer’s choice somewhat by saying he felt ‘fortunate’ to get the opportunity to step in and glad that he’d done the work to be ready for it.
    I wanted to unpick this a bit.
    Luck, fortune, effort, merit, opportunity, success, boredom … I don’t know who comes out how (esp Tomic) in all the complexity of semantics.
    Thanks for the thoughts ER. Perhaps mine will still emerge at some point.

  3. Good work ER.

    I recall reading something a while ago that looked at the three biggest determinants of playing Major League Baseball (MLB) in the U.S. Interestingly, hard work, determination, motivation, talent, physical advantage, training regime, age, handedness weren’t in the list.

    The three biggest factors were:
    1. Being male;
    2. Being born in the USA; and
    3. Whether your father played MLB.

    In other words the three biggest factors in playing MLB are out of the control of the individual and determined by luck.

    Further to Dips’ point, the maxim ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game the counts’ seems to have gone out of fashion.

    If one consistently plays sport with bravery, integrity, respect, and humility, it seems to me that the individual has absorbed the lessons that we hope sport provides.

  4. Dave Brown says

    A perfect accompaniment to Matt’s piece, ER.

    A number I worked out a while back – 4% of young Australian men are 190cm or taller, 40% of men’s AFL footballers are. Watching as much lower level footy as I do, I see so many players that didn’t make it to the next level because they are not tall enough or not quick enough. The former they can do nothing about, the latter next to nothing. Hard work often doesn’t come into it.

    I am firmly convinced so much comes down to luck: the luck of birth; the luck of circumstance; the bounce of the ball. In fact, it could be argued that by choosing the shape of our ball we decided that luck was fundamental to our game. Just ask Stephen Milne about the bounce of the ball. Yet, we refuse to acknowledge it and push for rules that remove the elements of chance from the game.

    I love that I can go to any footy ground at any level and see the things that make me love the game. I don’t need the AFL for that.

  5. John Butler says

    Always thinking, always reading, E Reg.

    A few key words here: luck, control, acceptance.

    The worst managers/leaders I have worked with/for were obsessed with control. An obsession often driven by insecurity, or its flip side, hubris. So many who proclaim they know best often fear they don’t, and can’t find accommodation for that fear.

    If you’re of that inclination, the notion of luck pushes all your buttons, taps into what rattles you.

    Acceptance. When you talk about high achievement, there’s a fine line to tread here. It’s obviously key to a contented life, but much of what we regard as great achievement doesn’t sit easily with conventional happiness. Are driven people aver really content? Depends often on what drives them.

    Much to ponder. Thanks for the piece.

  6. Love the piece. And the thread.

    Imagine getting to footy heaven and finding out that all the theorising, while interesting, didn’t get near the truth of the matter. And that the principal factor was the bounce of the oval ball.

  7. E.regnans says

    G’day all,
    Thanks for adding a lot to this piece, everyone.
    Subtle (and no-so-subtle) lived experience shapes all of this, probably.
    May luck shine on us today.

  8. Adam Fox says

    This is a really good piece. Apt as all hell. Sorry, can’t expand upon it much more than that. Just very right on.

  9. Rulebook says

    OBP as always thought provoking I reckon you get life re philosophy well played and some fantastic and so spot on comments above ( Dips you nailed it )

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    A penny dropped with me when I realised that our media force feeds us with “success stories” disproportionately, but never the “getting along just fine thanks” stories. That and a working knowledge of logical fallacies helped.

    Just gotta be careful that you don’t restrict yourself because “it won’t happen to me” and talk yourself into thinking that “I’m never going to be any good, no matter how hard I try”.

    But what do we say to the person that smokes 40 a day while knocking back a dozen “standard drinks” because “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow”?

    Thoughtful once again David.

  11. I am right on board with you here, e.r.

    Luck, fortune, fate, misfortune. These are subjects which have fascinated me over the years.
    I remember the American cyclist, Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong talking about his decision to start doping. He explained that, no matter how hard he worked or how much training he did, he was still turning up to races and “getting my butt kicked”. Of course, at that time, most of the cyclists were doping. When he started doping he didn’t even feel guilty about it because everyone else was doing it, and he was sick of getting beaten. He wanted to be able to compete on a level playing field. Hard work was not enough.

  12. Ben Footner says

    What a brilliant piece.

    Acceptance is key to happiness I think. One of my favourite sayings (or is it called a mantra these days?) when a challenge arises at work or home is simply that “it is what it is”. Everything that has gone before is now locked in for eternity, there’s not point stressing over what you can’t change or control.

    I’m white, I’m male, I live in one of the richest countries on earth, I’m half way through my life and I’ve never been in a hospital for more than a few hours. Realistically I’ve won the lottery of life already, and I thank my lucky stars every day.

  13. Steve Hodder says

    Tall fella,
    By coincidence, this week, my yr 10 philosophy class had to study the following –

    Modus Tollens
    P1 If P then Q.
    P2 Not Q.
    C Therefore, not P.

    but you might’ve put it in a more meaningful way. Nice piece.


  14. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Pleasure to read a piece so thoughtful, ER.
    May it be read widely. Been feeling similar about fairness, success, what we are sold, what we consume and why.
    We are supposedly a multi-cultural nation, yet if the Queen ain’t on your money you can’t buy shit.

  15. E.regnans says

    G’day all,
    Beautiful winter sun filtering through the foliage here in Fitzroy.
    Thanks very much.
    Good point Swish, about watching out for self-defeating talk.
    I guess this is really a reminder to anyone “successful,” and feeling pretty damn proud of their efforts, not to overlook the role of luck in their life.
    It’s the multiple-premiership -winning hero/ federal MP/ corporate CEO who trots out the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps, I did it so you must therefore be able to do it” line that can be damaging.

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