August 18, 2014

How much practice is enough practice?

Deciding how much time to set aside to unwind is a dilemma in any profession. In sport, it's all down to the player, not the coach

Graham Gooch's work ethic involved a lot of time in the nets as a batsman. But what if he had relaxed a bit more? © Getty Images

When Rafa Benitez was the manager of Liverpool, he had a chart on his wall that showed how many minutes each player had played. He was obsessive about it, substituting key players even in tight games to ensure they didn't suffer burnout. Last week, the Irish journalist Ken Early suggested that one of the reasons the Uruguay striker Luis Suarez had been injured so rarely in his career was that he kept getting bans that allowed him to rest. Ensuring players arrive at matches not merely fit but fresh has become a central preoccupation of modern sport, and one that will become an increasing issue for cricket next year as England face up to a schedule of 17 Tests in about 10 months.

But it's not just about physical strain. That, up to a point, can be measured. Far harder to determine is mental strain: even without getting to a point where players are placed under such stress that they become ill. Some people need absolute focus; some thrive with a more relaxed approach, as this piece by Ed Smith makes clear.

Gary Player's line, "The harder I practise, the luckier I get" may have become a cliché, but it simply isn't true - or rather isn't simply true. When Graham Gooch and David Gower clashed over the appropriate amount of net practice in the early '90s, I was on Gooch's side, but now I'm not so sure.

I was brought up in a home that was, culturally if not religiously, Protestant. Work was seen as a virtue. Weekends were measured by how much time had been spent "in the garden" - which didn't mean sitting around in the sun (or, given this was Sunderland, the cloud) but weeding and digging the soil. On holidays we went to the mountains and proudly totted up how many miles we'd walked and how many feet we'd climbed. It seemed natural to me that if you wanted to be good at something, you did it lots and you did it hard. It's one of my pet theories, following Max Weber's theory about the spread of capitalism, that that mindset had had a major impact on the development of football tactics in Europe.

Nobody doubts that practice and training are necessary, but sometimes you need a break. And some people will need more breaks than others. The problem is deciding how much is enough, and how much is not enough. How on earth are you supposed to know? I write a lot. More than I used to. More, probably, than I should. Of course, if you're a freelance journalist, there's a financial incentive to write lots. The more you write, the more you get paid. But I also write because it feels wrong if I'm not writing. Even on holiday I usually do an hour or two's work a day.

Very occasionally, I take a week or two off. When I come back to work, I'm refreshed, but sluggish. Part of it is being out of the loop of news. When you spend your life on the circuit, you're constantly absorbing information, digesting it and arguing about it. The opinions you spill onto a page in the morning are often the ones you were chatting about in the press room or the pub the previous night.

But part of it is simply being out of the practice of writing. You have to find your rhythm just as surely as you do if you get back to running after a break - or batting or bowling, for that matter. The muscle memory is there, but you have to locate it. To use the metaphor most often used in a sporting context, you're rusty.

But at the same time, if you write too much, you can find you lack imagination: you can spew out the words, but you find there's no spark, either of opinion or style. The mark of a professional is to achieve competence even in the most trying circumstances (when you haven't slept for 36 hours, when your plane's late and you have half an hour to churn out 800 words, when there's a storm blowing and you're hiding under your desk to keep your laptop dry), but we all hope for rather more than that.

So even if there were no financial imperative, there would be a dilemma. Do you keep writing 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week because the treadmill gets the job done, because that level of productivity means you never get rusty, that the words always come? Or do you ease back and accept you may lose efficiency but hope the gain in imagination makes up for that? (And, actually, the financial imperative kicks in even there: would fewer pieces written more slowly generate, in the long term, a higher fee?)

It must be the same for sportsmen. In Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, the gifted shortstop Henry Skrimshander comments that you can always do one pull-up more. The temptation must always be there: one more shuttle run, one more over in the nets, one more set of reps. Every time you get out cheaply or drop a catch, that doubt must loom: what if I'd done an extra ten minutes yesterday? Would I have held on? Would I have kept that drive down?

I suppose that's what coaches are for, and some, like Benitez, see their role as being to decide for the players. Ideally it's for the player to know when they've done enough, and for the coach to trust them. But how can you ever be sure?

Gower's Test record - 8231 runs at 44.25 - is exemplary, but it's hard to wonder whether it might have been even better with Gooch's attitude. Then again, perhaps that's to attribute too much importance to stats: part of Gower's appeal was his style, the sense he gave of having wandered onto the pitch from a garden party, leaving his glass of champagne on a tray by the boundary rope. And perhaps the opposite is also true. Gooch scored 8900 runs at 42.58: is it possible that he might have improved that if he hadn't been quite so diligent; if every once in a while he hadn't gone for a net but had chosen to refresh his mind instead?

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. @jonawils