January 29, 2014

Temperament changes, like technique

Too many sportsmen are classed as "mentally not good enough", and though that may be true at one moment in their life it's not necessarily true for all time

Ian Bell and Stan Wawrinka will know that a player's temperament, like the technique that supports it, is constantly in flux © Getty Images

Many Australians, as recently as the summer of 2013, felt that Mitchell Johnson could never again be trusted to play in a Test match. Too unreliable, too fragile, too much of a punt. What happens if he has one of his AWOL days?

There was a view within English cricket, going into the Ashes series last English summer, that Ian Bell did not have the personality or strength of character to define a single Test match, let alone a whole series. Lovely player, beautiful technique, but too often adorned matches, too rarely grabbed them and determined the outcome.

Many tennis insiders felt the same about Stan Wawrinka, who won the Australian Open last week, playing with magnificent freedom and self-expression. Great ball-striker, terrific talent, but what about self-belief and resilience? Put him in a ring with Nadal or Djokovic, everyone said, and those two titanic iron men would absorb all the Swiss' punches, then push him over when he'd blown himself out.

Johnson, we all know now, turned the course of a whole Ashes series. Bell - and let's not forget this now his stock is down again - defined the previous series with three hundreds, each made with a cool head and huge skill. And Wawrinka is now the only man in Grand Slam history to have beaten both Nadal and Djokovic - two of the toughest athletes playing today - en route to claiming the title.

People change. Or, more accurately, their games change. This informs their personality, which in turn reinforces the new-found confidence in their game. Which came first, the improvement in play or the improvement in mindset? It's hard to say. But we know that the two factors become mutually reinforcing.

Competence is confidence is competence is confidence is competence.

That is why a very small adjustment in technique - the kind of tweak that Dennis Lillee might provide for Johnson, or Magnus Norman for Wawrinka - can unlock a virtuous circle of physical and psychological improvements.

Let's have more scepticism when it comes to pronouncing judgement on a player's mind. A good sound bite is rarely a sound assessment

It is tiresome hearing very good players, with the potential to become even better, dismissed and written off as "mentally not good enough", as though if that statement is true at one moment in their life then it is true for all time. Very occasionally, a player is indeed mentally a spent force. Much more often it is nonsense. A piece of snatched gossip is repeated so endlessly that it hardens into received wisdom.

A player's temperament, like the technique that supports it, is constantly in flux. Here is the crucial point: let's have more scepticism when it comes to pronouncing judgement on a player's mind. A good sound bite is rarely a sound assessment.

During the US Open last September, watching him outplay Djokovic, I was stunned by the quality of Wawrinka's play. It seemed hard to imagine how he could play at that level and eventually fail to convert it into winning performances against the top players. When you outplay Djokovic twice over five sets, even if you lose both times, you are obviously doing quite a lot right. Wawrinka was then ranked No. 10, and I tweeted that it was hard to believe there could be nine better players in the world. In flooded the responses, many telling me I was wrong because "At the highest level, sport becomes about mental strength."

What does this phrase mean? At the highest level, sport is about beating the other guy. This is also true at the medium level, and the low level - and indeed all the levels in between. So what, then, enables a player to perform better than his opponent? This too is a constant, regardless of the level of play: a mixture of talent, skill, mindset and good fortune.

Why should talent and skill diminish as a proportion of the equation as the level of the sport improves? They do not. There must always be a point at which a sportsman playing significantly more skilfully than his opponent will win, even if his opponent's temperament is generally more secure. After all, if that statement were not true, then Nadal would never lose at tennis, and Steve Waugh would have got a hundred every time. Sport is a lot more interesting than a static ranking order defined by a mental-strength index that is written in stone.

There are implications here for both coaches and pundits. A few weeks ago, I argued that elite athletes should try to protect a measure of naivety and mystery in their games. Too much deconstruction and self-analysis can inhibit the magic of playing a game. Above all, players should resist thinking that they have cracked the code in some permanent or settled manner. Allowing for flexibility and change is not weakness, it is an acknowledgment of human nature.

I now see that the same point applies equally to coaches - and the pundits who judge the decisions of players and coaches. Weak, frail, flaky, lets you down, inconsistent, no good under pressure. I implore all readers to ask themselves to make a mental list of players about whom they have said or felt those judgements. And then to check that list against the happy experiences they have enjoyed thanks to the wonderful victories achieved by those very same players. Lucky no one was keeping note. But you should have been. It's fun being wrong about people. It underlines the enduring and compelling mystery of human nature.

Sport, more than anything else, reminds us of the human capacity for surprise. Johnson, Bell, Wawrinka - all surprises. Or not - if, as you should, you believe in surprises.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here