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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Christopher on February 1, 2014, 13:56 GMT

    If you've ever written a more insightful article Ed Smith, I'd like to read it. I write on philosophy and the difference between theory and fact. My purpose is a more authentic, self-managing world. I subscribe to the observation of measurable outcomes and reasoning of cause and effect in probability. Virtually all that continues to pass as fact, is in fact the mindless repetition of headline, to the exclusion of supporting data. I've continued to observe it in the Phil Hughes saga.It's not just in sport, but everywhere. There has been a sense, that with access to the internet and smartphones, we are all far better informed. This is only the age of information if one chooses to become informed, by seeking out specific data relevant to any point and not linking that which has no evidential link. Otherwise, any individual or organisation with a specific agenda and the resources to propagate it, leads us swiftly into the age of misinformation.That is where I believe we currently reside.

  • J on January 30, 2014, 20:31 GMT

    I'm sorry to say Mr Smith, but it appears no one agrees with you. To have someone propose that their knee-jerk sound-bite inspired judgements might be a thin veneer of false conjecture and lazy thinking clearly rankles some. The mental strength argument pervades the overwhelming opinion.

    And they're all wrong. Mental strength is a pretext for many things, most more complex than can be conveyed in the average tweet. Decision making, mental dexterity & flexibility, physical discomfort all affect performance. It is more skilful to adapt to conditions and the bowlers, it shows greater flexibility of mind to cut out certain shots on different days, and your mood can be swayed by something so small as an untied shoelace. Any and all of these are incorrectly labelled as mental strength, when all are elements of the skills of cricket.

    Does everyone call their mates in the pub team weak? They should at least be consistent.

  • ian on January 30, 2014, 10:25 GMT

    I'm never completely happy when exemplar individuals are taken out of contrasting sports to make a point. A tennis player is playing for himself and a cricketer, although he is also playing for himself, is additionally & vitally, a part of his team. A cricketer is very likely to gain/ lose the confidence of selectors in direct relationship to his team's fortunes. Mitch Johnson was made a major fall guy in the 2010-11 Ashes, but he was playing in a team that was uncertain of the directon in which it was going and was decidedly under the pump from a team performing at the top of its collective game. Consequence: MJ ejected as part as a failed campaign; it was scarely his fault and remember, the sole Australian victory in that Ashes was @ Perth ( MJ: 6-36 & 3-43). Moreover, he was still Australia's leading wicket-taker(15), ahead of the less volatile Siddle (14) & Harris (11). A tennis player doesn't need the selectors' nod, but a cricketer does: a vital & telling difference, I think.

  • Steve on January 30, 2014, 9:58 GMT

    Interesting article Ed. I do think that mental fragility becomes a factor for players maintaining their skill level under pressure. How often do you see a great player maintain their skills level under pressure in a big game whilst others who clearly have an almost similar level of skill fail when pressure is intense. Golfers choking in the last holes of a major, the nervous 90s, little known players making the finals of major tennis tournaments and getting wiped off the court. And that was Johnson's problem. He has turned it around and good on him but the difference between a Waugh and Watson is not skill but mental strength.

  • Max on January 30, 2014, 2:58 GMT

    I'm not sure that anyone thought that Johnson's problem was that he was "too fragile". His problem was - is - that his fantastic athleticism comes with some alarming technical weaknesses. He has had fantastic patches of form in the past (as when he was the ICC's player of the year), mixed with spells that are decidedly ordinary. I would never, ever write him off because of attitude or temperament. I do think his method still renders him liable to be inconsistent.

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2014, 1:11 GMT

    @Simoc Fair enough, the phrase mental strength is bandied about far too much by journos to discredit players when it probably does not apply. For example, I would never say that Root is mentally frail because he did not have the most successful tour, but I would say there are areas of his games he has to and will work on. The real question is, if you have many options, why would stick with someone who has not necessarily demonstrated a consistency of execution in the past. I was not say Johnson's 210 wickets are small fry, he has an accomplished and fantastic test record; he deserves ever last one of those wickets and has shown that he can be an amazing bowler throughout his entire career. However, if Australia did not have so many injuries to their fast bowling stocks I would not have picked Johnson if I were a selector(which I am not) due to past inconsistency and because beyond the IPl I would not have seen a consistency of first class performance to justify him ahead of others.

  • T G on January 29, 2014, 23:47 GMT

    It is often stated form is temporary but class is permanent. Class is not permanent because, if it was, Sobers would still be playing. It follows temperament and technique are also not permanent. They fluctuate. However, the temperament and techniques of the greats fluctuate less, and less often, than those of the non-greats.

  • Steve on January 29, 2014, 23:23 GMT

    Sorry to be adding a second comment on this subject, but just watched Ravi bop turn into Viv Richards when the match was lost! The difference between getting your team over the line or looking good had rarely been better personified. Talent and feel for the situation, understanding the difference between personal goals and winning are the essence of what underlies this blog

  • Andrew on January 29, 2014, 22:22 GMT

    Kyle Mills is an excellent example in point. In his initial years in the New Zealand team ten years ago he suffered from a terrible lack of control when bowling in the final overs in one-day cricket. This lack of temperament (and the criticism of his performance) could have seen him have a short international career. However, Mills had determination to keep at that awfully difficult 'death' role while also becoming a very good and economical strike bowler at the start and in the middle of an innings. Thus, through his own persistence he developed a sound temperament as his career evolved.

  • Dummy4 on January 29, 2014, 21:19 GMT

    What a fantastic article. Great read. Absolutely fresh perspective in this age of over analysis !