April 28, 2014

Can a player's life explain his career?

Looking to autobiography for insights on how sportsmen play obscures the truth more often than it illuminates it
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Can a sportsman's life entirely or satisfactorily explain his sporting achievements?
Can a sportsman's life entirely or satisfactorily explain his sporting achievements? © Associated Press

Do great sportsmen have interesting lives? Does that matter? In searching their autobiographies, do we learn very much about what makes them so good on the pitch, or are the important truths already out there on the field, clear for all to see?

I recently bought a bunch of sporting biographies and autobiographies. They were all okay, but I began to question the methodology. One player claimed his childhood poverty made him a great player, another thought his parents' relative affluence gave him a crucial head start. One player thanked his loving family, another felt his fractured home life provided the hunger to succeed. One player argued his incessant practising as a child made the difference, another believed he had been helped by not practising too narrowly and by retaining a sense of play.

Of course, each narrative might be true: what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another. But surveying all the books together, a rival explanation seemed more true to me: none of these back-stories, none of these paths to greatness, had any real relevance. The harder each book tried to use biography to "explain" the career under review, the less it succeeded.

When I was working for the Times, I once shared a lift with a journalist who had just returned from interviewing a major film star. She was complaining about how unforgivably boring he was. The presumption, of course, was that famous people had a responsibility to have interesting lives. Being an excellent actor was not enough; they had to entertain the media as well - the life had to be the equal of the work. But why? Shouldn't we just be thankful for the great performances?

I've written here before that I am sceptical about the expectation that sportsmen ought constantly to explain to the media how and why they play sport, that they must decode their competitiveness and creativity. That column was written from the perspective of an ex-pro: players should be given some space to live and breathe.

I write now wearing a historian's hat. I have lost confidence in the idea - widely held - that the way to understand what makes sportsmen excel can be found in a catalogue of biographical details. The presumption of modern sports coverage is that we learn about a great athlete by using a zoom lens to follow him off the pitch, down the tunnel that leads to the locker room, then track his car journey home, all the way back to his home town and family life - on and on, until we know the "real man" and understand "what makes him tick", as though his life is a just a jigsaw puzzle with a given number of pieces.

As an ex-sportsman, who has lived inside the dressing room, I know how normally unexceptional people can do remarkable things out on the pitch

There is a rival view. To reach the top in sport, with all the exceptional discipline and sacrifices that are called for, sportsmen often have to accept a sublimation of their civilian lives. Pursuing and achieving greatness on the pitch comes at a cost. The force that feeds their life must be channelled relentlessly towards the pursuit of victory, the honing of a craft and the nurturing of competitiveness. Often there is not much juice left in reserve.

In this respect, sportsmen have much in common with artists. The poet Edward Thomas, killed in the First World War, captured this brilliantly: "Most lives of poets stand to their work as a block of unhewn marble stands to the statue finished and unveiled… We read their lives after their poetry and we forget them. It is by their poetry that they survive."

Thomas' point is that the relationship between "life" experience and artistic output is complex: some mysterious alchemy turns the former into the latter. That is where the magic lies. I am beginning to suspect the same applies to great sportsmen. Of course, they must have a life that feeds their sport. But the life does not entirely or satisfactorily explain their sport. In fact, looking to autobiography to explain how sportsmen play obscures the truth more often than it illuminates it.

There are always exceptions, players whose lives are central to every move they make on the pitch. You cannot tell the story of Muhammad Ali the boxer without devoting space to Muhammad Ali the man. It is impossible to explore his bravery and resilience in the ring without acknowledging there is another story, even greater, about race and civil rights, Vietnam and American identity. His great life is as interesting as his great sporting deeds.

But how many Alis are there? Very few. Far more often, the sport emerges from an apparently routine and mundane life. As an ex-sportsman, who has lived inside the dressing room, I know how normally unexceptional people can do remarkable things out on the pitch. They are two different people, the man and the player.

This is one of the reasons I still watch great sport with a sense of wonder. When I see a sportsman at the limit of his defiance, bravery and self-belief, I know there is very often a normal, flawed human being coexisting with the apparently invulnerable champion. Rafael Nadal, one of the world's toughest and most unblinking sportsmen, calls himself "the Clark Kent of tennis". (To be fair, though it runs against my opening paragraph, he made the comment in an autobiography.) Nadal might be Superman on the court, but he remains as shy and unconfident man in the rest of his life.

How? Because he is a great sportsman - unremarkable and exceptional, all at once.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • POSTED BY BellCurve on | April 28, 2014, 9:08 GMT

    I like the question and the way it has been answered. I could add by suggesting that biographies would vary depending on the type of sportsman. The physiological and psychological attributes of a long distance runner is quite different from that of a golfer. Within sports there are quite big differences between top performers too. Cricket stars such as Dravid, Warne, Donald and Gayle succeeded for very different reasons. If you start by looking at the type of sportsman and then theorise about the necessary physiological and psychological characteristics that is required for each type to succeed, then maybe you will find patterns if you analyse their biographies.

  • POSTED BY billbassoz on | April 28, 2014, 3:59 GMT

    Great article Ed. I follow your contributions with interest. Like you I have read numerous sports biographies and autobiographies. The two most informative examples were not by cricketers but by tennis players. Serious by John McEnroe and Open by Andre Agassi were both written after these two great players had retired and were far more reflective in their approach than most cricket autobiographies. McEnroe wrote about how it was more fun chasing the number one ranking than defending it and Agassi wrote about not liking tennis at all but playing because it was the one thing he was good at. I think athletes are often too busy doing it to analyse what they do and it is only after they retire that they can afford to reflect on their actions. As such they fall for the great mistake of thinking that what happens in their life leading to their success caused their success which is not often the case. Success in sport is more the combination of talent, dedication and luck.

  • POSTED BY cricketwatchdog on | May 2, 2014, 11:36 GMT

    There is no pre written script to greatness, everyone has to tread his or her set of challenges to acheive sumthing in life. More and more sports biographies are now written 4 monetary reasons then to inspire lives. P.S -to be gud at anything u have to b a gud person first.

  • POSTED BY ygkd on | April 29, 2014, 22:54 GMT

    There can be little doubt that cricket is a game played between the ears. I've seen column inches and coaches' praise devoted to a son of a cricketer's fantastic cricketing genes, but it is clearly far more complicated than purely that. Coming from a high-profile cricketing family routinely opens doors and selection possibilities, encourages self-belief to continue and maybe even gives you a regular boost, a sort of placebo effect, of being one of the lucky few. Or you could feel that you won't live up to the expectations, become too anxious and quit. Those from the other side of the tracks may find themselves on their own, unsupported, lacking financial backing and under pressure. Some will dig in and become all the better for it. Others will find it all too much. Cricketers' autobiographies won't tell you about how the players really made it and won't tell you much about who they really are underneath their uniforms. That is because they probably don't know all the answers anyway.

  • POSTED BY on | April 29, 2014, 13:45 GMT

    The biggest building block in the making of a champion in most sports is a hand eye co-ordination that far exceeds that of the general public. How that gift is utilised depends on the character and coaching. I maintain that regardless of character and early life experiences if you are not blessed with exceptional hand eye co-ordination it is unlikely you will make it.

  • POSTED BY steve48 on | April 29, 2014, 12:31 GMT

    The trouble with autobiography is the assumption of self awareness by the writer! Yes, they know what happened in their life story, but , like all of us, the effects of our life events upon us are a lot less clear, and driven by our eventual successes and failures. For example, who can blame KP for not listening to those in authority when he was originally labelled as a spinner who could bat a bit? But whether that was a catalyst for his rebellious streak, or simply affirmation of it, probably even he doesn't know. I like reading both autobiography and biography, you usually learn something you didn't know, but I stop well short of seeing them as successful psychoanalysis!

  • POSTED BY on | April 29, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    There is no mention of Flintoff's MMA appearance.....

  • POSTED BY Vipul019 on | April 28, 2014, 22:41 GMT

    A well written article, You bring some really good points.

  • POSTED BY amclean on | April 28, 2014, 20:49 GMT

    There is one obvious exception: Ed Smith's 2003 season diary definitely illuminates the way he played and his views on aspects of cricket, amongst many other aspects of his character.

  • POSTED BY InnocentGuy on | April 28, 2014, 20:07 GMT

    @becham100, the conclusion is quite the opposite. Ed is trying to say that just because a sportsman is a champion doesn't mean that the person himself/herself is interesting or has an interesting life. In fact there need not be any correlation at all. To look for a correlation is meaningless; although in some cases they seem to exist, for the vast majority the player and the person might as well be 2 different individuals.

  • POSTED BY BellCurve on | April 28, 2014, 9:08 GMT

    I like the question and the way it has been answered. I could add by suggesting that biographies would vary depending on the type of sportsman. The physiological and psychological attributes of a long distance runner is quite different from that of a golfer. Within sports there are quite big differences between top performers too. Cricket stars such as Dravid, Warne, Donald and Gayle succeeded for very different reasons. If you start by looking at the type of sportsman and then theorise about the necessary physiological and psychological characteristics that is required for each type to succeed, then maybe you will find patterns if you analyse their biographies.

  • POSTED BY billbassoz on | April 28, 2014, 3:59 GMT

    Great article Ed. I follow your contributions with interest. Like you I have read numerous sports biographies and autobiographies. The two most informative examples were not by cricketers but by tennis players. Serious by John McEnroe and Open by Andre Agassi were both written after these two great players had retired and were far more reflective in their approach than most cricket autobiographies. McEnroe wrote about how it was more fun chasing the number one ranking than defending it and Agassi wrote about not liking tennis at all but playing because it was the one thing he was good at. I think athletes are often too busy doing it to analyse what they do and it is only after they retire that they can afford to reflect on their actions. As such they fall for the great mistake of thinking that what happens in their life leading to their success caused their success which is not often the case. Success in sport is more the combination of talent, dedication and luck.

  • POSTED BY cricketwatchdog on | May 2, 2014, 11:36 GMT

    There is no pre written script to greatness, everyone has to tread his or her set of challenges to acheive sumthing in life. More and more sports biographies are now written 4 monetary reasons then to inspire lives. P.S -to be gud at anything u have to b a gud person first.

  • POSTED BY ygkd on | April 29, 2014, 22:54 GMT

    There can be little doubt that cricket is a game played between the ears. I've seen column inches and coaches' praise devoted to a son of a cricketer's fantastic cricketing genes, but it is clearly far more complicated than purely that. Coming from a high-profile cricketing family routinely opens doors and selection possibilities, encourages self-belief to continue and maybe even gives you a regular boost, a sort of placebo effect, of being one of the lucky few. Or you could feel that you won't live up to the expectations, become too anxious and quit. Those from the other side of the tracks may find themselves on their own, unsupported, lacking financial backing and under pressure. Some will dig in and become all the better for it. Others will find it all too much. Cricketers' autobiographies won't tell you about how the players really made it and won't tell you much about who they really are underneath their uniforms. That is because they probably don't know all the answers anyway.

  • POSTED BY on | April 29, 2014, 13:45 GMT

    The biggest building block in the making of a champion in most sports is a hand eye co-ordination that far exceeds that of the general public. How that gift is utilised depends on the character and coaching. I maintain that regardless of character and early life experiences if you are not blessed with exceptional hand eye co-ordination it is unlikely you will make it.

  • POSTED BY steve48 on | April 29, 2014, 12:31 GMT

    The trouble with autobiography is the assumption of self awareness by the writer! Yes, they know what happened in their life story, but , like all of us, the effects of our life events upon us are a lot less clear, and driven by our eventual successes and failures. For example, who can blame KP for not listening to those in authority when he was originally labelled as a spinner who could bat a bit? But whether that was a catalyst for his rebellious streak, or simply affirmation of it, probably even he doesn't know. I like reading both autobiography and biography, you usually learn something you didn't know, but I stop well short of seeing them as successful psychoanalysis!

  • POSTED BY on | April 29, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    There is no mention of Flintoff's MMA appearance.....

  • POSTED BY Vipul019 on | April 28, 2014, 22:41 GMT

    A well written article, You bring some really good points.

  • POSTED BY amclean on | April 28, 2014, 20:49 GMT

    There is one obvious exception: Ed Smith's 2003 season diary definitely illuminates the way he played and his views on aspects of cricket, amongst many other aspects of his character.

  • POSTED BY InnocentGuy on | April 28, 2014, 20:07 GMT

    @becham100, the conclusion is quite the opposite. Ed is trying to say that just because a sportsman is a champion doesn't mean that the person himself/herself is interesting or has an interesting life. In fact there need not be any correlation at all. To look for a correlation is meaningless; although in some cases they seem to exist, for the vast majority the player and the person might as well be 2 different individuals.

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 18:35 GMT

    Great article. Great performance!

  • POSTED BY Insightful2013 on | April 28, 2014, 15:46 GMT

    Thoughtful subject. I think you would find that there are variable factors that causes anyone to succeed. Each person is different and their perspectives, to them, makes them different, even when it's obvious to others, that they are similar. I think you are wrong on some of your conclusions. I think cultural, social, familial inputs causes the differences. Each country would differ in very different ways, even if it appears similar. Tendulkar's celebrity is different from Botham's because of how the individual views it. This has been influenced to a great extent by his culture. Which can be considerable! Their money would be spent differently because of differing value systems. I think your sublimation theory falls down when you consider extremely gifted individuals who lack discipline and drive and fail to succeed. I think mundane and exceptional describes everyone. In Psych, people present different faces for different people and different occasions. Most have at least five faces!

  • POSTED BY becham100 on | April 28, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    I am confused as to what exactly is the conclusion here. Ordinary people in routine life become champions on the field? How are these things related? I have always been good at hangman, does that make me a REALLY interesting person?

  • POSTED BY rizwan1981 on | April 28, 2014, 14:41 GMT

    Kambli once said he took the stairs whereas Tendulkar took the elevator-The record shows Kambli ended up with a superior average than Sachin -Is it possible that Kambli would have become as prolific as Sachin if he had the support, family background & upbringing as Sachin? Nasser Hussein in his biography mentioned that his father used to drive him all over the countryside for games - Would Nasser captained his country without the encouragement of his father Jaward?

    I believe that nurture rather than nature has a significant impact on the career of a Sportsman & a privileged background and a well -placed mentor early in in the career can be a huge boost. Sportsmen with a humble background such as Sir Steve Redgrave, Lara, Malinga, Kapil Dev, Larwood, Jackie Robinson et al are exceptions rather than the rule.

  • POSTED BY geoffboyc on | April 28, 2014, 14:02 GMT

    So Ed has now discovered a hitherto hidden truth; that not all great sportsmen, actors or artists are interesting, exciting or pleasant individuals. Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out. Anyone watching post match interviews on Match of the Day or even Test Matches might just have discerned a similar conclusion without ploughing through Waterstones autobiography section. Added to his previously established sporting and psychological credentials Ed now also has a "historian's hat" to don. Still, it's another 800-900 words out of the way and into print

  • POSTED BY jb633 on | April 28, 2014, 13:15 GMT

    Great article and one I think holds true for all sports. The links between sportsmen (on the pitch) and sportsmen (off the pitch) are few and far between. To take a different example I play cricket and rugby and have seen guys who are loyal to their teammates on the pitch (particularly with rugby), will take a blow for their teammates and are for all intents and purposes a team player. However many of these guys are not loyal people, they will go on a cricket/rugby tour and happily be disloyal to their wives, children even other teammates (with their girlfriends or whatever). Their personality on a sports field is not correlated. When people say he is a gutsy player etc this can often be related to the fact they are very good and are able to withstand pressure that others cannot. For example when one guy is able to stand tall amidst a batting collapse, is this a sign of guts or simply ability? Surely all the other batsmen want to succeed but could not do so. Great article.

  • POSTED BY IndianInnerEdge on | April 28, 2014, 12:29 GMT

    Nice article as as usual ED...

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 9:57 GMT

    Ed. I was in a local toy shop recently, with my young daughter. A celebrity footballer came in with his family. Quickly he was swamped with kids (including my daughter) wanting autographs and photos. I observed him for about 10 minutes, and noted that he was: charming, courteous, very quiet and clearly painfully shy. Not perhaps the description you would expect for Luis Suarez!

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 9:19 GMT

    How much we would like to interpret the great performance as the expression of greatness in the person who does it, and how often this hope is deceived! Sometimes, a great cricketer (or a great actor or musician) also seems to be the genuine article, aside from their performance on the field. If it were not for the style seeming to be the expression of character, we wouldn't have the same affection for on or two supremely graceful left-handers, for instance. But, on a deeper level, it does seem as if individuals are loose coalitions of attributes, with their various talents coexisting rather than bound together at the root. Ed is surely right to diagnose a biographical fallacy. But it is disappointing.

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | April 28, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    Another interesting read, Ed. And cricketers (and other sportsmen) like any random selection of successful professionals, reach the top of their respective trees (or, to be more cynical, their greasy poles) in an infinite variety of ways. Everyone who can be sincere about it will want to thank their families, supportive partners etc. for playing their parts. That's obligatory. What is more interesting - and it's also what I look for in this genre - is the source of the inspiration: the first role model that is invariably to be found in the subject's early childhood. S/he is just as likely to be found outside the family as within it. Who lit the fuse and how was it lit? The source of the inspiration - likely also to be the first role model - is all, I think, and it has to be the common factor for all subsequently successful careers. Teachers, formal or informal, whether paid or not, are the unsung heroes - the inspirers - of many successful 'chosen' careers, are they not, Ed?

  • POSTED BY jackiethepen on | April 28, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    You are right linking great sport to great art and I think there is a link also between all sportsmen and all artists. It is certainly true that poets have a compulsion to write poetry which is one of the hardest and toughest of the arts and with the least reward in monetary terms. There have been times in history when poets have been more admired but usually the poets themselves benefit only posthumously. Human beings seem to have innate talents to be used in many ways and is part of our nature. Both art and sport seem to have been important to very primitive peoples including our early ancestors.

  • POSTED BY SouthPaw on | April 28, 2014, 7:02 GMT

    Nice analysis, Ed. @cricketcritic: You missed the entire article! When the sculpture has been made, only the sculpture is admirable, not the stone or marble that was used. So, there is no point looking for entertainment in what made the piece of entertainment. Just enjoy the entertainment. Capisce?

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 6:55 GMT

    this is a great article! A very unique view to sport.

    If tennis wasnt very popular, would people in the street flock when they see Rafa the man.. hhhhmmmmm

  • POSTED BY cricketcritic on | April 28, 2014, 3:04 GMT

    You've kind of missed the point Ed. There is no template to success, everyone is different. For me the story is enough.

  • POSTED BY cricketcritic on | April 28, 2014, 3:04 GMT

    You've kind of missed the point Ed. There is no template to success, everyone is different. For me the story is enough.

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 6:55 GMT

    this is a great article! A very unique view to sport.

    If tennis wasnt very popular, would people in the street flock when they see Rafa the man.. hhhhmmmmm

  • POSTED BY SouthPaw on | April 28, 2014, 7:02 GMT

    Nice analysis, Ed. @cricketcritic: You missed the entire article! When the sculpture has been made, only the sculpture is admirable, not the stone or marble that was used. So, there is no point looking for entertainment in what made the piece of entertainment. Just enjoy the entertainment. Capisce?

  • POSTED BY jackiethepen on | April 28, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    You are right linking great sport to great art and I think there is a link also between all sportsmen and all artists. It is certainly true that poets have a compulsion to write poetry which is one of the hardest and toughest of the arts and with the least reward in monetary terms. There have been times in history when poets have been more admired but usually the poets themselves benefit only posthumously. Human beings seem to have innate talents to be used in many ways and is part of our nature. Both art and sport seem to have been important to very primitive peoples including our early ancestors.

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | April 28, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    Another interesting read, Ed. And cricketers (and other sportsmen) like any random selection of successful professionals, reach the top of their respective trees (or, to be more cynical, their greasy poles) in an infinite variety of ways. Everyone who can be sincere about it will want to thank their families, supportive partners etc. for playing their parts. That's obligatory. What is more interesting - and it's also what I look for in this genre - is the source of the inspiration: the first role model that is invariably to be found in the subject's early childhood. S/he is just as likely to be found outside the family as within it. Who lit the fuse and how was it lit? The source of the inspiration - likely also to be the first role model - is all, I think, and it has to be the common factor for all subsequently successful careers. Teachers, formal or informal, whether paid or not, are the unsung heroes - the inspirers - of many successful 'chosen' careers, are they not, Ed?

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 9:19 GMT

    How much we would like to interpret the great performance as the expression of greatness in the person who does it, and how often this hope is deceived! Sometimes, a great cricketer (or a great actor or musician) also seems to be the genuine article, aside from their performance on the field. If it were not for the style seeming to be the expression of character, we wouldn't have the same affection for on or two supremely graceful left-handers, for instance. But, on a deeper level, it does seem as if individuals are loose coalitions of attributes, with their various talents coexisting rather than bound together at the root. Ed is surely right to diagnose a biographical fallacy. But it is disappointing.

  • POSTED BY on | April 28, 2014, 9:57 GMT

    Ed. I was in a local toy shop recently, with my young daughter. A celebrity footballer came in with his family. Quickly he was swamped with kids (including my daughter) wanting autographs and photos. I observed him for about 10 minutes, and noted that he was: charming, courteous, very quiet and clearly painfully shy. Not perhaps the description you would expect for Luis Suarez!

  • POSTED BY IndianInnerEdge on | April 28, 2014, 12:29 GMT

    Nice article as as usual ED...

  • POSTED BY jb633 on | April 28, 2014, 13:15 GMT

    Great article and one I think holds true for all sports. The links between sportsmen (on the pitch) and sportsmen (off the pitch) are few and far between. To take a different example I play cricket and rugby and have seen guys who are loyal to their teammates on the pitch (particularly with rugby), will take a blow for their teammates and are for all intents and purposes a team player. However many of these guys are not loyal people, they will go on a cricket/rugby tour and happily be disloyal to their wives, children even other teammates (with their girlfriends or whatever). Their personality on a sports field is not correlated. When people say he is a gutsy player etc this can often be related to the fact they are very good and are able to withstand pressure that others cannot. For example when one guy is able to stand tall amidst a batting collapse, is this a sign of guts or simply ability? Surely all the other batsmen want to succeed but could not do so. Great article.

  • POSTED BY geoffboyc on | April 28, 2014, 14:02 GMT

    So Ed has now discovered a hitherto hidden truth; that not all great sportsmen, actors or artists are interesting, exciting or pleasant individuals. Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out. Anyone watching post match interviews on Match of the Day or even Test Matches might just have discerned a similar conclusion without ploughing through Waterstones autobiography section. Added to his previously established sporting and psychological credentials Ed now also has a "historian's hat" to don. Still, it's another 800-900 words out of the way and into print