May 20, 2014

When does the quest for perfection become a curse?

It's quite possible that Jonathan Trott's problems arose out of a focus on meeting all expectations

When Martin Kaymer won the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass last week, it was a triumph of progress over perfection. His early rise, then fall, and recent rise again, all within seven years, is a great example of a humble, thoughtful athlete maturing through all kinds of experience, through thick and thin, and finding himself when self-acceptance kicked in.

Less than four years into his career as a professional Kaymer became the world's No. 1, then eight weeks later it was gone. Then he disappeared, emerged briefly as a Ryder Cup hero, and then retreated back into his personal search for perfection.

Until last week. Now he is not only a champion again, he is in full control of who he is and what makes him tick. It's called the maturing process. Kaymer chose to play from his heart, to back his instinct and not his mind. He chose to progress as himself rather than to seek the impossible.

Cricket at the top level, like golf, is a pursuit where the desire to strive for perfection can become a bugbear. Perfection is about thinking of where you want to end up, where you want your game to be on the highest stage. With that comes the danger of dramatically losing ground when the inevitable hiccup or roadblock occurs in the drive towards the elusive perfect game. Aiming to be perfect can be tantamount to reaching for an illusion - a risky business.

When you seek the acme, you expect from yourself a flawless display with no error. That's horrendous pressure to bear. Experience teaches you that it's more meaningful and more achievable when the path taken is a step-by-step journey, a progressive march, with great lessons en route. Progress is maturity, where a crystalline awareness replaces burnout and uncertainty. If you are lucky, experience teaches you before it's too late.

For a while now I have resisted talking about the latest news surrounding Jonathan Trott. I couldn't find the right context in which to express the dilemma I believe he faces. Though I don't know the details, I sense his story is similar to mine.

Firstly, he is too young to retire from playing the game. Trott is a good guy, a steady athlete, a skilful operator. In theory, he has years ahead of him. Yet his mind has been flooded with confusion, and he is unsure how to proceed. He has rightly taken a step away from the spotlight in an attempt to find some clarity.

The key lies in our ability to learn awareness, to sense the right response needed at the right time, which only a steady, growing maturity can provide. With the right advice Kaymer found the right approach, removing the deceiving one. He stepped back and began a slow build, connecting all his resilience. That incredible putt he buried on the penultimate hole captured his journey in a heartbeat.

It appeared, if I may suppose, that the road Trott pursued was that of striving too hard for perfection. This was the one I chose too. It's a road of thorough preparation and exact planning, of expectation and clinical execution. I assume in most cases it becomes all too hard to walk unscathed. It doesn't allow for sensing, anticipating or intuition, and for trusting the instinctive flair that is within.

Chasing perfection demands detailed execution every moment. As a result, it's played out in the mind, over and over again. In batting, that is a very fine line to walk. It is a brutally unforgiving and exhausting approach.

From my own experience, when I replaced Viv Richards at Somerset, I felt I needed to match the great man to justify the difficult decision to remove him and Joel Garner as the overseas pros. Within weeks of the decision, I played the West Indies side, which contained those two, in a three-Test series in early 1987 at home. I set myself the goal of a hundred in each match. After that, as the county season began, I set the goal of topping the 1987 county averages as a way to silence the detractors and put an end to the death threats once and for all. Then, as the year wore on, I went after the perfect record by attempting 4000 runs in a calendar year. It became a merciless pursuit of perfection.

If I had my time again I would drop the grand plan of searching for perfection all the time, realising the stupidity of it all, and instead would settle for a long, slow maturing, a fermentation of acceptance and joy at doing what I loved to do

By the end of 1987 the ghost was up. I couldn't think or move. I was not only physically burnt out, I was mentally spent and emotionally shot. I was forced to take most of 1988 off, referring to doctors and specialists to explain the collapse, and never returned to Somerset or county cricket again. I contemplated retirement at age 26.

I had simply chosen the wrong approach. Unfortunately it was one I never changed, and one that ultimately ended my career early - in tears, not surprisingly.

Trott's departure from the game does not seem far different from mine. He, I suspect, thought, analysed, ruminated and stressed way too much. Too much of a need of the end result, rather than just enjoying and adapting to the process of progressive growth. If I had my time again I would drop the grand plan of searching for perfection all the time, realising the stupidity of it all, and instead would settle for a long, slow maturing, a fermentation of acceptance and joy at doing what I loved to do, which was simply to bat for my team, in my favourite sport, under a hot sun.

Perhaps Trott fell into the same trap, not understanding that progress, even a slow grind back and forth from time to time, is all part of the human movement. He, again as I did, wanted to meet every expectation, and in doing so, got caught in the lure of needing perfection to silence the constant call to score daddy hundreds. In this day and age, there is no rest for the top player, no chance to drop back a level and regroup and recharge. The scheduling is extraordinary.

Trott started out with a fine Test century on debut, and that was the only currency he knew would suffice. I too was obsessed with reaching three figures at all costs, to make up for the obvious failures that came with being a batsman, failures that led to crippling criticism, which I crazily took personally. When you have self-acceptance, you don't need to rely on external judgement. Therein lies the key to one's peace.

Maybe in time Trott will venture back to Warwickshire and start from scratch - perhaps some second-team games to begin - and look to build a new game, with one eye on progress and the other on simply seeing the ball and moving towards it, for the sheer fun of it. In that way, he may find the will to slowly move again towards who he really is, and to be happy in the knowledge that life is about loving what you do and doing what you love, while gaining fresh wisdom and maturity. As he does, progress towards self-acceptance will become the driving force.

Like Kaymer discovered with his awakening, Trott needs time to find that source himself. Once recaptured, with sights lowered, he could find his natural passion for playing come back.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand