"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…it is war minus the shooting."
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Annie Vernon, London, Bloomsbury, 2019 ISBN 978-4729-4911-0Annie Vernon was a medal-winning Olympic rower. At the beginning of the book she writes: “Looking at myself, I recognize that yes, I’m 1.77m (5ft 10in) and powerful but how come I am also dogged, methodical, focused, able to push myself physically and driven to be the best? Was I born or made?” The book seeks to answer that question based on her own experience and interviews with a range of elite athletes.
Using the old saying about a plate of bacon and eggs that the chicken is involved but the pig is committed, she argues that a person either wants to be the best, or doesn’t You’re either a chicken or a pig.
As a foundation to the enquiry the book seeks to define and understand the nature of sport. She writes: “elite sport is a raw, visceral form of modern warfare testing mind body and soul in pursuit of a fixed goal”. There is nowhere to hide, you cannot rationalize a bad performance or steer around it; it’s there in black and white. Competition is fundamental to elite. Without competition, sport becomes exercise or a hobby. And competition happens where you are ready or not. In life you can often put off a challenge a few months; you have no control over the timetable in sport.
I loved Matthew Pinsent’s definition: “Sport is: turn up, get kicked in the face, go home, figure out why, fix it, turn up, get kicked in the face again”. Ex England rugby player, Brian Moore explains: “Sport is one of the only things in life where there are agreed criteria for winning and losing. No one has to like you, no one has to agree with any of your opinions, or think you’re any good at all but we all know who won and lost, demonstrably. The rest of life is not like that. It’s grey, and I can’t prove my work’s better yours”.
Vernon puts the life of an Olympic rower in context: “I was a full-time rower for eight years, from the ages of 22 to 30 training between four and six hours every day. In that time the World Championship and Olympic finals that I contested the only moments that matter, add up to a cumulative time of just under an hour…The brutally raw, yet simple and primitive moment of triumph or disaster - it’s so, so hard to treat those two imposters just the same. The margin on the field of play between winning and losing is tiny; the margin as to how you feel about yourself afterwards is the width of a continent”.
The essence of elite
It is impossible to try to sum up a 270 page book in a page. Here are a number of significant points, expressed as one-liners
• Studies suggest that second children are more likely to be elite than first-born.
• Normal people do not win one gold medals; serial gold medalists do not have normal personalities or normal interpersonal relationships.
• Elite athletes develop their tough inner cores through adversity.
• Elite athletes are often people who are able to see the bigger picture of the game, and to be less focused on just what they are doing.
• Decision-making drops off with fatigue but the successful ones deal with fatigue while still executing skill and decision-making really well.
The book identifies a number of key attributes.
Instinct - doing the right things at the right time.
Composure – Vernon refers to the temptation in a rowing race to try harder and row faster, when really you may need to slow down, relax and trust your technique. Composure is an ability to perform in exactly the same way, whatever the circumstances.
Belief – believing in your game plan against the evidence.
High boredom threshold – the ability to cope with tedious, repetitive training. “The reality of it in our sort of sport we have maybe four or five moments of true excitement or acclaim a year and the rest of the time it’s I don’t want to say it’s a means to an end…”
Seeing challenges not threats – the ability to “enter a stressful situation and see it as a positive experience that they are equipped to deal with (a challenge) rather than anything negative that makes them feel out of their depth (a threat)”.
Competitiveness: She writes: “competitiveness can be equally our best friend and worst enemy… it needs to be kept on a tight Ieash. It’s such a fine line between being the right level of competitiveness and being too driven”. She confesses that she has always been “competitive to a ridiculous degree” and had assumed that all elite athletes were the same. She was therefore surprised to find people who are as competitive as she is in their elite sport but quite laid back when playing other sports and in normal life.
Confidence is worthy of a separate section. She writes: “My own definition is that confidence happens when athletes start believing they are good enough. They might not be at that standard now - they are driven to get better - but they have the potential within them to reach the highest standard... To me and this won’t be true of everyone – the optimum state is a marriage of overconfidence and paranoia. You need to thinking: I’m good enough to beat everyone, but also wondering, But what if X happens?”
She continues: “Form is temporary, class is permanent. Rowing badly doesn’t make you a bad rower. Confidence comes from knowing that you are a good rower. And that realisation doesn’t happen overnight”.
Other words to explain confidence include momentum, composure, trust, self-belief and mental toughness. She quotes a psychology source that refers to nine sources of confidence in sport: “preparation, performance, accomplishments, coaching, innate factors, social support, experience, competitive advantage, self-awareness and trust”.
She also quotes psychology sources that suggest that the process of being confident is different for men from women.
I was fascinated by the discussion of things like wearing lucky socks or always using the same toilet. Vernon does not dismiss these accepting the value of a pre-competition routine and that “lucky socks” can be a trigger to remind the athlete of a key concept adding: “it’s a fine line between taking various deliberate steps to put yourself in the right frame of mind to compete, and wearing lucky pants that you panic about losing”.
Her reflection on her career and her post-sport self is interesting. She sums up: “Now I’m retired I am now prioritizing my sanity over my ambition and I’m far happier as a result. But I was not able to do this while I was competing”.
Her letter to her 22 year-old self would include that both the highs and lows are there to be relished and a need to examine one’s motivation: “I was motivated by being successful and winning medals and going on this journey through elite sport. Psychology has taught me that was the wrong motivation. If I could wind the clock back, I’d tell myself to replace those motivators with a holistic appreciation of the joys of doing sport for a living rather than always wanting to achieve. I understand now that I was too focused on success and should have let myself enjoy the journey more. Maybe I’d have been successful; I’d have certainly been more content”.
Reflecting on her retirement, she does not miss rowing but misses trying to be best in the world at something.
This is a magnificent book, essential reading for anyone wishing to understand elite sport