The Eternal Paradox Of Sport

I’ll let you into a secret. My youngest is brilliant at Rocket League. If you haven’t played it, you really must. It should be on everyone’s bucket list, along with a Lions Tour and sipping champagne with Kate Humble in a hot tub under the Northern Lights. Anyhow, I’m digressing. I asked him the other day where he thought he would rank in say, the national standings of Rocket League players. Not very high, he thought, although he doesn’t play ranking matches apparently. He is gifted, I think, but I’m not sure whether he has the killer instinct.

I’ll let you into another secret. A good friend went pro about six months ago. Nothing untoward I must clarify, or even Rocket League for that matter, but poker. He too said this weekend that he lacked the killer instinct. He is too nice at the table. He’s also the fifth best poker player at our regular home game of four, but that’s by the by.

And I suppose it comes down to this: the next time you step onto a pitch, course, or court, the next time you get in a car or boat or on a bike, the next time you face off over the green baize or the kitchen table or a games console – do you want to utterly destroy your opponent? If the answer is no then, I suggest, you do not have what it takes to be a world class sports person. Join the club; it’s a big one.

Let me clarify – I’m not talking about sportsmanship. Rugby, which I’ve written about a lot recently and no doubt will soon again with the Lions test series fast approaching, is the perfect example of wanting to physically confront and overpower your opponent but still wanting to shake their hand and have a beer afterwards (dieticians allowing).

What I am talking about is that if during the course of a match you feel any compassion, affinity or sympathy toward your opponent you have almost certainly lost. At the end of our Rocket League tournament this afternoon, with me on the receiving end of a 5-0 drubbing (as usual) my youngest went easy on me. He was suitably told off and has promised to never do it again.

We tell our youngsters that it’s important to be a good winner and a good loser, lest we raise generations of brats who gloat in victory and throw their toys out of the pram in defeat. It is important, of course, but I think that is a confusing message for youngsters to understand, and all too often ends in a garbled message that is misinterpreted as “if you’re winning, go easy”.

It is endemic in our culture, at least in this country. When I played snooker as a youngster with my Dad he used to deliberately miss pots but leave them hanging over the pocket, and it used to infuriate me. He was being nice, of course, and trying to nurture his son, but if I ‘beat’ him how did I know I had actually beaten him? When my youngest beats me 5-0 at Rocket League he knows that he has truly humiliated his father who was trying his hardest, and revels in the victories because of it.

I squirm every time I hear the phrase “it’s not about the winning, it’s about the taking part”. Complete nonsense. Competitive sport is about the winning. It’s as simple as that. Sure, by taking part we gain so much, and learn so many things about ourselves, and I hope that we can shake hands with our opponents and say well played and mean it, but without the default position that both competitors really want to win it is all rather meaningless.

Losing is part of it too of course. For every winner there are at least as many losers, and that is okay because we tried our hardest and didn’t give up. We learn from our losses, and sometimes they fester inside us and instill renewed purpose and a fighting spirit. Without the savage lows how can we truly appreciate or even attain the joyful highs? We can all enjoy competitive sport, whether we win or lose, but we have to start from the position of wanting to win. If we don’t teach our youngsters that, they will never truly get it.

Do we really think Tiger Woods or Tony McCoy were ever advised to “go easy” or told “it’s not about the winning”? They reached the pinnacles of their professions with a ruthless streak bordering on hostility. Do not be fooled by the way McCoy softened his public persona in the lead up to his retirement, or the way Woods cut a sad figure on dashcam footage as he struggled with too many injuries and prescription painkillers.

They would never, ever, have gone easy on an opponent. They wanted to crush the opposition every time they pulled on their spikes or riding boots. And that is what drove them to be the best. It also meant that they were rather arrogant and selfish individuals, but I’m not sure it can be any other way. Nice guys don’t win, not at the highest level.

So my friend may never win the World Series of Poker, and my youngest may never be a Rocket League world champion. They will join the legion of ‘could-have-beens’ who respect, if not admire, the driven few in the top echelons of sport. And they will be nicer people because of it. But I want them to try their hardest to win, and only then will they fully enjoy it when they do.