Sunday, June 27, 2010
Germany 4 England 1
It’s tough enough playing a sport against the world’s finest; having an entire nation screaming at you must require the utmost mental discipline.
Sometimes I wonder if we ask too much of our young sportsmen. Nearly-fully grown men, whose only talent in life is to kick a ball in the right direction, find themselves the objects of derision and hate, or can be raised to god-like status, in the twinkling of a goal net.
My eldest son is becoming a film director. He’s training himself by making commercials. He’s young, fresh, and in demand and hopes to become the Rooney of his industry. Every now and then he pitches an idea to a client, competing against other directors at the very top of our advertising industry.
I try to think what his life would be like if, every time he writes a script, 10 million people were sitting in pubs watching him type, drunkenly criticizing every line.
“That’s a rubbish strapline; why on earth did he pull focus there; he should have cut to the girl three seconds earlier”. Imagine his mental state if he knew the newspaper hoardings would scream Ben’s Blunder when he fails, or Ben’s Blinder when he succeeds. When he goes onto a film set, perhaps the youngest and yet most senior member of a 50-man crew, what if his producer roared out instructions and obscenities from behind the camera, echoed by 60,000 cheering, jeering spectators? No 20-something could cope with that kind of pressure, so it’s no wonder our England players haven’t had the easiest of rides.
Despite being a Scot, Andy Murray must have been saying prayers for England to keep on winning. As long as they survived, he’s been playing his games in a sideshow, relegated to the back pages. This England defeat means, once the nation has sunk its gloom in alcohol and recrimination for a few days, the pressure will turn on him. We love sporting heroes. We have so few of them, sadly, that when an event comes around where we can get behind someone, we do it with such passion, we often forget that the object of our support is a real human being.
They say the most valuable item in a sportsman’s kit bag is the ability to overcome fear of failure. Being able to control that fear is as important as maximising skill. The moment fear begins to manipulate the mind, confidence folds, the service ball hits the net, the open goal becomes a fortress. And once the fear of failure leads to failure itself, something we became only too familiar with at St James Park just over a year ago, then losing becomes inevitable.
It’s one of the reasons I was never any good at any sport at school; that and arrant laziness. My father was a professional football referee and played cricket for Surrey. There’s no way I could kick a ball or pick up a bat without it becoming some sort of professional trial. I know I was a bitter disappointment to him and I can still recall my fear of his frustration. Today I still can’t throw, catch or kick a ball, but boy can I shout at our national team.
It’s a big ask, but we, the fans, can help. Our honour’s list of sporting heroes hides many tales of depression and mental illness. Their fear of letting people down; their fury at a body which, through injury or fatigue, fails to fulfil overblown expectations; their lack of support from the pundits whose only advice is “pull yourself together”, has often led to serious problems, particularly for young men trying to live up to headlines and hyperbole.
Come on Rooney, we shouted today over our beer bellies. But at the end of the day, he’s only human.