The Tribes: Do You Know Your Sporting Winners?
What does it take to succeed on the biggest sporting stage? It’s a question that only a few can truly claim to have the answer to. The rest – the 99.99 per cent of us, otherwise known as the losers – can only speculate. Is it God-given natural talent? An insatiable competitive desire? Or is it some combination of the two, blended together with a little bit of good old-fashioned hard work? Don’t ask us. If we knew the secret, we’d be doing it ourselves. What we do know, however, is that champions tend to follow certain personality types, five of which we’ve highlighted here for closer inspection. Is it possible, through studying these characters, to settle upon a recipe for success?
The Laser-Focused Leader
Defining quality: ruthlessness
As we’re often told as children, winning isn’t everything. Some children, however, don’t heed that advice and of the ones who don’t grow up to become CEOs, a surprisingly large number become professional athletes. It’s not hard to see why psychopathic traits, such as selfishness and a lack of remorse, are over-represented in professional sports. They allow certain athletes the freedom to go where others won’t, to hold nothing back, to be ruthless in pursuit of victory, even if that means dragging their teammates to places they don’t want to go. “He was an asshole,” Mr Will Perdue of the Chicago Bulls said of Mr Michael Jordan. “But… he was a hell of a teammate.” We might value the virtues of sportsmanship – camaraderie, fairness and mutual respect – but these qualities don’t win trophies. If anything, they only mask the fundamental truth of sport, which is that you can’t win without beating somebody else. This competitor understands this better than others.
Defining quality: work ethic
We might lionise the notion of a born competitor – the kind of sportsperson who can show up on any given Saturday and, seemingly out of nowhere, produce miracles – but the fact of the matter is that these men and women are a dying breed. That’s certainly the case in elite sports, which is now the dominion of an entirely different kind of winner, one who relies not on fickle talent but on the guarantee of physical and mechanical superiority. That’s not to suggest that they lack talent; far from it. Their talent was the reason why they were singled out at a young age and enrolled into an elite development programme, the purpose of which was to reduce them down from a human being into a pure sporting machine. Now in their final form, their march to victory is unstoppable. (And, if we’re being honest, a bit boring to watch.)
Defining quality: talent
Mr Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hour rule”, introduced in his book Outliers, states that mastery of any given skill can be achieved through 10,000 hours of practice, or roughly equivalent to five years’ worth of 40-hour weeks. While there’s certainly some truth to the old adage that practice makes perfect, the argument begins to fall apart when you apply it to elite-level sports. The inference that you could pluck any kid off the street, give them 10,000 hours of golf coaching and turn them into the next Mr Seve Ballesteros fails to take into account what makes people like him so special. The true sporting immortals have something else, an elusive quality that no amount of time and effort can achieve. Perhaps that’s why, of all the words we have to describe it – brilliance, genius, the X-factor – the most telling is “gifted”, because it cannot be earned.
Defining quality: self-belief
As entertaining as it is, the world of elite sports can, from a spectator’s point of view, feel quite unrelatable, populated as it is by a cast of near-flawless superhumans. Occasionally, though, someone comes along who doesn’t fit the mould. Someone who lacks some of the otherworldly strength and grace we associate with professional athletes. Someone who looks a little bit like one of us. Typically, these characters constitute the also-rans and journeymen, rarely troubling those at the upper echelons of their sport. But every once in a while, through some combination of luck and sheer tenacity, they “do a Leicester” and go the whole way. And when they do, it’s one of the most heart-warming spectacles. It’s easy to forget, of course, that these sportspeople are only “underdogs” compared to the very best in the world and are still far, far better than any of us will ever be. Still, we can dream.
The Pantomime Villain
Defining quality: arrogance
In his seminal 16th-century treatise The Prince, Mr Niccolò Machiavelli argued that the rules of morality that guide our behaviour in everyday life do not apply in the world of politics, where the end always justifies the means. One imagines that Machiavelli would have felt just at home in professional sport, which has its own, equivalent school of thought: the win-at-all-costs mentality. Its proponents are some of the most controversial, and often the most successful, figures in sport – the ones who see no issue in feigning injury, deceiving officials, provoking opponents and bending, or even breaking, the rules in order to win. It hardly matters to them that they engage in this unscrupulous behaviour in front of dozens of high-definition, slow-motion TV cameras that lay bare their deception for all to see. Just like a real pantomime villain, your boos only make them stronger.
Illustration by Mr Pete Gamlen