Is the following a depressing notion, or a fascinating one, or an exciting one? The idea that ‘bottle’ – the possession of real confidence in the moment of real pressure – is the most critical factor in sporting success. Is it really that simple? And at every level? Well maybe today it feels like it.
1. Having coached a cricket team this very afternoon to a losing draw where the difference was their batsmen’s prolonged exercise of controlled technique against (even) our threatening bowling
2. Having watched the Japanese women cruise through penalties against the feeble, glassy-eyed Americans, it does feel like it.
The brutal truth appeared to be that in both cases the losers were offering their throats. By this I do not mean that they were in any sense cowardly. However, I think they were sick to their stomachs and they wanted an end – any end. So on the one hand they (we) flung the bat with a quiet wrecklessness; the ball, the real ball and the real fielders barely registering in our dreamlike acquiescence. Similarly, the Americans, who had generally performed with power and energy up until the moment of real asking, abandoned control at the awesome 12 yard mark, apparently transfixed by some dancing cobra. Escape – hoof! – over the bar by miles! Escape – stub it lamely near central, where any joker could save it. Escape, from this terribly real moment, from the responsibility of all this, now.
This is why choosing an opening batsman and a penalty taker and a player to play in say… a World Cup is a job for a real manager, someone who feels the pulses of fear and comfort experienced by his players. (This does not at all mean someone who’s been there, necessarily). Surely one of the abiding memories of the last England World Cup campaign is the almost comically inept management of the player’s chronic unease. Rooney was a serial embarrassment – the same Rooney who had carried England for three years on his broad, shell-suited shoulders, in the flush of his unbridled youth. Glen Johnson –amongst others – was beyond hopeless with nerves. Neither, presumably can watch the videos without squirming… but ditto two-thirds of the squad.
And Capello failed utterly, in every respect, to act. He failed to put a metaphorical arm round the spreading fear. (Or he failed to flush out the weaklings?) He failed to make significant tactical changes, so that it felt that there were no ‘fresh legs’, no Plan B. He was petrified when leadership was called for and his substitutions were, in all seriousness, both a disgrace and arguably the single most compelling exhibit in the case against his continued incumbency. Beyond the ‘tiredness’, virtually to a man, the show ponies lacked bottle; they were pallid, they jogged around avoiding meaningful contact with the game. Fans hate that more than anything.
Given that my cricket team are 10 years old I am not entirely equating their confidence issues with Lampard and Gerrard’s in the England shirt. But the latters relative failure to own their jerseys, to fill their associated boots are connected to my youngsters; because sporting achievement is predicated upon common essentials. Technique and/or skill, comfort and/or composure and desire. And good players – men, women, boys and girls – at all levels, have to burst through the glass ceiling that is achievement by combining these essentials with a lusty or sanguine or precocious or forced or inspired or workaday dollop of bottle.
July 17th 2011.