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BW Businessworld

Learning From The Game

Syed’s core argument is that greatness often can’t be attributed to just individual brilliance, but several other factors

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Not a lot of people can claim to have experienced the thrill of playing a sport at the very highest stage like Matthew Syed, who was the top-ranked table-tennis player in England for more than a decade. However, when it really mattered, twice he came a cropper. In the Olympics’ at Barcelona, as well as at Sydney, he ‘choked’. “There seemed to be a breakdown in communication between mind and body,” he says of his experience in Sydney, “a catastrophic loss of feeling and touch, and a defeat so one-sided that my Olympic dream (four years of build-up) was over in 30 minutes flat”.

But his story did not end there. He went on to be a journalist for the Times, winning awards for his work, and publishing books on the science of high-performance. Now, he has written a third, The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection, a collection of his articles from his day job, where he explores what makes the best stand out from the rest.

While the format is primarily intended for a reader familiar with the world of sport, the writing is quaintly pleasing, attracting even the casual reader looking for clues to professional excellence. In different sections, he addresses the mental make-up of champions, the source of apparent beauty, political sub-texts to high performance, and the background stories of the greatest icons of sport.

Syed’s core argument is that greatness often can’t be attributed to just individual brilliance, but several other factors - such as the culture and circumstances to which a champion was born, the fortune to have a fine coach and access to the best training facilities, the commitment of parents - cannot be discounted. As Malcolm Gladwell has now made famous in his book Outliers, often, the time of year a champion is born can make a world of difference (In a nutshell, if, for instance, only children born between 1 January  and 31 December of 2005 are eligible for selection, those children born in the first few months of 2005 get a natural advantage over those born in the last quarter, because at the raw age of 10 even a few extra months of growth can make a difference to pre-teen bones and muscles. These selected children get the best of training facilities and coaching, and so on, eventually going on to become, on average, immensely more successful than those children who were born in the later months of the year).

How is Roger Federer able to bring out peak performance at his age (and this was written before his incredible Australian Open victory this year)? How does Andres Iniesta manage to pass the ball to Lionel Messi with magical accuracy without as much as looking up at his team-mate? And what drives Michael Schumacher’s infatuation with life-threatening speed and risk, even after he was too old to compete in a Formula One car? For the sports lover, the canvas that Syed fills is vivid.

Syed even explores facets of champions beyond the arena that influence performance. Martina Navratilova’s coming out as a lesbian, Michael Phelps need to constantly prove his detractors wrong, and the many un-angelic positions that Muhammad Ali – “unquestionably the greatest” - took in life, all of them find a place in the book.  

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Magazine 24 June 2017