Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, December 06, 2008

This Sporting Life.

Every self-respecting man knows that Saturday is sports day, certainly if you were brought up in the UK.

For much of my school days I played football (soccer) on Saturday mornings, then went to watch professional football on Saturday afternoons. Although I also did track, that's the main way how I maintained a healthy body and mind and kept out of trouble, though I was often on the edge of fights at professional games, when hooligans from the rival teams would have their time in the spotlight, kicking and knifing and butting and generally creating havoc. You did not have to be a hooligan to be close to this madness as they would bring it to within feet of you, but the "gladiators"on both sides seemed to know who to involve.

From my late teens through to my early thirties, I played football every Saturday afternoon. My club played in a semi-professional league and that meant our matches involved travel over a large area in the southwest of England. Things got complicated for me at the start of my club career, as I had to play for my high school in the morning, then blister my way across London to make it for my club team. But, I was very fit then and so long as I had not picked up some injury playing two matches a day was no real problem. But, it's part of the rites of manhood in England to play football, then go to the pub afterwards for a pint or more of beer. As an under age teenager, I was not supposed to drink beer, and had to make do with either lemonade (shame) or get a shandy (beer with lemonade), where the beer part was less than half. Once I turned 18, or looked like I was over 18, full strength beer could flow into my veins and I did not have to weather the jibes of needing to drink milk because I was the team's baby.

I had a miserable spell in my late 20s, when I retired from football, and moped around wondering what to do with myself. My wife at that time kept well clear of this stalking tiger on Saturdays: my adrenalin was primed but it had little release, so I was more than a little prickly. I decided to make the best of the situation by again going to watch professional football, and occasionally taking my wife with me--not often though, because this was still essentially a man's world and standing on the terraces behind the goals, as we did then, was not really what most women enjoyed. They wanted to sit in the stands, on the sides, and there I would not go except if really pushed.

A wily veteran in his 60s, who once played for one of London's renowned tough professional teams, Millwall (see a little history), known as 'The Dockers' because of their origins in London's southeastern docks area, lured me back to football by asking me to play on his veteran team as a "ringer"--an under aged player (i.e., under 35). He had told me that he could play until he was over 70 so long as he avoided having sex with his wife before a match. That inspired me and I took the chance, and rediscovered a passion for playing, made stronger because I was able to dance around older men and look really good covering most of the pitch, and was so fast that I had little trouble dodging kicks and trips from these codgers. My Saturdays were back on track but also my passion was rekindled.

I took some months to get back into full training and resumed my club career, and so it stayed till I left the UK in my early 30s. In the US, I got into playing on Sunday mornings for several years as the IMF team I joined played in a league part of which played on Saturdays but the other half played on Sundays--that was really sacrilegious, but I had no choice. In cup competition, we would cross over to play on Saturdays occasionally.

After I qualified as a football referee, my Saturdays remained in tact as I officiated games on those days and then played the next. Once I got my coaching license, I was able to really multitask on Saturdays, with a mixture of refereeing and coaching. This had its upside because I was being paid around US$ 40 for refereeing and I would usually do two games on the weekends. It covered the cost of my gasoline bills.

Then I formed my own football team, after a few years with the IMF team. The team was aptly called 'Internationales' because its squad of some 20 plus players, barely had two players from the same country. I had a vision of soccer as a world language, and I tried to put it into action. As an IMF staff and sports club member I was able to strike a deal with the IMF for my team to play on their hallowed turf (the best in the DC area), but that meant changing game times to Saturday afternoons. I was again a happy man, as my team strutted their stuff, got promoted after the first season, and then spent a few years challenging for the top position.

But the body wears down, and in my early 40s my knees started to tell me that they were ready to take it easier. I had my cartilage removed in one knee, but with the magic of arthroscopic surgery was able to recover within weeks and start playing again. My knees got two more years of top level playing as I took on the role of player-coach-manager. But then, enough. Time to hang up the boots.

The US was a barren land for professional football for many years and the tradition of watching teams play was not well developed, so when I stopped playing for good I had no real option of going to watch professional teams. I coached and when I had a free afternoon, I would delve into American TV sports, but not much. I went into real retirement and rekindled my love of gardening. As I mowed and clipped a large lawn, I could have imagined that the turf was the old hallowed ground on which I would weave and dribble the ball on mazy runs, and as I emptied the basket of grass clippings I could have imagined punching the air as my shot sailed past the goal keeper into the back of the net. But my thoughts were really more prosaic: I focused on making sure that all the edges were neatly trimmed and that no pesky weeds were taking hold. I poured love onto the colony of gold fish developing in the pond that I had had installed. How the priorities change.

When I went to live in Guinea, I was bewildered by an amazing irony. Football was played everywhere: you could not drive through the capital on any day and not see at least a dozen games being played in the streets, or on the edge of the roadway, with teams of up to seven players kicking around on mini pitches, many of which were not marked, just limited by the pair of sidewalks and the goals created at each end. The professional teams--and calling them that was a stretch for many, though some were well funded--had a bizarre program of games across the country, but they played in a league that never seemed to start and end its season on time, and sometimes would not end, with the results sitting in disarray. Yet, football skills were sublime to watch. Those who now see many African players making their marks in clubs in Europe need to remember that many of them hone their skills in these kinds of settings, and having escaped to a saner world of organized football, are really in heaven on earth.

Now, as I move through a Saturday afternoon in Barbados, I get to take stock. My little daughter plays tennis on Saturday mornings. Dad plays at the same time. In recent months, I have 'reclaimed my manhood' by hunkering down and getting a healthy dose of live English Premier League football on TV. I watch alone most of the time as Miss Bliss and her mother have their bonding time, but also my household does not have in its vein the same football upbringing. Miss Bliss occasionally drags herself from 'Backyardigans' or some other program to help me holler and cheer for one team or another. I have moved from my one-time staple of a post-match beer to a during-match beer. My one-time staple of fish and chips after watching a match is a far flung dream. Flying fish is Bim's favourite, but honestly, it does not cut the mustard.

I pondered a few things as I watched Liverpool put a beating on Blackburn Rovers.

Playing sport, especially at a high level, comes with many perils. Injuries are the things that most athletes fear more than anything else; all the hard work can be destroyed for days, weeks, months, years, forever. Self-inflicted injuries are especially frustrating. But injuries caused by other people often leave an athlete mentally scarred even when he/she may be healed physically. A part of the brain goes into self-preservation mode at any occurrence that seems likely to re-injure the body. You pull back, but in doing so you run a greater risk of being hurt. A horrid vicious circle. I admire any athlete who recovers from a devastating injury and manages to perform at or near the previous best level. But, one of the characteristics of teams that do very well is a willingness to put the body into the danger zone more than teams that do poorly: it's hard to know what is cause or effect, but it was evident as Liverpool's players (in red) overcame the Blackburn opposition. The Scousers ended up with the ball at their feet more and were standing, while the Rovers players often missed and fell, or were tackled easily and fell. As I used to tell the kids I coached, if you are on your bottom you cannot do very much.

Success in sport is much more than physical ability. The mental or psychological aspect is really important, and for positive and negative reasons. For positives, you have to develop the fortitude that drives self belief to almost ridiculous levels: "You cannot beat me," you repeat in your head, even as you face near certain defeat. I saw it with Blackburn as they struggled to overcome a 0-2 deficit once Liverpool scored two goals midway through the second half; hope sprang for Blackburn when they got a goal in the dying minutes of regulation time. The truth is, until it is over, it is not over. It was over for Blackburn when one last attack floundered and on the breakaway Gerrard got a final goal for Liverpool. But the hope should never die. I remember playing in one soccer semi final. My team was leading 3-1 coming into the final five minutes of the 90 minute game. Then in a flurry of what I can only regard as madness, we concede a silly free kick; they scored: 3-2. From the kick off, we bungled things and in a panic, gave away a penalty; they scored: 3-3. From the kick off again, we bungled things and as the opposition player ran the ball out of play our defense stopped but the ball sailed into the penalty area and was in the back of the net. Goal kick we thought. Goal signalled the referee: the officials had not seen the ball was out of play and we were not in a world of instant replay. 3-4. Final whistle. Weren't we about to get a chance to play in the cup final? What final? That is heart breaking. They never gave up, and our hopes dwindled as theirs soared.

The negatives are usually some brand of arrogance, intended or perceived. As you build self confidence there is a tipping point, a fine line.It may be nothing more than self-confidence, which is what tips the scales in your favour. But opponents and observers may see this a cockiness, disrespect, and other less worthy attributes: remember the furore about how Usain Bolt celebrated his Olympic 100 meters victory.

The psychological aspects mean getting the edge; it may be minute but it only has to exist. I was lucky to have learned lessons about getting the edge from great athletes. I ran track for a club that had Olympic champions such as David Hemery: I watched them train and saw how they made little things work to give them just enough of an edge to win much more often than lose. Some of the edge came from simply knowing that you were fully prepared. My match day bagged was packed the night before, and checked on the day. The psychological edge can also come from intense physical preparation, so that mistakes are minimized, and timing is near perfect. That edge can come from having been through the pain barriers often. As a teenager, I forget how often I had to vomit after training as cramped stomach muscles took their toll on my insides as lactic acid had built up to high levels. Training always involves pain, but it's the speed of recovery that marks the progress. I would wipe up and shower and go home and my parents would hear my pleas, and I would eat and sleep and be ready for more another day. You learn that the last person standing will be the victor. I would know that my failure would not be because my body was ill-prepared.

My first squash coach, at university when I started to play, was the phenomenal Egyptian who had been world/British Open champion, Abou Taleb. He had won the title consecutively from 1964-66, and was so good and confident that he wagered £500 (that's a few thousand now) to anyone who could beat him. Fast forward, along came an Irishman named Jonah Barrington (see picture), who worked in a mill during the days and played squash the rest of the time: a workhorse, who redefined the war of attrition in squash. Top level matches often involve rallies of 30+ strokes for a point, and can end in a let and then restart with no score change. You only gain points when you are serving; winning a rally when you are not serving just gives you the right to serve. It can be a long hard slog to get to at least 9 points each set, and win by two clear points. Wearing down your opponent physically became Barrington's forte, and games lasting over three hours were not a problem for him. His training regimes were legendary for their masochistic brutality. Barrington beat Taleb in 1967 and went on to win each year until 1973, and is regarded rightly as one of the sports greatest players. Taleb was a master stroke player and as a coach he taught his forte but also stressed the Barrington legacy: you had to be prepared to be on court three hours if you wanted to win a best-of-five match. Play well; play with style; but you have to keep at it until you win.

The closeness of the players in a squash match means that it's hard to disguise your physical state, and that can be the psychological edge. How quickly can you restart a point? How do you look after a long rally of drives that finish with a drop shot? How willing are you to concede a let? Do you leave the court first at the end of a set to take your break and are you back on court first?

It's similar with sprinting, my speciality. You often win a 100 meters race before the starting line. All your preparation is done on the training track. But there are some final tweaks needed ahead of the race and they are psychological. On the warm-up track, does your routine show crispness and ease? Were there any signs of injuries: athletes spot a gait quickly. How did your coach look? At ease or a little worried? Once you get to the starting line, it starts again. The look you give to the opponents is key: your face does not lie, but it's the opponent who sees it not you, so eye contact is often avoided. You often avoid talking because your voice may show tremors. Are you truly relaxed? Are your nerves under control? Is your heart pounding? The routines we see are part of the dance to get the edge. Some will always be last into their blocks. Tyson Gay has his ritual drink of water. The stretching; the adjustment of the neck chain; the dusting of the fingers; the timing of the bow of the head. They all seek to get the edge. The gun is fired and a few seconds later, the race is won and damage has been done.

Now, as my races have all been run, and my goals have all been scored, I am left with a huge reservoir of physical and psychological preparation.

Panic usually means defeat will hit you sooner. Even emotions often lead to even performances: note that the mantra of the president-elect is "Obama does not do drama".

Quitting is not an option unless you cannot move at all: no pain, no gain.

Retaliation to provocation is a last resort, if it is ever taken. In football, you cannot afford to be expelled from the game because you are upset by trash talk; a black player needs to swallow hard when he/she hears the "N" word thrown in their face. If you fall, you have to get up again fast. If you are fouled, you note the culprit but no immediate action is needed: the referee is there to protect you and you leave him/her to do that job. (That said, you need to seize moments for quick revenge. In a team, revenge is shared, and you may have an "enforcer" whose job is to right the wrongs that the officials miss. It's a teams stars who tend to get targeted for "the treatment". So, you have enforcers, who are usually dispensable in the sense that they have good skills but are easier to replace, or they have a reputation and that means that when they are on the loose that alone may calm the situation and the metaphorical attack dog need not be let off the leash. I played on a team once whose enforcer was call "The Dog".)

If you lose, or look like losing, you have to find several points of grace: the victor gets the spoils but also the due respect, and part of that is in the quality of the handshakes and bows after the results are clear. The other point of grace comes from the mental repositioning that turns defeat into an opportunity. Coaches often stress that you build victories from defeat; you must learn how to lose, but don't make it a habit.

So, while it seems that all I am doing is chugging a beer as others do the sweating, there is more at work. I think, for example, of the young tennis players with whom I train occasionally. I watch for the psychological lessons that they are learning (Federer's early career was marked by a lot of racket abuse and verbal abuse of officials, now he is "Mr. Cool"). I give them some psychological checks: are they easily intimidated, does form crumble quickly when things go against them? I look to see what is making them drive: cutting the warm-up run is a bad sign; always having to be asked to work harder is a bad sign; arguing with the coach is a bad sign (such people don't stay too long); going beyond the limits of a drill is a good sign, etc.

As I hunker down and watch sports on TV, I look for the passion that the players show and how they get to their bliss points (winners find that easily), or their points of grace once defeat is certain. The road to a good sporting life is a hard one to travel and it is a long way to go. Remembering this has made my Saturdays become very enjoyable again.

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