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The Edge: triumph, disaster and the lessons we can all learn

August 4, 2020

When you look back on your life, what was the peak? Was there one, or were there many? And do you remember what standing on that peak meant to you? What did it feel like?

These are the kind of questions motivational coaches ask when encouraging  people to visualise success. I ask them of myself occasionally when I try to imagine how it feels to achieve something special. It could be in sport, like Liverpool winning the Premier League. Or politics, as in when Johnson won the last election, or the Brexiteers prevailed in the EU Referendum, much as it makes my toes curl to think of it.

Most of us, me included, go through our lives with our fair share of minor triumphs. When, for whatever reason, we can’t repeat them, we’re not so much jumping off a summit, more a case of rolling gently down a hill of disappointment.

TV viewers in the UK had a rare insight a few nights ago into what it takes to achieve the heights of sporting success, how it feels and what life is like on the down slope. The Edge is about the England cricket team, which went from a miserably low ranking to number one in the world in the space of less than two years, and then back again equally fast.

If you’re not into cricket, don’t give up on me. There are lessons to learn whether you’re an Oscar winner or a prize pumpkin grower.

The period in question was between 2008 and 2014. It began with the appointment of Andy Flower, a tough Zimbabwean who was a first-rate player, as head coach. If you’ve ever encountered a rugby player from Southern Africa, you’ll know what I mean by tough.

With the aid of a new captain, Andrew Strauss, Flower forged a team ethos out of group of talented individuals who included Kevin Pietersen, one of the greatest batsmen of the age, but awkward, cussed and sensitive. Preparation for the summit, a tour of Australia in 2010-11, included a brutal army-style boot camp in Bavaria. It worked. One of the hardest tasks for any national cricket team is beating the Aussies on their home turf. For England, it’s nirvana. England crushed them, and won the series at the inner sanctum of Australian cricket, the massive Melbourne Cricket Ground, in front of ninety thousand baying home fans.

Later that year, with a home series win against India, England made it to number one. Before long, it all went pear-shaped.

Injuries, spats between players, most notably involving Strauss and Pietersen, and a relentless schedule that would have sent cricketing superstars of an earlier age, like W G Grace (above) to an early grave, came to a head when England returned to Australia. They were battered, bruised and ultimately crushed by a resurgent home team who went at them with vicious intent.

Several of those involved went into a downhill spiral. Their careers never recovered. From the interviews, many of them painfully honest, you sense that their lives have never recovered either. It was desperately sad to see Jonathan Trott, one of the people worst affected, still in tears five years after the event.

Others survived and prospered. Two of them are still playing at the highest level and made vital contributions to England’s recent series win over the West Indies.

At which point you might say what the hell – it’s only a game. Not for these guys. Cricket was at the centre of their lives. It’s the same for footballers, golfers and other elite sportspeople who make it to the top and spend a few brief years as the focus of mass adulation. And then what? How do you cope with the rest of your life when you go from being a superstar to a washed-up celebrity making a living out of reality TV, or perhaps fading entirely out of the view of your adoring public?

How was life for Neil Armstrong, or for a soldier whose ultimate moment was storming a hill seventy-five years ago?

We focus on training for success in any field. Battalion commanders, business executives, football coaches become heroes when they instil esprit de corps in teams, and when they coax performance out of individuals beyond what the person thought possible.

But it seems to me that the work of those who help people face the downward slope is both unrecognised and unrewarded. This is partly because there’s little profit in helping people manage what they see as their decline. Yes, there are therapists and life coaches. For those who bear the physical scars there are doctors who deal with chronic pain. And yes, many people build new careers after outstanding success early in life. Many don’t though, and spend the rest of their lives aching at the big gap that success in any field has left.

This is not just a problem for elite sportspeople. We all eventually have to face the the possibility that our careers are in decline. Our earning power is on the wane, or possibly non-existent. Many of us respond by finding new challenges that have nothing to do with money and career trajectory. But others – the ones who are aching inside – hit the bottle, suffer from depression and all too often decide to end their lives.

In the UK, fairly early in our working lives we’re encouraged to prepare for our retirement by taking out pensions. Why, then, aren’t we also encouraged to prepare mentally for the downhill slope? You would have thought that the cost to the state of treating age-related depression, dementia and other illnesses is sufficiently high for us to invest a little in this field. Call it decompression therapy, if you like.

You might also think, if profit is your motive, that there are plenty of bucks to be made from a self-help tome along the lines of How to Grow Old Gracefully. Or even disgracefully, so long as in the process of your disgrace you aren’t splurging money you don’t have pretending that you’re still young and, unbeknown to you, attracting the ridicule of those who are still young.

Perhaps mine is a very British concern. If you’re an American, society will tell you you’re on your own, buddy. Which perhaps explains why so many more Americans belong to a church, which often steps into the breach as a carer of last resort. Either that, or you go buy yourself a self-help book.

Either way, a society that rewards us for success and then abandons us to find our own way on the slow trudge towards oblivion can hardly be called enlightened. Perhaps our government, in its new-found enthusiasm for public health programmes, won’t stop with it’s efforts to turn us from fat to fibits and bicycles, will nudge us into thinking more about dealing with the mental impact of knowing that our best days are behind us. Or at least to find new best days to enjoy, rather than cower behind our front doors waiting in dread for the grim reaper, or the viruspolizei, whichever comes sooner.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, England are in action again tomorrow against Pakistan. I hope the younger players have watched The Edge, or else talked to those who went through the days of glory and despair. Perhaps they have a coach who’s trotted out the old Kipling chestnut:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same….

Perhaps not. After all, winning’s everything, is it not?

From → Business, History, Sport, UK

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