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Posted at: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM; last updated: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST BY MATTHEW SYED.

Sculpting a sportsperson, bit by bit

Subhash Rajta

So what goes into the making of a great athlete? Well, pretty much everything, right from the place an individual is born in, his/her parents, the sports culture and facilities in the neighbourhood, the quality of coaches available, and a bit of luck. What about talent, supposedly the most important piece of the puzzle? Well, it doesn’t matter much — at least not as much as the factors mentioned above — because talent isn’t an inherent or inherited trait, it’s a skill acquired over years of relentless practice. Essentially, talent is nothing but the result of uncountable hours of practice an individual puts in to become adept at his/her chosen discipline!

That’s the argument Matthew Syed, an English sportswriter, makes right at the start of his latest book, The Greatest, a collection of several pieces he has written over the years. The book is full of relatable, insightful and interesting examples and parallels drawn from fields as diverse as the art of warfare, music, science, philosophy etc. 

To justify his argument, he cites the example of Tiger Woods. Woods became the youngest to win a Major in 1997. The pundits readily declared that he was born with a gift. “It looks like a gift but that’s because you haven’t seen the years of dedication that went into the performance,” the author quotes a colleague to put Woods’ success in perspective. 

The author goes on to dismantle another popular belief that footballers, and by extension all sportspersons, are not intelligent individuals. So, we Indians aren’t the only ones who see sport as the pursuit of the less brainy! The author, to hammer home his point, gives us a peep into the mind of Barcelona great Andrés Iniesta as he’s about to receive a pass. Matthew says when the ball is hurtling towards Iniesta, he’s not just computing its speed and angle, but he’s also integrating information on the position of his teammates and defenders, and where to move next. “His brain is projecting into the future even as he’s handling the present. Isn’t this what game intelligence means?” the author asks. 

It’s all in the mind 

In another fascinating section, the author delves deep into the psychological aspect of sport, discussing factors like anxiety and performance pressure, fear of failure, meltdown and self-belief, etc. No one’s immune to anxiety and pressure, not even a champion like Pete Sampras. Sampras, one of the all-time greats who always looked so much in control of the game and himself, admits unequivocally that he used to be incredibly nervous on the morning of a Grand Slam final. “During matches, I would get feelings of anxiety. But the act of playing would free up my mind. When I toss up the ball, my arm swings and my body takes over. It just clicks. It’s about repetition as a kid, it’s about good technique... it’s about muscle memory...,” says Sampras, giving credit to uncountable hours of practice, not his talent.

Beauty of sport 

Just like millions of sports aficionados, the author is hopelessly in love with the beauty of the craft of champions like Muhammad Ali, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer and teams like Barcelona and Manchester United of the early 1990s. Yet, he argues, it’s not just the aesthetics that make sport beautiful. The moments such as the embrace between Britain’s Andy Murray and Argentina’s Martin del Potro at the Rio Olympics, the 59-year-old Tom Watson almost winning the Open in 2009, rank-outsiders Leicester City winning the Premier League last season, and why, even the stories of lesser athletes achieving moderate success through sheer perseverance and indomitable will to succeed, make sport far more rich and beautiful. 

Pain and suffering 

Quite incredibly, the author manages to find space in the rather short book for the politics-sport interplay and how sport and sportspersons have been used as tools by regimes such as Mao’s China, East Germany and Fidel Castro’s Cuba to project themselves as a superior nation and culture. He finishes off with short and crisp profiles of some of the great sportspersons, placing their game and achievement in the “arc of a richer, more human story”. He delves into the struggle of legends like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova with their sexual orientation. He tells us how Joe Frazier could never forgive Ali until the very end. “Twenty years I have been fighting Ali and I still want to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus,” Frazier poured out his agony in an interview to the author. The lingering pain is more from Ali’s sarcastic and vitriolic words that cut him up from the inside, not from the blows that shook him up.

All said and done, the book is worth your time and penny.

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