Sunday, 22 May 2011

What Sport Tells Us About Life

I have just read What Sport Tells Us About Life by the cricketer, Ed Smith. It is not only stylishly written, but also keeps in the air all sorts of eclectic ideas that provide much intellectual enjoyment and stimulation. I was particularly struck by the chapter on amateurism and the way Ed Smith draws convincing parallels between sporting and artistic creativity.

In sport (and elsewhere), amateurism is a derogatory term. As the literary critic D.J.Taylor put it, “The amateur, formerly the symbol of fair play and a stout heart, became the watchword for terminal second-rateness and lower-rung incompetence.”

Ed Smith is concerned that the relentless pursuit of “professionalism” has discouraged “an instinctiveness and individuality that is well suited to producing success in sport”. The thing that most of us enjoy about sport and art are those moments of creativity and inspiration, when an individual or team are not playing safe, but transgress regulations, planning and over organization to produce something innovative and beautiful.

In his autobiography, Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes, “Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.”

In other words, creativity – whether in the arts or sport or elsewhere – lies beyond easy analysis. Indeed, over analysis impedes the creative spirit, makes it tense and sclerotic. In this regard, the sports writer, Simon Barnes, comments:

If you look at your own talent too searchingly, it might cease to be what it is. If you bring these highly trained but deeply instinctual matters to the level of conscious thought, the magic stuff might never happen again...Ian Botham would only describe his outbursts of brilliance with the phrase “it sort of clicks”.

The literary critic, Christopher Ricks, sees the link between artistic and sporting creativity in these terms:
An artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.

Great artists and sportsmen have a freedom and instinctiveness about what they do. A sort of childlike joy infuses the hours of practice and training and stops sport and art becoming a matter of mere professional concern. “Playing with joy,” writes Ed Smith, “without concern about the money you might earn or the criticism you may provoke, often makes sportsmen play better. An unburdened sportsman is more likely to play at his best.”

If all that is true of sport and art, then might living with joy, being unburdened and having a lightness of being, also help us to live in a more complete, creative and inspiring manner?

What Sport Tells Us About Life, Ed Smith, Penguin Books, 2008

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