Magazine article Management Today

Captain Sensible

Magazine article Management Today

Captain Sensible

Article excerpt

Middlesex skipper Ed Smith despises platitudinous sports celebs who work the 'motivational' circuit. His writings betray a subtler approach, says Simon Kuper.

When Ed Smith was picked for England's cricket team in 2003, one newspaper asked: 'Could this be the brainiest man ever to play for England?' After Tonbridge School, Smith got a double-first in history from Cambridge, and did a stint at Harvard. In person, he isn't stupid either. Over a dinner of lamb, extra mash (for the carbs) and a medium-bodied Italian red, a few doors down from his Notting Hill flat, he talks about the 'co-operative subconscious', not a phrase often heard in the Long Room.

Smith, 30, captain of Middlesex, author of three books, and a sceptical student of sports psychology, may be the British sportsperson best placed to enliven the dismal field of athletes lecturing businesspeople on performance. His England career was terminated after only three Test matches in 2003 - horribly, in his final England innings, he was wrongly given out - but in county cricket in recent years only Surrey's Mark Ramprakash has scored more runs. Smith has achieved, and has thought hard about how to achieve.

He comes from a family of teachers. That may explain his propensity to analyse his sport for lessons, and his choice so far to put the lessons more into thoughtful books than into hasty corporate seminars. 'I already speak to schools and businesses,' he says. 'But I am extremely suspicious of cliche-ridden motivational speaking.'

Some sporting legends offer only platitudes: play to win, believe in yourself, bounce back, and so on. And although sport tends to be about motivating yourself for a big event, business is more about the daily grind. Smith is always analysing sporting experiences for wider lessons - his latest book is called What Sport Tells Us About Life. And the daily grind of county cricket may be the closest thing in sport to the daily grind of business. Here are some of Smith's sporting lessons, from his conversation and his books ...


Someone asked me the other day if I thought I was a natural captain, and of course I had to say: 'Ask someone else.' It would be stupid to blow your own trumpet as captain because it causes resentment, and it's not something you can ultimately prove, other than through results. I would say that to be successful as a captain you have to not only acknowledge that it's your neck on the block, but almost welcome that fact.

You're only ever one or two bad games away from questions being asked And I like that. The biggest disappointment of my Test career, such as it was, was that it wasn't long enough for people to see that when things get nasty, I tend to play better. Last year, for example, we had a rocky start, the coach disappeared, and a couple of times as I left home I said to my girlfriend at 7.30 in the morning: 'I've got to get a hundred today. That's the only thing I can do.' And I did, I got three in a row.'


'There are times when people in a team are absolutely maddening, but you do love them. Love is the right word, because it doesn't necessarily mean 'like'. You love someone, and it's a family, isn't it? I think that, as captain, you can actually foster the love within yourself for other people. It's not what you say, it's what you think. When you're struggling, it's often because you're thinking bad thoughts, and that expresses itself as insincere praise. You have to solve your thinking patterns and think in more generous ways, without being blind to things that need to be addressed.

You can't just say: 'Well, I don't like that guy, but I think he's a good player.' That's not good enough. You have to be on everyone's journey. When I'm having problems getting through or getting the best out of people, sometimes I imagine they know what I'm thinking. …

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