Magazine article The Spectator

Amateur Hour

Magazine article The Spectator

Amateur Hour

Article excerpt

Ultra-professionalism can stifle joy and ruin a sportsman's game

Thrilling as the race was, last week's Cheltenham Gold Cup will leave an even more remarkable legacy: the winning jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, did it as an amateur. Being a jockey isn't his day job - he is the CEO of a dental business - and he races for love, not money.

It's not supposed to happen these days.

According to the logic of professionalism, it is impossible to compete at the highest level, let alone win, unless you sacrifice all else.

The word amateur has gone from being an accolade to a term of abuse. When coaches get seriously angry they call you 'amateurish', meaning sloppy and inept. When they are impressed they call you 'a real pro'. The Gold Cup was a delicious snub to that simplistic view of excellence.

In 13 years as a professional cricketer, I was often told to give up distractions, to narrow my life, to pursue one professional goal and only one. The idea that you could have another job - or even other passions - and still play at your best was out of fashion.

But my experience suggested otherwise.

Though I never won cricket's equivalent of the Gold Cup, my two best seasons were 2003, when I was writing a book, and 1997, when I was studying for my Tripos exams at Cambridge. The writing helped the batting.

I was less anxious, freer, more instinctive - more amateur, if you like. By contrast, one winter in Australia I gave up all distractions apart from batting. The results were striking:

I didn't get any runs.

There is no doubt that professionalism has made sportsmen fitter and stronger. I'm not recommending blindly turning back the clock to a Corinthian ideal. But we should worry that the mantra of professionalism is too inflexible. Professional monofocus might suit Geoff Boycott, but many top performers need more balance to play at their best. Look at Mr Waley-Cohen, who gets up at 5.30 a.m. to train, before returning to London in time for a day's work. I suspect his day job helps him to race so brilliantly just as much as the early training sessions - as Anthony Trollope (no mean horseman himself) rose early to write his novels before clocking on at the Post Office.

My point is pragmatic, not philosophical. Professionalism has adopted a one size-fits-all approach: be like Tiger Woods (who used to wake house-guests by using his gym at 5 a.m.) or else 'you don't want it enough'. Wrong. Working too narrowly - to the exclusion of all else - often leads you to perform worse, not better. Having a job away from sport can help you to avoid that.

When I was captain of Middlesex, the administrators asked me for an inspirational quote for the team handbook. I chose the World Cup-winning coach Felipe Scolari:

'My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.'

It lasted only a year, our flirtation with joy. When I picked up the following season's handbook, I saw that all the other quotes survived, but Scolari's had been cut - not debated, just silently excised.

At one club 'strategy' meeting, we discussed a gifted but under performing young spin-bowler. …

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