Sport is often about physical prowess but the ability to
conquer fear must not be under-rated. Dunedin student Emile
There is a lovely cricketing anecdote from a late 1970s
county game regarding courageous Englishman Brian Close.
Although Close had built up a reputation as a fearless
batsman, the day's light was fading and the wicket as green
as a weak-stomached sailor. It was, therefore, with no small
consternation that he strolled to the crease to face fearsome
West Indian fast bowler Wes Hall.
A pusillanimous Close took guard, and Hall - who had already
retired two batsmen that day - began his menacing run-up.
Suddenly, the crucifix that the bowler habitually wore around
his neck leaped up mid-stride and struck him in the eye. The
demonic quick was unable to complete the over, the day's play
was suspended, and a relieved Close was gratefully spared
Death by a Thousand Bouncers.
Fear - and the instinctive repression of fear - is surely one
of the pre-eminent facets of elite sport.
For all the pretensions of glory and machismo offered by your
weekly five-a-side football game or the biannual Accounts v
Sales rugby match, the prospect of stepping into the shoes of
an actual professional sportsperson for a match is enough to
prompt a hasty application to the Witness Protection
Remember the Rugby World Cup semifinal against Australia?
Early in the game, All Black first five-eighth Aaron Cruden
peppered the Australian flanks with high kicks for his
wingers to chase.
They were, in fact, too deep for the All Blacks to aerially
challenge for, but were weighted so skilfully that the ball
would arrive in a Wallaby's arms a fraction of a second
before the onrushing winger's shoulder arrived in his bread
basket. Richard Kahui's thundering sack of Quade Cooper
exemplified this strategy to a tee.
Imagine, if you will, being in Cooper's position. Your eyes
fixed on the ball, a white speck dancing with the clouds in
the night sky; 60,000 eyes watching you. You hover underneath
it, confident of the catch, but ever-aware of the four or
five black jerseys, each clinging to the frame of a
finely-tuned, 100kg-plus athlete, sprinting full-pelt at you.
Their arrival is imminent; their sole intention to hurt you
as badly as they legally can.
Toss your delusions of grandeur and your Second XV rugby
experience out the window, and what word are you left with?
Terrifying. Absolutely, bloody terrifying.
The mental capacity to deal with and repress fear - indeed,
to thrive on one's own fear - is what separates amateur from
professional, good from great, forgettable from legendary. It
is one of the reasons why sport is an ultimate animalistic
indulgence: the release of fight-oriented adrenaline under
controlled, structured, policed conditions.
Sport is a bastion of physical superiority, but the ability
to mentally deal with the challenges faced by sportspeople -
the prospect of injury, of failure, of shattered expectations
and disappointment - is surely as important as, if not more
important than, physical or technical excellence.
This is particularly pertinent when one considers that almost
every professional sportsperson has, or will, sustain serious
injuries as a result of their career.
The mental strength required to saddle up after a broken jaw
and a severe leg break, as experienced by Highlanders
playmaker Colin Slade, or a debilitating back injury like
that which beleaguered New Zealand cricketer Daniel Vettori
for so many years, must be superhuman.
Indeed, some sportspeople never fully recover from a
particularly serious injury. French footballer Abou Diaby,
who plays for Arsenal, has been plagued by injuries his
entire career, stemming from a viciously broken ankle which
kept him sidelined for eight months.
Diaby has missed over 70% of Arsenal's matches since
sustaining his injury as his body has failed to adjust to the
muscular imbalances that have arisen, but the mental block
that results from such a horrific injury has affected Diaby's
confidence and effectiveness on the field.
Every 50/50 tackle, every languid pirouette, is executed with
the apprehension of a player scarred by the agony of half a
career spent on treatment tables: one of the most complete
footballing talents of a generation, cruelly destroyed by
injury and the inevitable fear that it brings.
The conquering of fear in the face of adversity, however, has
provided us with some truly inspiring sporting moments.
Legendary Australian cricket captain Allan Border once played
an entire innings with a fractured left finger - and he
scored 123 not out.
Buck Shelford, the incomparably tough All Black captain, was
famously relieved of his left testicle in a rugby test,
courtesy of some vigorous French rucking, but - after a few
bandages and (presumably) some choice words - he got back on
the field and continued playing for a full 15 minutes before
a concussion forced him out of the game.
Success in the world of professional sport requires abnormal
physical and technical skill, undoubtedly.
But of equal importance, and much harder to ascertain from a
spectator's perspective, is mental aptitude.
Sport is full of fear - of failure, of injury, of expectation
and the magnitude of spectacle. But any truly magnificent
sportsperson you would careto name, without exception,
possesses one attribute that stands tall above all: the
instinctive ability, when the going gets tough, to feel the
fear, and do it anyway.