Ed Smith at bat. Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
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The secret to performing at your peak? Deciding which of the voices in your head is talking sense

The conflict between instict and reason has left me having a small domestic disagreement in my head.

As a batsman in the middle of an innings, alone with my thoughts at the batting crease, a silent but urgent conversation would play out inside my head. There were two voices. The first belonged to the player, the actor on the stage, the participant. The second voice was that of a coach, mentor or critic. This observer might advise “me” to be bolder, to assert myself, to be less cautious. Another time, the voice would say the opposite: “You’re losing too much control – rein things in, be more wary.”

Both voices, of course, belonged to me. But they seemed entirely distinct, quite removed from one another, one belonging to the realm of action and the second to the sphere of reflection. One person played the shots; another called the shots.

On good days, this division of labour was co-operative. When the balance between instinct and removed self-criticism felt right, the two voices got along well. At other times the critical voice was too strong and overbearing. He needed to be sent packing, his notebook chucked away.

So there were two dimensions to this conversation that required careful attention. The first was the efficacy and wisdom of the critical advice: was the critic sending the right technical or tactical messages? After all, coaches have bad days, too. The second question was whether this was the right time to be taking advice at all. Because there are moments when you are far better off trusting your own competitiveness and instinct.

A few times in my career the internal voices turned into spoken words, and the opposition fielder at short-leg would look at me in astonishment as I said something like, “Shut up! Just play! Watch the ball! That’s all you need to do!” From my perspective, it was just a small domestic disagreement in my head, nothing more. But to the outside world it looked very eccentric – or plain mad.

So I was delighted to learn the other week that I keep good company. In a sparkling interview with Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, Mark Rylance described how the actor on the stage, just like the batsman at the crease, has a conversation going on inside his own head:

 

“When you play in front of people – it may be the same for sports players, too – you have a kind of coach in your head who is monitoring whether (in my case) the passes and the different things I’m doing with the ball – if the ball is the story – whether they are real and natural and believable. You have a little voice saying, ‘Wait, wait, now; quickly, quickly, now.’ Or: ‘Too much, too much.’ And sometimes it’s too strong and you have to banish it from the stage.”

 

That was my experience of sport, perfectly captured by an actor.

I sometimes feel that all modes of performance – music, drama, sport – are merely variations on a theme, different expressions of the same underlying experience. The play may look different, but the stage on which the actors stand is universal.

Ten years ago, I made a series for Radio 3 called Peak Performance, in which I interviewed young classical musicians and explored the parallels between playing sport and playing music. “Acting, music, cricket – the final vocational choice was partly just chance,” the guitarist Craig Ogden told me. “If I hadn’t become a musician, I’m sure I would have done something else that put me on a stage in front of an audience.”

On The South Bank Show (24 February, Sky Arts 1), viewers watched Rylance watch himself playing Henry V. As the Rylance of today pulled on his glasses, the Rylance of the late 1990s began his version of Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech before Agincourt. Here the critic and the performer were not sharing the stage at the same moment. Instead, they were separated by years of ex­perience and perspective. It was like watching an artist in his studio poring over his early works.

Before I’d had the chance guiltily to suppress my first reaction (“He wasn’t quite as good back then”), Rylance himself said just that. “I hadn’t yet learned to use my voice properly”: that was his assessment of his younger self. The ease and depth of his voice today, which helped make his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall so compelling, hadn’t developed fully.

So, what changed? Mastery of technique, the refinement of his craft, is surely only part of the story. There is also the question of Rylance the man: his intellectual curiosity and search for experience, his reluctance to play it safe or to repeat himself, his openness and risk-taking, his preference for the more difficult path. Because of Rylance’s temperament and his sensibility, both of his voices – the spoken voice and the coaching voice – are far more evolved than they were 15 years ago. The actor and the critic, the player and the coach, have grown up in tandem and, with age, the conversation has become more co-operative.

Here, alas, the arts generally leave sports behind. For although some lucky sportsmen may be permitted a second act, none (except in golf) gets to enjoy middle age. It’s all over by then.

So I finished watching Rylance’s South Bank Show interview pondering two parallel questions, about careers in which talent and temperament aren’t ideally matched. Which sportsmen would have been better suited, temperamentally, to a longer and more reflective race rather than the fast-forward time of professional sport? Conversely, which actors were fated to have a long-drawn-out career when a shorter one would have suited them far better?

Because although you can shape the words you tell yourself, and can even quell the voice in your head, you can’t do much about the stage you’re standing on.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump