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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An alternative Trainspotting script for John Humphrys’ Radio 4 “Choose Life” tribute

Born chippy.

Your mole often has Radio 4’s Today programme babbling away comfortingly in the background while emerging blinking from the burrow. So imagine its horror this morning, when the BBC decided to sully this listening experience with John Humphrys doing the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting.

“I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Radio 4?” he concluded, as a nation cringed.

Introduced as someone who has “taken issue with modernity”, Humphrys launched into the film character Renton’s iconic rant against the banality of modern life.

But Humphrys’ role as in-studio curmudgeon is neither endearing nor amusing to this mole. Often tasked with stories about modern technology and digital culture by supposedly mischievous editors, Humphrys sounds increasingly cranky and ill-informed. It doesn’t exactly make for enlightening interviews. So your mole has tampered with the script. Here’s what he should have said:

“Choose life. Choose a job and then never retire, ever. Choose a career defined by growling and scoffing. Choose crashing the pips three mornings out of five. Choose a fucking long contract. Choose interrupting your co-hosts, politicians, religious leaders and children. Choose sitting across the desk from Justin Webb at 7.20 wondering what you’re doing with your life. Choose confusion about why Thought for the Day is still a thing. Choose hogging political interviews. Choose anxiety about whether Jim Naughtie’s departure means there’s dwindling demand for grouchy old men on flagship political radio shows. Choose a staunch commitment to misunderstanding stories about video games and emoji. Choose doing those stories anyway. Choose turning on the radio and wondering why the fuck you aren’t on on a Sunday morning as well. Choose sitting on that black leather chair hosting mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows (Mastermind). Choose going over time at the end of it all, pishing your last few seconds on needlessly combative questions, nothing more than an obstacle to that day’s editors being credited. Choose your future. Choose life . . .”

I'm a mole, innit.