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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war