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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.