Taking it personally

A sense of responsibility is what makes a winner

It's been less than two months since England crawled out of the football World Cup. Just eight weeks ago, we were all hoping a Rooney-inspired England would beat Portugal and take a step closer to World Cup glory. But, they didn't. Rooney got sent off, and the players got sent home. Now, we're being treated to the delight of player autobiographies detailing how none of it was their fault anyway. Instead, it was Theo Walcott's fault, it was Sven's fault, but mainly it was "anybody's fault but mine". The lack of responsibility among the nation's greatest footballers has been the single most staggering aspect of the flawed World Cup campaign.

Did any of the players who now say Sven-Göran Eriksson was wrong to take Walcott speak up at the time? Nope, not according to the coach. If Sir Clive Woodward had suggested taking an uncapped player to the Rugby World Cup, Martin Johnson, the England captain, would have taken him outside and had him up against the wall. There was huge personal responsibility. That's why they won.

It has been nearly three years since England won rugby's greatest trophy and almost a year since England beat Australia in the cricket . . . lovely moments, both of them. Duncan Fletcher, the England cricket coach, created a winning environment, much like that developed by Woodward, by making his team look at those aspects of winning that have nothing to do with the way you hold a cricket bat or cope with reverse swing.

He employed the psychologist Dr Steve Bull, who made sure the players were mentally tough enough. He had his leading players write down the names of the toughest cricketers from the past. Then the coaching team worked to bring out their qualities, putting obstacles in the way of players' progress, making them fight for victory at every turn . . . making them really "want" it and take responsibility for it.

I was put in mind of all this a couple of weeks ago when interviewing Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain, over in England to watch the first Test. He left before the débâcle at the weekend, so failed to witness "the farce of the tampered ball", but he talked earnestly and enthusiastically about winning, and how great players don't always come out on top. Khan says he was able to be a winning cricketer because of his self-belief - he believed from an early age that he could be his country's greatest ever cricketer and fought to prove it. He has taken the same views and optimism into politics, where he is fighting for justice for his country's starving millions. For him, the crucial thing is that the mental skills came first.

The burning question is - can you train winners? Brad Gilbert, the man set to turn Andy Murray from spiky contender to Wimbledon winner, believes you can. "We've been doing it in America for years," he says. To be a winner in modern sport is about more than kicking a ball or smashing a serve. What makes great sportsmen into champions is something else. Woodward understands it, as does Fletcher. Now Gilbert's trying to impart it to Murray.

The England football team had the players to win but those players were let down by a stubbornness running through the sport - a refusal to look beyond football skills in pursuit of greatness. One of those skills is personal responsibility.

Alison Kervin is sports interviewer for the Sunday Times.

Hunter Davies is away

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