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Like Djokovic and Federer, the best players know the importance of freshness and rest

The most successful sports stars are seldom the ones who practise the most hours.

In 1957, Harlequins rugby club were hauled in front of the sport’s top brass for a serious misdemeanour. The Harlequins 1st XV, the most proudly amateur team in a proudly amateur sport, had been caught practising midweek. Such practice, of course, was ungentlemanly.

The amateur ideal rested on an accommodation between middle-class aspiration and aristocratic elegance. You were allowed to pursue victory, but only within certain limitations of style and manner. Though vague, the amateur code could be unforgiving. Grace Kelly’s grandfather, who made millions in the construction industry, was banned from rowing at the Henley regatta. He had worked with his hands.

With the decline of amateurism, the new code of ultra-professionalism preserved some absurdities of the amateur ideology by simply reversing them. Now sportsmen pretended that they only practised – with no time wasted on pleasure – because practice and sacrifice became justification for their huge salaries.

Professional athletes followed a new code, which drew its references from a weird amalgam of self-help literature and the factory floor. Today’s athletes still seek refuge in familiar clichés – working harder than ever, practising relentlessly, making their own luck – because they know they won’t be criticised for acting dutifully, even when it’s counter-productive. It’s a deal: the broadcaster gets “dressing-room insights”, the athlete preserves the myth of professional sport as manual labour, and the fans – in theory – are less likely to be enraged by the shortcomings of their heroes.

Jim Bouton, who pitched for the New York Yankees in the 1960s, was the first to expose this new set of double standards. Bouton’s book, Ball Four, described how professionals were readily forgiven when they played badly after a late night, provided they had a legitimate excuse – namely chasing women and/or drinking beer. Bouton, who preferred milk and reading, found himself short of approved excuses.

The narrative myths of professionalism survived into my cricket career. One day, during humdrum pre-season training, the coach told us to “make it look good in the nets today because the committee are making a visit”. Was he admitting, I wondered, that his practices were a waste of time?

The idea of practice had come full circle. For Harlequins, it was something that you did to get better, but daren’t admit to. For that cricket coach, practice was just for appearances, without the expectation that anyone was actually improving.

The transition here is from one semi-fraud to another. The amateur ideology was a narrative myth about accidental excellence, gifts conferred at birth that had been protected from the evils of the marketplace, washed down with false modesty for public consumption. The professional ideology denied converse truths: effective practice rests on focus not relentlessness; the best players seldom practise the most hours; freshness is as important as dedication; and rest is bound up with discipline.

What has changed is not so much the underlying reality – how effective performers structure their working day or their calendar year – but the dominant ideology that shapes the narrative of achievement. Champion amateurs always practised hard (albeit not quite as hard as today’s players), they just didn’t talk about it. And disciplined professionals have always rested, but they’ve been reluctant to admit it. Winners have generally acquiesced to the mythology of the moment.

In that context, it is interesting to follow the behaviour of athletes who no longer have to pretend. Consider the late triumphs of Roger Federer, who won Wimbledon for a record eighth time this July. Aged 35 and recovering from a knee injury, Federer rested for the last six months of 2016. He returned in January this year, promptly winning the Australian Open.

Federer then skipped the whole clay court season, before sweeping the field at Wimbledon without losing a set. He is now targeting major titles by prioritising recovery and rest.

Yes, he is exceptionally talented. But the continued expression of that talent is supported by smartness. Indeed, world number four Novak Djokovic now hopes a similar period of rest will help him to come back stronger – he announced today he would miss the remainder of the 2017 tennis season with an elbow injury.

It is too convenient for workaholics to declare Federer a freak outlier. When remarkable people do things differently, it is assumed that their great talent permits them to break the rules of conventional wisdom. The counter argument is that refusing to give in to punitive workaholism helped make them so remarkable in the first place. “Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot and putting a shift in,” argued Johan Cruyff. “I say, don’t run so much.”

There are limits to the lessons we can draw from brilliant people. There is always mystery as well as policy. Besides, for the vast majority, working too hard is a necessity not a choice. In the professional working world, however, choice does influence achievement. And most professionals now have the option of working all the time. Home and office have converged. The smartphone lies beside the pillow. This technological revolution in working habits can only increase the value of protecting yourself against self-defeating over-work.

The blurring of work and life is partly a restoration rather than a departure. Before the Industrial Revolution, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang points out in his thoughtful book Rest, “workplaces and domestic space were often intertwined”.

In our digital age, however, it is much harder to switch off. So we are going to have to get much better at restorative rest, both within the rhythm of the day and the year. It is a cliché that high achievers love what they do. It is less often pointed out that love, in work as in life, benefits from the occasional leave of absence. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.