Not so strong: Lance Armstrong apologises for taking performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, January 2013. Photo: Getty
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After the beep: when mental strength hits a wall, doping helps you get over it

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports.

When the Tour de France rolled into London, I was watching BBC4’s film Stop at Nothing, about Lance Armstrong. It was unnerving to hear the original television commentary on the rider’s victories. Moral abstract nouns were commonplace: celebrations of Armstrong’s determination, his strength of character, desire, guts and hunger. All present. None relevant. The critical factor was his pioneering use of drugs.

This fallacy – confusing physical strengths (whether legitimate or illegal) with moral attributes – is commonplace in sport. And watching the Armstrong film underlined the importance of trying to distinguish between the two, even when it leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

I should know better. During my cricketing days, a few times every season I had to complete a fitness exercise called the “beep test”. This consists of a recorded series of beeps, with the interval between each pair gradually reducing. You have to run 20 metres before the next beep, then turn and run another 20 metres – and so on. The test begins at a slow jog and ends at a sprint. When you miss a beep, you have to drop out. The test is described as “maximal and progressive”. Translation: it gets steadily worse, until the point where you break.

I’ve done dozens of beep tests and heard many team-mates say just before the start, “It’s really all about having a strong mind.” But it isn’t; indeed, it cannot be. A strong mind takes you to your physical limit – and no further. The beep test is explicitly designed to find your physical breaking point, whatever that may be.

I eventually learned, in fact, that the exercise revealed the primacy of straightforward lung capacity. The test measures physical fitness exclusively. The pain you feel at the moment of dropping out is always the same: what differs is how far your body has taken you before that happens.

The relentless professional era has taken elements of the beep test and incorporated these into real sports, even disciplines we usually think of as “skill” sports. For instance, a highly committed football team will now “press” – maintain a collective defensive hounding of opposition players – as much as it can. (It is worth noting that some former players from the 1960s and 1970s teams that pioneered pressing have admitted that they were fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs.)

All teams, if they are rational, stop pressing at the point where the tactic makes them so exhausted that they become more vulnerable to conceding a goal. So, effective pressing, much in evidence at the World Cup in Brazil, is a question of physical capacity as well as commitment. If you aren’t fit enough, it becomes impossible.

That is good example of how sport evolves. Elite sport is now so demanding that players often operate near or at their physical capacity. Put differently, we wildly exaggerate the extent to which top players can just try harder. Yet this truth has not yet trickled down into the language of sports analysis. When we notice a vast disparity in energy between two apparently well-matched teams, it is very tempting to fall back on a moral explanation. One team “wants it more”, has more “urgency” or a greater depth of “passion and commitment”. Moral superiority becomes the dominant causal narrative.

But in sports where fitness has central importance (increasingly, nearly every sport) it is more common that one side is physically superior. There has never been any evidence to support the cliché that “at the highest level” the difference is “usually in the mind”. Indeed, I suspect the opposite: at the highest level, given the mental strength of champion athletes, the difference is more likely to be in the body. Both teams are trying equally hard, but one is inevitably stronger than the other.

Here my logic takes an uncomfortable turn. All this explains why performance-enhancing drugs have become so widespread in professional sport. As we approach the outer wall of human physical capacity, improving skill becomes incredibly difficult. So, too, does improving concentration and fitness through conventional hard work.

In that context, sadly, the easiest way to get better is to cheat by taking drugs. That has long been the case in sports – such as cycling and athletics – which are obviously based on physical supremacy. Other sports are now catching up, if that is the right term. It is becoming harder than ever to find “the edge” legally.

There is a paradox here: in an era of widespread drug use, teams and individuals derided for their moral failure may, in fact, be morally superior – by refusing to cheat, they give the appearance of lacking urgency, commitment and hunger. After all, a sporting contest is always relative. Even the most sluggish national football team would look pretty snappy playing against a bunch of random friends on the beach. So there is a double injustice: by taking performance-enhancing drugs, sportsmen not only win unfairly, but also create the illusion that their rivals are not trying.

Why write this now? The World Cup has been widely described as a celebration of Latin American joie de vivre. That is an attractive idea. And it may be true. Yet it is also possible that some teams, which seemed to be playing with the manic abandon of total desire, were in fact simply benefiting from physical advantages.

More than once during this World Cup I have sensed a team playing with almost superhuman levels of energy. That instinct does not prove anything, but it unavoidably raises the alarm. I hope I’m wrong.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland