Sport, especially English sport, has a blind spot about intelligence. It often misinterprets intellectual curiosity as uncommitted dilettantism, mistakenly assumes that sport and intellectual life are entirely separate and misses the reality that elite games require high-level thinking.
Kudos to Duncan Watmore, Sunderland’s bright prospect, who recently graduated with a First in economics and business management from Newcastle University. There are lessons here for professional sport, for education and for the way we think about applied intelligence.
Both sports teams and universities indulge in time-wasting on an epic scale. One aspect of professionalisation is padding out commitments to fill the diary. But even the most dedicated athlete cannot train properly for more than four or five hours a day (and often far less than that). What about the rest of the day? Studying doesn’t have to eat into training – it can replace PlayStation.
The clubs own players’ bodies and yet they allow minds to addle – which is not very professional, when you think about it. Universities suffer from a similar problem. Being a “full-time” student is often code for needlessly stretching things out.
Watmore’s career also shows the value of getting serious later. The Tiger Woods model – full beam from day one until you burn out – suits very few people. Watmore will probably look back on being cut by Manchester United as a 12-year-old as a stroke of luck. He was not in the “football system” at school or during his first year at university. Professional sports teams, like high-fees schools, feign urgency when it comes to getting their hands on talent. Watmore’s coaches now applaud his on-field “rawness”.
Social science increasingly highlights the value of later specialisation and delaying saturation-level commitment. Football’s best mind, Pep Guardiola, was not allowed to join Barcelona when they first asked – his parents wanted him to grow up first, then grow into the professional game. I often wonder how many more runs Ian Bell would have scored for England, prolific though he was, if he hadn’t spent so much of his childhood wearing an England age-group tracksuit.
It is time, too, to challenge the damaging misconception that being a top sportsman does not require any thinking. Many sports are only incidentally physical: actions are the expression of thoughts. The toolkit comprises strength, speed, skill and technique; but even the best equipment requires a craftsman to be in control.
Sportsmen are victims of the myth of their own stupidity: if their competitiveness is channelled into sport rather than academic work at school, they are branded as thick. But a football match is a series of decisions – where to run, where to pass – and usually the team that makes the better set of decisions wins. Philipp Lahm, Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning captain, doesn’t seem especially good at anything. At decision-making, however, he is unparalleled. So Lahm’s presence in any side – regardless of the position he plays – enhances the team’s shape and collective intelligence and its likelihood of creating chances while simultaneously avoiding risks.
A connected mistake is confusing inarticulacy with unintelligence. Kevin Pietersen sometimes says silly things. But ask him about risk-taking and the art of batsmanship and you sense an urgent and original thinker. It is impossible to play football like Arsenal’s Mesut Özil – who can see the shape of the two teams and a wide range of hypothetical scenarios, and can simultaneously run and dribble a football – without a clear and supple mind.
The surface silliness that some athletes retain deep into adulthood is often a facet of necessary playfulness (it also worked for Mozart). But don’t be tricked. Mastery of any sport requires deep understanding. Some players are more intuitive and spontaneous, others more deliberately analytical.
Doesn’t this distinction between on-field “smarts” and formal intelligence serve as a refutation of my opening argument that sport should encourage academic training? No. It is true that further study isn’t for everyone; shoehorning every professional sportsman into academia would be counterproductive. But closing down avenues into professional sport is needlessly restrictive.
If you want an innovative team, encourage the widest spectrum of temperaments from the broadest range of backgrounds. Include the odd scholar. Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany and Aston Villa midfielder, used to visit the then governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. His first question: should the government or the central bank set the target for inflation? German football academies stress the value of education not only as insurance but also its interconnectedness with sporting performance. As the academy coach at SC Freiburg once explained: “If 80 per cent can’t go into the professional team, we have to look out for them. And we need intelligent players on the pitch anyway.”
In contrast, English sport is still hamstrung by outdated associations lingering malevolently from the old amateur hegemony. The amateurs – with their degrees, blazers and striped ties – had a good run in English sport. Too long a run, when you think that, in cricket, the division between gentlemen and players endured until 1962.
It does not follow, however, that selecting and promoting players with trained minds now is a slippery slope back towards Corinthian indifference and not practising in the afternoons. Real progress is not doing the opposite of the past but finding a new edge, wherever it can be found.
Ed Smith is the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury)
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special