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25 February 2016

Leicester City have revived the Premier League by reconnecting with sport’s origins in play

At times during my cricket career, it felt as though sport had been turned into Gradgrindian pedagogy. Leicester's fearless showing in the Premier League is a breath of fresh air.

By Ed Smith

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames”, the recent exhibition at the Barbican in London, was a case study in the playfulness of work and the seriousness of play. Splints for broken legs, toys for children, chairs for Middle America, projections of the world’s future: the
designers approached every problem with the same, childlike wonder. “Toys are not really as innocent as they look,” as Charles Eames put it. “Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.”

After a morning immersed in Eamesworld, with its Californication of every­thing, I reflected on how gloomy and unplayful professional sport can be. It’s supposed to be a game! Yet at times during my cricket career, it felt as though sport had been turned into Gradgrindian pedagogy. Worse, joylessness led to “Ls” appearing frequently in the results column. If you’re really serious about winning, I eventually realised, you should adopt an equally serious commitment to play.

After only two games, it is too early to say that English rugby has turned around under the new head coach, Eddie Jones, an Australian who was previously coach of Japan. But Jones has a markedly different style from his predecessor Stuart Lancaster. He specialises in surprise – in conversation, on the training ground and in press conferences. Where Lancaster cultivated earnestness, Jones prizes wit. It’s a good start: if you want fast-thinking, risk-taking players, it helps if they aren’t bored. Indeed, recall the audacity of his Japan side at last year’s World Cup.

The first task of a coach is to create an environment. The dummy, the feint, the side-step – these are essential skills for managers as much as players. “No surprise on the training ground,” as Robert Frost almost said, “no surprise for the opposition.” In the ultra-professional era, when players yield their whole lives to the team, it is more important than ever to avoid tediousness.

It is a mistake to think that good preparation requires the elimination of uncertainty. Quite the reverse. The art of preparing a team – or any group of performers – rests on the right blend of routine and unfamiliarity. The conductor Christopher Seaman put it well in his book Inside Conducting: “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more to it than that.”

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The best coach I played under, the former Australian Test cricketer John Inverarity, spent much of his time trying to loosen the environment at practice, to make it lighter and more playful; indeed, that was his way of making practice more demanding. First, he’d get you to stop worrying about making mistakes and looking stupid: “We’re just messing around! Try it, you might surprise yourself.” This deliberate de-formalisation of practice was partly a trick – a way of subtly setting the bar higher without you noticing.

Inverarity realised that inspiring curiosity among players leads naturally to discipline and dedication. Only it doesn’t feel like discipline or hard work; it feels like fun. Serious fun, as Charles Eames would have said. We never work harder than when we are playing.

In much the same way, I worked with an effective newspaper editor who turned the ambush into an art form. Instead of calling endless meetings (nothing gets decided at meetings; they are exercises in pseudo-democracy), he would appear at your desk and spontaneously – or so it seemed – ask your opinion. Instead of prepared scripts, he craved feel and instinct. People speak the truth more readily when they aren’t in a formal and judgemental environment. As a cricket captain, I learned much more about players’ feelings and ideas in casual conversations on the team bus or over a frame of pool than I did in official team meetings. If you want to know what people think they ought to think, just call a meeting. For anything else, try conversation.

Charles and Ray Eames were convinced that having an interesting life was the essential preliminary for having interesting ideas: “Life is fun is work is life is fun.” There were no boundaries between disciplines. The mathematics of an attacking play in American football might lead them to a new approach to seating people at a dinner party.

Many of the most fascinating pieces in the Eames exhibition were experimental prototypes – a plastic seat attached to a metal dustbin, or the playful moulding of plywood that led to the design of the iconic Eames armchair. They worked hard at experimentation, and even if the final product was a mainstream commercial success, the journey was mischievous and irreverent.

It can be the same in sport. Practice is not just “drill” – boring steps in a slow grind towards a prearranged destination – it is also about reshaping how players see themselves and what they are capable of. The deft coach uses practice like designers use prototypes, to experiment and tinker. The two central questions for any player are: “How do I play when I’m playing at my best?” and “How can I get there more often?” Playful practice can bring those questions within reach, sometimes without requiring them to be explicitly articulated.

Nor must playful practice yield to earnestness in performance. Leicester City have lit up the Premier League this year. Having narrowly escaped relegation last season, they have played without fear, like the survivor of a near-death experience who vows to seize the day thereafter. They’ve revived the league by reconnecting with sport’s origins in play. Even if Leicester don’t win the league, they have elevated the season.

The idea of “taking yourself too seriously” is usually framed as a social or moral ­objection, suggesting self-importance. In fact, the underlying fault is more serious and fundamental. A lack of playfulness is also a failure of professionalism. 

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming