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26 July 2017

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.

By Ed Smith

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.

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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. 

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue