We’ve all had those games. The ones where you as an individual or a team were just not at the races; you barely turned up. Or the ones where the opposition blows you out of the water so convincingly that you’re left in the changing room feeling depressed and dejected at how things went so awry. Socialising is the very last thing you feel like doing, with your teammates that is let alone your opponent.
Looking back over the years on the many times I’ve experienced this feeling as a player one example sticks in my mind more than any other. As a young 16 year old yours truly was particularly downcast and frustrated at the final result – a tight encounter which the team narrowly lost compounded further by losing an intensely heated personal battle with a senior member of the opposition. Any player will tell you the internal gratification at getting one over your opposite number, and the angst that resonates when you come second best. After moping for far too long I eventually sauntered downstairs into the club house and to my dismay, spotted my opposite number (a guy in his mid-thirties) still at the bar. It turns out he was waiting for me and immediately strolled over to buy me a drink much to my surprise. Our earlier bravado on the pitch forgotten, we proceeded to reflect on the game, during which we chatted about our varying game styles and approaches, our attitudes to practice in addition to our backgrounds away from the field.
It goes without saying that this interaction was a light bulb moment. Putting aside the cliqued mantra of ‘whatever happens on the field stays on the field’, it opened my eyes to the idea that sometimes you can learn just as much, if not more after the game from your opponent, than on the field from your own team.
With sport at the highest level dictating the importance of the small 1% gains, it seems that such interactions have unfortunately developed mixed connotations. Take the Australian cricket team last year after their defeat in first Ashes Test Match in Cardiff; captain Michael Clarke refused Alistair Cook’s offer to join them for a beer in the changing room. More recently it became apparent that Louis Van Gaal did not wish to continue Sir Alex Ferguson’s long standing tradition of inviting visiting managers into his office for a post-match glass of wine. Whilst some admit to preferring to reflect alone after a game (Arsene Wenger a notable example), and some concede it difficult to fraternise with their opponent after a defeat (new Chelsea boss Antonio Conte), there is much to be said for having the strength of character to enjoy the company of your opponent if only for a brief time afterwards.
Indeed, after his recent Wimbledon campaign Andy Murray spoke of the special moments in the SW19 locker room afterwards with a host of past champions and his opponent Milos Raonic; “we weren’t talking about tennis but just chatting about other stuff, like kids and life in general. That was really nice to be a part of.” Whilst one can argue it is much easier to engage in such interactions after winning, few can doubt that both Murray and Raonic will have learnt from that experience. They might only be small things, but gaining a broader and richer perspective from others can benefit your game in a way that the best technical coach in the world cannot.
This is an approach the New Zealand cricket team have embraced in recent times under the leadership of Brendon McCullum. Win, lose or draw the Black Caps have reinvented themselves as a team that want to respect the opposition, play the game as hard and as fair as possible whilst trying to be genuinely good people. You might say this philosophy bears similar resemblance to their rugby compatriots, and it does. The funny thing is that no one sees the All Blacks taking things easy on the opposition. Unfortunately, in many environments there appears to be a perception that developing relationships (dare I say friendships) with the opposition has a negative and debilitating impact on one’s ability to perform against them. A paranoia perhaps, that soft spots emerge and vital information about your own game might let slip for your opponents to exploit. Arrogance too, that you don’t need to interact with opponents; that they are simply there to be played against before moving onto the next one.
Wrong. The beauty of sport is such that you one minute off the field you can be smiling and joking like old friends, the next you are running in trying to knock their head off at 90mph, or bring them to the floor in a crunching tackle, or trying to deliver them a huge knockout blow. That is competition. Don’t forget that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the closest of friends, or that Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee hold each other in the very highest regard during, and after their frenetic encounters during the 2005 Ashes.
The point is not to say you should be friends with everyone – there are people we can all remember playing against that we simply did not get on with or did not like. 20 years after the 1996 Masters Nick Faldo and Greg Norman are only just beginning to tolerate each other! The point is that rather than seeing your opponent as someone who you should avoid, often it should be someone we should embrace. For they can not only provide us with a broader and alternative perspective, but they can see things we as coaches can’t. They are right there with you in the arena, on the field, in the ring. Coaches aren’t; we’re on the sidelines – we get a good feel for what’s going on, but your opponent is the one who has the best seat in the house. Use that source of knowledge to better your game, your experience, and your character. It’s very easy to hide behind your mobile phone at the end of the game, or your own teammates, or simply stay in the changing room.
Next time you lose, why not be brave; dust yourself down and go and have a chat with the opposition? You might be surprised at the response you get.