For all the pictures of achievement and glory, for all our obsession with victory, it might be a revelation to most that the most dominant emotion in sport, and therefore in life itself, is actually fear. Nobody likes to fail and so, overcoming failure is, understandably, a major part of our lives. But in striving to overcome it, we sometimes get obsessed by it and the many manifestations of failure are some of the most intriguing aspects of watching sport.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been three wonderful examples of how teams have addressed fear; either by overcoming it, by ignoring it or indeed by succumbing to it. In English football, Leicester City are playing fearless football, New Zealand’s cricketers just don’t seem to worry about losing matches and in Pune, a young, extremely unfancied Sri Lankan team played some of the most refreshing cricket you will see. In each case, the pressure of the outcome, in itself the biggest driver of failure, seemed non-existent. And each of these three teams, over varying durations, showed that freedom from the fear of failure can raise your game to levels you probably didn’t know of yourself.
Leicester City, at one time, were 5000-1 contenders to win the Premiership. Essentially, they were being told “We don’t know who you are, we don’t care and it doesn’t matter if you don’t turn up”. If allowed to run rampant within the team, such an attitude can diminish self-esteem and clobber the players with a defeatist mentality. But in the hands of a good leader, and clearly Claudio Ranieri is one, this can be transformed into a nothing-to-lose attitude. Leicester are up against teams that have reputations to defend, whose managers have to justify colossal spending, whose owners are demanding a win every day. The pressure to win is on the opposition.
That was true too in Pune where a hugely fancied Indian team took on a Sri Lankan team that was identified by who wasn’t playing, rather than by who was. I looked at the line up and went straight to Mohandas Menon to look up numbers because we hadn’t even heard of players like Kasun Rajitha, Dasun Shamaka and Asela Gunaratne. A couple of others we knew as names on scoresheets. India could well have thought that they only needed to turn up to win, such was the mismatch in numbers and reputation.
But, and admittedly, conditions were good for them, what fun these young Sri Lankans had! They were playing with the enthusiasm of kids in the park. India, on the other hand, looked a touch over-confident, playing shots that seemed a bit arrogant. And when it was their turn to field, India hoarded their resources rather than deploying them. I got the impression the fear of losing had made India, and Dhoni, a bit too defensive. When batsmen are afraid of getting out, they cut out shots and over-defend, bowlers just bowl straight and cut out the balls they are even marginally uncertain of. Dhoni showed us the leadership equivalent of such caution, much as he did in the one-day games in Australia.
Over the years, New Zealand have produced some fine cricketers and have always tended to punch above their weight. But, as Brad Haddin wrote this week, there was a feeling that deep down they had a lot of self-doubt; that they could fight upto a point but didn’t believe they could go further. That feeling encapsulates everything about the fear of failure. That teams flower when they conquer fear but that it recurs when at the brink, when, as some people call it, the fear of winning appears. Over the last two years under Brendon McCullum, New Zealand have cast aside fear and backed themselves like I have never seen them since the 1992 World Cup. It has brought about the resurgence of Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and even Tim Southee and has smoothened the arrival of Kane Williamson and Trent Boult.
The challenge for each of the three teams I have mentioned comes now. Now, there are expectations of them, people want to see how often they can reproduce their performance, championships are within grasp, now there is something to lose. So watch out for Sri Lanka over the next week, and for New Zealand and Leicester City over the next couple of months. If they can continue to play fearlessly, they will have taken a giant step forward for, in a manner of speaking, they have just embraced the devil.