Couch Critics

As published in Inside Sport, August 2008

They’re masters of Nintendo by day, majoring in social irresponsibility by night.  When our spoiled professional athletes actually attempt to earn their exorbitant salaries and fairytale lifestyle, all they can do is make mistakes.  How inconsiderate!  Don’t they understand they’re not human and we get really upset when they fail to fulfil our hopes?

Whether at the game, around the water cooler at work, on the libellous ‘fansites’ or at the local, this is the kind of gibberish you’re bound to hear from self appointed experts who’d be hard pressed to outrun Vera in accounts or kick beyond the outer reaches of their own backyard.  

Athletes have become popular sport.  Perhaps it‘s a backlash against unrequited and unrealistic expectations or as a means for average Joes to make themselves feel bigger.  Whatever the case, there is a diminishing middle ground.  Athletes are not super heroes, nor are they emotionless punching bags.

 “They don’t get paid $300,000 a year to miss goals/tackles/penalties’ or ‘professionals shouldn’t make that kind of error’ is a common grievance.  Over the top abuse directed at David Beckam after his ‘98 World Cup send-off and in Euro 2004 after a missed penalty are classic examples of even the most gifted player suffering the ignominy of hatred emanating from their own fickle fans.  If the Kiwis had their way, Greg Chappell will have ‘underarm cheat’ engraved on his tombstone, never mind his otherwise impeccable record.  Sally Robbins might have to cure cancer to free herself from her infamous Olympic failure. 

As fanatical supporters wanting a particular outcome, a certain level of frustration is understandable. This is not an apologist’s piece for latter day fallen idols. It is the scrutiny, abuse and the general inability to really comprehend the difficulty of the task facing this specially talented and dedicated percentile of the population that warrants examination.  Sure, elite sport is not for the feint hearted, nor the thin skinned, but perhaps it’s time to take stock and put our manners back in.  For example, such is the level of invective directed at AFL players via anonymous fan site blogs, clubs have directed their charges not to log on for fears of them developing depression.  

 Maybe it’s also a product of an age where so many who follow professional sport do so largely from the comfort of their own home.  Those willing to forgo a comfortable retirement and attend on a regular basis are usually destined for the cheaper seats, the truest vantage points increasingly elusive.  One simply cannot comprehend the ever increasing intensity of the game from high above where we see wide open spaces and the seemingly obvious plays in advance.  We bemoan players for not spotting the free man 50 metres away on the left with a lace out pass or for not brushing the player about to tackle them on their blind side.   The crunch of bodies and the speed at which they are moving cannot be conceptualised.  We can only speculate what the coach’s instructions and game plan entails.

Cricket too can be a deceptively easy game from certain vantage points.   From high above the bowlers arm and with endless slow-mo replays, you’d be forgiven for thinking the batsman had time for a cuppa before the ball finally arrived, gift wrapped for spanking into the stands.  Twenty/20 only heightens the expectation.  As demanding as the crowd – and especially the wise sages in the commentary box can be, the game itself holds no prisoners.  One false move and the batsman is subjected to laborious dissection of their folly.  What were they thinking playing that shot to that ball with that fielder in place at that stage of the game?   Damien Martyn can vouch for the burden he carried for a rush of blood blamed for losing a test match againstSouth Africa 15 years ago.   As an exercise in futility, go down to your local indoor centre and set the bowling machine to 150 clicks.  If you even see the ball you’re doing better than most.  Then imagine doing so batting for your country in front of 50,000 people.  It’s mind blowing stuff. 

It’s a matter of perspective and essentially professional athletes must cope with a reality of negligible time and space to make the right decisions and execute their skills.  We give little credence when players say the game is getting quicker than ever.  For mere mortals, elite level sport is played in fast forward and then some.  Unfortunately, many fans and even experts aren’t able to reset their expectation levels to something compatible with what some sports have evolved to in 2008 – and the bigger picture of what the world has regressed to.  Rarely is the actual significance of a poor performance worth half the column space it commands.

One wonders how even the most competent and experienced pen pusher would handle cramming a days work into a couple hours with the boss watching over one shoulder, co-workers the other, plus a couple hundred graduates and subordinates gunning for their job.  Throw in a few million watching their frantic attempts on television, all the while a slight lapse in concentration possibly costing their job or sparking back page headlines.  Forget having a right of reply and when you go home, the job’s not done for everything you eat is monitored.

Then there’s the poor sods simply playing out of their depth.  Players don’t pick themselves and they don’t try to play poorly.  ‘Hack’ is a term used with wide abandon but to have reached the highest level is validation of a competence level far in excess of 99% of the population.  

Meanwhile, players who’ve switched clubs are made pariahs by the same supporters who once idolised them.  Fans and pragmatism rarely go together – that the player may have merely sought a more lucrative deal to support their family, better on-field opportunities or that they may have been sacked doesn’t enter the equation!

Certainly the coolest under pressure can block out the repercussions of failure and put the game into true context.  The sun will still rise should they miss the match winning goal after the siren.  As Aussie great Keith Miller once famously said, “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse”.  Fortunately sportspeople of today aren’t afforded such perspective without having experienced war – only the imagined importance with which media, public and coaches apply to their vocation.  

It’s not surprising that even the most proficient journalists struggle to command the same respect from athletes as those who’ve also been there and recently experienced the elite level first hand.  It’s not just the never-haves that can be guilty of forgetting how difficult the player’s task is though.  Just listen to Tony Greig or Bill Lawry for ten minutes (if you can). 

Professional athletes, like anyone, have their assorted personal problems.  Some might say ‘fragile sooks’ – yet many are merely teenage kids struggling to live their dream in a damn tough environment.  Some come from dire family backgrounds, displaced from home or are in the middle of relationship issues, family tragedy or personal mental anguish.  Others are still subjected to taunts related to their race, religion or appearance.  Sometimes the additional pressures are purely professional.  How many of us go to work each day enduring the same level of pressure, pain, our career on a tenterhook or perhaps at risk of debilitating injuries?   

Most can compartmentalise and still get the job done.  Many fall by the wayside as we curse them for frittering away their talent, without knowing a fraction of the story.   Some just realise there’s more to life. 

Being blessed with well remunerated sporting talent doesn’t grant open season.  As hard as it is to believe for the stricken fan, just remember the athletes themselves feel the pain of poor personal performances and defeat more acutely than anyone.

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