Superheros or mortals? The dangers of immortality & a lost opportunity

I am struck by the steady stream of superhuman sports stars starting to reveal a less than superhuman reality behind the scenes.  Whether it’s Jonny Wilkinson who recently spoke powerfully about how ‘success’ became synonymous with ‘suffering’, or Sarah Taylor’s moving interview last week about her struggle with anxiety while being at the top of the global cricket game, there seems to be a gulf emerging between what typically gets reported and the reality that many top athletes experience.

I think that the sporting world is missing a trick and limiting its greater potential to influence and inspire.  The majority of content on most sports pages, talks given by sports stars and sports books written are filled with the traditional formula of results notched up and heroic tales of epic proportions.  And where there are low points within those stories, they are used purely to increase the impact of the remarkable heroic moments to come. 

I think there’s a much more interesting story to be explored about sport, about the experience of the pressures that go with being the best in the world, the psychological strains and the support required to deliver at the highest levels alongside the reality of what happens in those moments after the trophy is lifted or the medals are given out.  There’s a more nuanced story of what success looks like and feels like that takes us behind the superficial veneer of the superhero tale that at first sight seems so seductive but is really rather empty.

By all means celebrate the brilliance of a Ben Stokes boundary strike or a Serena Williams forehand, the kicking finesse from Jonny Wilkinson’s foot or free-flowing stroke play from Sarah Taylor’s bat.  But don’t stop there.  Take a closer look at the complex experience that accompanies that, rather than too simply  attributing it to some kind of divine intervention or godlike gift.  These moments of intense pressure, where one moment we can be brilliant and the next moment completely fall apart, are common to us all.  It’s distorting and misleading to focus only on the superhuman moments that then seem to set these athletes apart from us. 

For rather than victory being some kind of moment of perfection and happiness that we mere mortals envy and fantasise about, the sporting champion’s experience of victory much more closely mirrors our own experiences.  Chris Evert said, “Winning Wimbledon lasts about an hour”, Victoria Pendleton describes winning Olympic gold as a ‘’climax’’ and golfer Thomas Bjorn felt “empty” after his first victory on the European tour.  I loved the refreshing honesty in Jonny Wilkinson’s recent interview, at once both surprising and completely unsurprising, when he stated “there’s guys who made the World Cup squad and never got picked who are as happy as anything, and there are some guys that played in the final and won it who are utterly miserable.”[1] 

We can immediately relate that to our own moments of thinking ‘Is that it?’ after you pass those exams you’ve been working towards for years and that everyone said would make or break the rest of your life.  Or those moments when you think you have reached the summit by achieving a huge job promotion and you suddenly wonder what it all means?  Or when you seem to be thriving to all those around you, but deep down inside, you don’t feel strong at all.  Sport shouldn’t just provide an escape from those moments by taking us into a superhuman world of the seemingly impossible, it can do so much more by giving us the best insights into understanding more fully the depth and complexity of those moments and all that plays out in our minds during them.

I loved that Ashes test at Headingley where Ben Stokes achieved what seemed like the impossible.  But I was frustrated by the crazy hyperbole describing the performance afterwards.  He was pronounced immortal the front and back pages, described in the language of miracles.  Yet for me, the performance was all the more thrilling for the knife-edge that it was on.  The fact that he could bat so brilliantly, yet give a call to his batting partner Jack Leach to run which was arguably a mistake and only survived due to a fumbled catch by the Australian bowler.  For me, that’s the delicate balancing act of decision-making under enormous pressure, and Stokes and his colleagues were doing their best and dancing on the finest of pinheads to stay in the game.  It’s that combination of factors, your own decisions and decisions by others around you along with a millisecond of chance or misfortune that determine how things end up.  You have to be able to make the best of every opportunity when so much is beyond your control.  That feels a lot more like the life of most leaders everyday in organisations, whose decisions dance a similarly fine line between countless controllable and uncontrollable factors.  How to manage yourself during those moments and prepare to handle what could easily swing from great results to great losses is surely a much richer story to explore.

Sporting stars are held up as idols for us all, these champions visit our schools and companies with a great story to tell.  It’s well-intentioned stuff and there’s huge opportunity to influence positively, but what’s the actual impact?  I wonder whether we are misleading those audiences by only inviting those who have won or have a medal to show – didn’t the others who were in that world championship final race also give everything they had, train with incredible dedication, deliver their best performance?  Isn’t that just as valid an experience?  Doesn’t that relate much more to our own experience of life?  And what about those who weren’t even selected but trained for years with just as much commitment and application as those that were but had a tiny fraction less talent, or maybe too many hurdles to overcome along the way. 

I remember attending a dinner and listening to an Olympic Champion’s inspirational speech about how he finally won gold after years of finishing 6th or lower.  It’s a great story, no question, but after the talk had finished building up to the climax of showing the powerful video of an incredible victory at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the businessman sitting next to me said, “I love that story, but I can’t help thinking, what about all the others in that final? Don’t you think they worked as hard, trained as hard, tried as hard? Yet nobody tells their story or thinks it’s worth listening to?  That troubles me.”  He articulated something that had been troubling me deep down as well.

I know that I trained with some incredibly talented athletes who pushed themselves day in and day out for years, and from whom I learnt vast amounts that was critical to me later being able to seize the opportunity to win a few medals along the way.  Somehow for them things didn’t come together at the right time, perhaps an injury, or a rowing crew combination that didn’t gel, or one of those other intangible factors that means you come 5th and no one cares rather than 3rd or above and considered worth listening to.  They are not invited to schools and I am – yet I know they have just as much to offer the next generation as I do. 

The clear message to those of us reading the sports pages, or to those audiences in companies and schools that the champions visit is that it’s only ok to be proud of what you’ve done if you’ve won, and that your story is only worth retelling if you came first.  There’s so much more to learn from sport than simply who won yesterday’s game and who the superhero of the match was.  It’s time for more real stories in sport, not just as isolated features years after the event, but as deep insights into the world-leading performances we love to watch right now.

Do send me your thoughts and experiences about winning and the role it plays in your life, I am currently researching and writing about this and interested in as wide a range of perspectives as possible. Thank you! @thecathbishop #TheLongWin #leadership #success #purpose #clarity #constantlearning #collaboration


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