Jim White

What footballers can learn from Olympians

Jim White

View photo


Britain's bronze medallist Jonathan Brownlee is carried away after he collapsed after finishing in the men's triathlon …

Jonathan Brownlee, the bronze medallist in the Olympic triathlon, held the press conference spellbound as he talked about the conditions in which he had trained for his event. There was one occasion when he had gone out for a ride on his bike and it was minus 14 in the Yorkshire hills where he prepares. Everywhere was under snow and he was riding along what he thought was just a field. It was only when he slipped off his bike and put his arm through the ice into the water below that he realised it was a lake. He was soaked and freezing. But never mind that, he carried on with his ride for another two hours.

The younger Brownlee brother got his reward. It was hard won. He tried so hard to recover from a time penalty that 10 minutes after finishing he collapsed and needed intense medical attention. He was well enough an hour later to attend the medal ceremony, watch his brother get gold, pick up his own bronze and give us all an insight into his commitment.

And even as he was doing so, you just knew how his words would be used. We in the press couldn't simply celebrate the bloke's astonishing commitment. We couldn't just glory in someone who works so hard. No, we had to use it as a stick to beat footballers with.

Never mind that no footballer was actually competing in the triathlon, their level of effort, training, and all-round desire was put by several papers into stark perspective by Brownlee's revelation. Never mind that most footballers work exceedingly hard, make considerable sacrifices to maintain their condition (Jason Roberts, for instance, turned vegan in order to control his weight) the moment a non-footballer shows Stakhanovite workload in order to achieve success in their sport, it is those who kick a ball who are suddenly cast as part of the lazy X Factor something-for-nothing culture.

I have been guilty myself of making comparison at these Olympics with life covering the Premier League. After someone has won a gold medal, they are so happy to share the moment with the press it is a joy to report it. Their mum and dad want to speak to you, their coach wants to speak to you, the winners themselves really can't stop. The contrast with footballers who seem to believe that communicating with their public via the media is a burden too far to contemplate is stark.

But we should be wary of suggesting that, because they are surly in the mixed zone, those in the Premier League do not work for their success. Of course they do. Ryan Giggs did not stay at the top of a game as taxing as his by stinting on the preparation. No-one employed by a Premier League club can afford to skive or shirk. With the sports medicine now unleashed on them, messing about is immediately picked up on. The truth is, Premier League players are as rigorous in their preparation as most at the Games.

Where they might learn from those who have performed on the centre stage over the past fortnight, however, is on the point of delivery. Too often, footballers fail the tougher exams, critically failing, in penalty shoot-outs or pressure matches, to produce the goods. In a way, that is in the nature of their sport. Many of the athletes on show in London have prepared for four years simply for a few seconds of Olympic action. Fail in that, and everything they have worked for is shattered and pointless. Divers, sprinters, gymnasts: they cannot afford to let the moment pass. In football, there is always another game, always another chance for redemption.

Indeed that is the standard consolation in defeat: never mind son, there's always next week. It is the best way they have to cope with failure. But it comes at a cost. It means the mind is not entirely and completely focused on immediate achievement. The possibility of failure is not half as daunting if you know there is opportunity quickly to recover from it.

Maybe, if footballers really did want to learn something from watching runners, jumpers and cyclists in action, it's not that the only path to success is hard work. They know that already. It is that the immediate is all that matters. Win now and the future takes care of itself.

View comments (7)