Fighting a pandemic – What can we learn from sport?

Sport is, by and large, cancelled. For now. It is totally the right call amongst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world and wreaking havoc to all that stands in its path. Tragically people are losing their lives to this disease, families are losing loved ones, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, fear and panic are rising and likely whatever plans you had for 2020 have been well and truly blown out the water. As a personal hero of mine, Mauricio Pochettino, always said after my beloved Tottenham Hotspur had lost a match or in the immediate aftermath of a difficult situation, “now is the time to be calm”.

And it is a time for us to stick together against a common enemy. It is a time to fight back, to do the simple things extremely well and to keep hope in our hearts. We must have faith that we will get through this and we will recover. As the legendary American Football Coach Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up. Its fair to say that we’ve all been dumped on our assess over the last 3 months and we aren’t out of it yet but we will get out of it if we all stick together and work towards the common goal.

I have previously spoken on my Instagram page of cycling coach Dave Brailsford’s aggregation of marginal gains principle, which simply states that consistently doing small simple tasks will lead to the success of a larger task. I think we can all agree that washing our hands with increased frequency for 20 seconds at a time is well within our capabilities. That refraining from gathering face to face with our friends for a few weeks is achievable, especially with how well modern-day technology keeps us connected. Keeping to the limit of buying a maximum of two of the same food items per household seems totally within our power. And staying home for two weeks if you are demonstrating symptoms of a persistent cough or fever and helping those who are in that position just seems like the basic ability of our species. Individually all these components are easy to achieve, and if we all stick to performing them in our roles as part of society, we will all be contributing to ending this pandemic as quickly as possible.

Without too much digging we can already learn from sport that times of difficulty we need to be calm, that its not about not being knocked down by life rather its about getting back up and that by doing small simple tasks well and with regularity larger successes can be achieved. But what else can we learn from sport to inspire us through this troubling time?


The “never say die” attitude

On the 11th February 1990 James “Buster” Douglas beat Mike Tyson in a huge upset in the boxing community. Coming in at odds of 42-1 before the fight, Douglas was the clear underdog against Tyson, who at the time was, the undisputed heavyweight champion. Further to this, prior to the fight Douglas’ wife left him and his mother died just weeks before the fight. In the 8th round Tyson landed an assault on Douglas that saw Douglas hit the deck, but due to dumb luck or perhaps lead by the hand of fate (depending on your point of view) the bell sounded seconds before he was counted out. Grieving and hurting Douglas was in the fight of his life, not just in the context of boxing. He came out strong in the 9th and landed a few blows of his own before finally in the 10th , landing a devasting upper cut that finished Tyson. In the post-fight interviews Douglas was asked how he beat Tyson, he gave the simple yet powerful answer, “my mother”.

On the 26th August 2019 England were playing Australia, day 4 of 5 in the 3rd Ashes series, with Headingly in Yorkshire the back drop for more unlikely heroics. England began the day 156/3 needing a total of 359 runs for an unlikely and improbable win, meaning there was a deficit of 203 runs if you were an England fan, or 7 wickets if you were an Aussie. With good weather

predicted, there would be no day 5 needed, a result would be guaranteed that day, with the destination of the Ashes trophy potentially decided also.

Despite having given themselves a chance the previous day, England lost 5 wickets for the sum of 41 runs, but all importantly Ben Stokes remained at the crease. When Stuart Broad was adjudged LBW to Pattison on his second ball England were still 73 runs off their total as Jack Leach strolled to the middle, one word etched into his mind, “defiance”. As Stokes, playing superbly, with counter attacking hitting and rotating the strike as was required England edged closer to their target. The Headingly crowd grew louder with each run accumulated, with extra gusto given to the cheers Leach received for each successful block. As the tension mounted, Australia had chances to seize victory but Stokes was dropped by Harris, and Leach should have been run out bar an error from Nathan Lyon. Eventually Ben Stokes thrashed Cummins through the off-side for four and Headingly erupted. England had been only the third team in Test Match history to be bowled out for less than 70 in their first innings and go on to win the match!

Even though now, for many, it may seem as though we are in a position of no hope, these accounts provide two examples of how holding on to hope and belief when all around seems bleak can lead to success being achieved, even when you’re up against the ropes. All is not lost, we simply have to focus in our minds why we need to keep fighting, keep believing and eventually the tide will turn and we will taste the sweet success of victory over these tough times.

Leading by example

In Sam Walker’s outstanding book, The Captain Class, he takes an in-depth look at what makes successful teams successful. Following the fascinating journey the book leads you through from huge amounts of data and analysis, we land on the commonality between all consistently successful teams having a world class captain who will always do what is required for the team.

An excellent example from the football world is Frenchman Didier Deschamps who played primarily as a defensive midfielder and earned winners honours with Marseille, Juventus and Chelsea, including four straight French championship titles, and international honours with French national team (World Cup 1998 and European championships 2000). Deschamps didn’t have particularly impressive offensive statistics in terms of goals and assists, but in an interview, he made the point, “[on a team] you can’t only have architects. You also need brick layers.” He saw his role to win back the ball and as quickly as possible get it to an “architect” on his team who was better suited to scoring goals and creating chances for the team.

In September of 1996 Manchester United’s Eric Cantona gave a pre-match interview before United played Juventus in the Champions league. Cantona gave a scathing indictment of Deschamps ability as a footballer, suggesting that footballers like him could be found “on every street corner”. When asked for his response Deschamps calmly said, “I don’t mind being called a water carrier.” Deschamps understood that sensational players like Zidane needed players like him as much as Deschamps needed players around him who were more effective than he at scoring.

Hopefully this example helps illustrate the valuable roles we all have in this fight against COVID-19. As a society we are blessed with doctors, nurses, physios, healthcare workers, scientists, supermarket employees all playing their roles. Our “water carrier” role may be to simply follow government guidance, and as Zidane relied on Deschamps to pass him the ball, healthcare workers are relying on us to fight the spread of disease at home so they can attack better on the front lines.

Bringing communities together

From the moment the opening ceremony of the London Olympics began on the evening of the 27th July 2012 the nation, and probably the world, was hooked. The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated olympic games had begun, and it was to prove to be a hugely successful games for British Athletes performing on home soil.

From the first gold medals accrued by team GB on the 1st of August with Helen Glover and Heather Stanning winning the women’s coxless pairs and Sir Bradley Wiggins winning the men’s time

trials to the 29th achieved by Anthony Joshua in the Men’s super heavyweight boxing, for a time the nation was one. It was a buzz with positivity, everyone sharing their favourite moments, “did you see that?!”, “oh it was incredible!” and “sorry I can’t make that I’ve got to see how we get on in the equestrian individual dressage”. Endless enthusiasm, hope and excitement spread through the country, more infectious than any disease. Everyone will have their own personal highlights from the games, mine? Mo Farrah’s 5000m, Chris Hoy men’s keirin and Andy Murray in the men’s singles. Incredible feats. And in fact in Murray’s case he bounced back mere weeks after the disappointment of losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, who, somewhat poetically, was his opponent in the Olympic final.

In 1995 Nelson Mandela used the Rugby World Cup to form a bond with Francois Pienaar the Springboks Captain and help break down prejudicial and racist barriers that divided the country and threatened civil war. Mandela reached out and organised to be introduced to the teams before the opening game of South Africa vs England as an initial step to utilising the sport to unite the country. Through building his bond with Pienaar, Mandela was able to start building bridges across the gaping voids that divided the country. Eventually black wing Chester Williams became the face for the tournament and former player Edward Griffiths coined the phrase, “one team, one country”. As South Africa went on to win the tournament, there was more to celebrate than usual as a country often divided was a little closer to being united.

There are many more examples of how sport can unite people of all walks of life with different cultures, who speak different languages, who work in different jobs, have different home lives and have different opinions and values. But sport unites and if it is possible to unite about sport it is possible to unite as a planet and help each other by fulfilling our roles to help tackle the pandemic currently upon us.

There we have a few lessons that can be learnt from sport that we can apply to our current situation as a species regarding the pandemic posing threat to our families, friends, personal lives, work lives and home lives. A difficult situation that can be countered with the right measures. If you’re feeling low and lost, please take heart from the accounts discussed in this blog and the countless other examples of over coming difficulty that sport can provide us with.

To conclude this piece, I wanted to finish with a quote, and although not linked to sport I feel the wise words from J.R.R. Tolkein are somewhat apt for this time:

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”