Book – The Greatest by Matthew Syed

Book – The Greatest by Matthew Syed

Note: The World Cup 2018 was on at the time of originally writing this and I’ve made some post-tournament edits.


I’d be quite happy with more columnists putting out books like this because I can’t see myself buying a newspaper again. Not all columns will stand the test of time but if they’re carefully selected like these, they mostly will.

As you may know, dear reader, I place a large amount of belief in the correlation between sport and business and have read all previous Matthew Syed books as well as many sports biographies.

Syed’s theory is that the best in the world are that because they practice more and well. As someone who believes that just about anyone can learn anything, the term natural talent is a bit redundant.

So when England’s coaches say there players can never play like Brazil because they aren’t born with the same skills, it’s a big excuse. They should be learning from the best. It’s all in the training techniques and how much they practice which in turn helps their attitude to be that of the winning team – positive.

[July edit: and as we have found with the enormous improvement in England’s team in WC2018, as well as others knocking out the giants Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany. England finally caught the virus. They were knocked out be Croatia in the end, a tiny and very new country. I’m looking forward to the equally tiny home nations rise now too.]

As Sir Alex Ferguson says in his Leadership book, ‘we had a virus, it’s called winning.’

Treated like infants, players become infantilised.

Often our way of ‘coaching’ football is shouting at players rather than treating them like adults. What other work situation will an employee put up with being shouted at in front of their peers if they make a mistake? Hopefully none. How do people learn by being fearful? Some do but most don’t, which is why we have had some individual sparks rather than a solid, bonded international England football team.

What does it take to win?

There are more case studies in The Greatest to prove how tweaking training is the difference between first and second. A 10th of 1 second for swimmer Adrian Moorhouse and a blink of an eye for runner Linford Christie. But there’s also the competition that spurs winners. Would Nadal have won without chasing Federer or Djokovic without Nadal?

Teams have hired scientists, dieticians, doctors and even faith healers to find that 1/10th improvement that’s the difference between winning and being the runner-up.

It’s no good writing your values down. You have to alter the way in which people actually behave’ – Dave Braislford – Team Sky.

Team sky look at the smallest of margins, from vacuuming riders rooms to cut down on infection and using dehumidifiers to air con and filters. They ‘developed a hunger index’ for their players and tracked it closely.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

Wayne Gretzky – ice hockey player

On penalties: the advice is think less, do more. Try less hard, relax more. Switch of the conscious mind.

Why are international players not as good than when playing for their country than their club? Messi is cited as an example as was proven during the World Cup and Argentina’s early exit. Obviously it’s because they don’t have their teammates with them but could the opposite be true too? Can players perform better when they are surrounded by the best in the world than when playing domestic football?

We need do more about the motivation of why most footballers refuse to dive and play act – as was so evident in this world cup which still gave me one of the best world cups I’ve seen. In the same way most bankers refuse to take risks and most cyclists refuse to dope.

You can be friends with someone you are trying to beat. It’s what makes us human. (Syed)

There’s an excellent page about hooliganism. In the same way that people put up with litter, followed by broken windows and before they know it crime starts seeping in the neighbourhood it is deemed a no-go area.

So, people put up with a bit of racism and a bit of sexism and offensive charting at just about every football ground across the country put down football hooliganism as part of the game.

It’s not.

I have never understood why supporting a team makes you say the unthinkable to another team and/or their fans. What happens to the behaviour of some people on match days and why is it linked so closely to alcohol. Do people have to drink in order to enjoy a match?

When on a train coming back from Heathrow, having flown back from a very quiet, polite, clean Seoul, my heart sank when it was announced the train was making an extra stop at Wembley. Our quiet train was infiltrated by loud people carrying – incidentally- several open cans of beer.

I don’t know what gives licence to otherwise probably quiet accountants, retail managers and plumbers to drink in the name of football and therefore the right to shout their views out loudly and most often pretty offensively.

So just like the end of this piece, it is unlikely you will finish the book with a warm fuzzy feeling, despite all of it’s excellence, so make sure make the most of that earlier on.

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