How the start of the game turns perfection into poverty

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The Independent Online
YOU notice it most obviously with footballers, I think. There they are on the pitch, still wearing their tracksuits, bursting into impressive, zig-zagging sprints and flicking the ball about with a disdain reminiscent of Alfredo di Stefano.

The goalkeeper is a marvel of competence as he deals dismissively with every practice shot, clutching this effort, watching with a hint of scorn as another passes inches wide of his post.

The lumbering central defender picks a ball up on his foot as if it is attached to his boot, lifts it into the air and playfully allows it to settle on his bear-like shoulders.

What a team. Pity the opponents. Although, on inspection, they are doing much the same thing. What a match in prospect, then...

Ten minutes later, the jugglers have turned to oafs and the pitch is given over to dull industry. The referee blew his whistle. And something happened.

There are so many wistful tales told of phenomenal sporting performances produced outside competition. Athletics, with its literal measures of achievement, produces large numbers of them.

Before Roger Bannister became the first man to break four minutes for the mile, there were stories that his great Australian rival, John Landy, had already done so in training.

Sergei Bubka, the phenomenal Ukrainian pole vaulter, has long been rumoured to have achieved heights well above his official world records while practising.

High jumpers report prodigious clearances in training; javelin throwers reflect upon monster throws, throws which weren't measured but which must have been, oh, well over 90 metres. Easily.

Relaxation, a crucial part of athletic endeavour, comes easily when it doesn't matter. But the same is true in the realm of the unathletic competitor.

I once interviewed Eric Bristow about the affliction which had undermined his position as the world's leading dart thrower - dartitis.

We spoke in the warm-up area beside the stage at the world championships in Frimley Green. I had just watched Bristow tip handful after dainty handful of darts into the treble 20 on the board behind his table. The Crafty Cockney appeared to be at his peak.

But he knew otherwise. And, when he got out on to the board, he faltered. Anybody who has ever competed at anything could sympathise.

At such times, I often think with a rush of shame of my own lamentable failings in competitive conditions. One excruciating example comes to mind more often than others - the final of a table tennis competition which I reached while on holiday as a young teenager.

It was one of those grim occasions when parents and interested parties were invited, and my own family dutifully turned up to watch me partake in what must surely have been one of the most dismal sporting spectacles ever witnessed.

I knew - from informal practice - I had the measure of my smaller, younger opponent. But as the match progressed, I became assailed with a kind of palsy. When, to everyone's relief, the match ended, I had won. But in truth, my opponent had simply lost even more disastrously than I had.

Responding positively to the those two little words - game on - is the key to any sporting achievement. It is not surprising that sports psychology is a huge growth area.

Increasingly, the world's sporting arenas are filling with jargon as competitors strive to win the battle of the mind.

According to this new orthodoxy, you must strive every day for focus; you must cast all negativity from your soul; and you must seek a state of grace which shall hereonin be known as "The Zone".

At last month's winter Olympics, I asked a member of the Canadian women's ice hockey team how she and her colleagues were reacting to the fact that they had come into the competition as favourites.

Her previously open face clouded over as she executed Mental Gameplan One. "Pressure doesn't exist in our vocabulary," she said.

A startling tactic. Deny the existence of a thing, and it disappears. Excellent. But why stop there? Why not deny the existence of defeat?

As things turned out, the Canadians lost the final to their keenest rivals, the United States. They may have managed to keep pressure out of their vocabulary, but they couldn't exclude it from their minds.

Three cheers for that. Because watching competitors cope with the anxiety, doubt and the cold fear which pressure trails in its wake is one of the most compelling elements of any sporting spectacle. Those pre-match jugglers need to turn into oafs for the real jugglers' worth to become apparent.