The notion that games are not necessarily fun is pathetic and, sadly, a feature of vicarious parental involvement

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The Independent Online
It is not often these days that you come across anyone in sport who appears to find it even remotely amusing. I'm all for concentrating fully on the job but not entirely at the expense of light-hearted reflection.

One result of media-driven tension is that smiling on the fields of play has gone out of fashion. When it isn't fiscal the language of sport is the language of urgency - "big games" or "important games" or, heaven help us, "must-win games". Humour is seldom given an airing.

The funniest anecdotes in sport are to be found in history, in the lore of cricket, football, rugby and golf, any game you care to mention, because levity no longer figures on the agenda.

Awareness of this made the attitude adopted by Steve Jones when in contention for the Canadian Open golf championship last week-end all the more commendable and appealing.

At a critical stage of proceedings Jones knew that he had probably given up two strokes to Greg Norman with the sort of shot that causes hackers to think seriously about dumping their clubs into the nearest garbage can. No tantrum followed. Jones just laughed and cracked a joke with his caddy.

After beating Norman by one shot to secure his first tournament victory since January, the former US Open champion - who failed to make the Ryder Cup team when he dropped to 12th place in the rankings - said: "I was in a good position but you learn when you mess up. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I know that now. Sometimes, you need to loosen up, have a little fun no matter what you are shooting. That was proven for me this week."

One of the most important things ever said about sport is attributed to another golfer, the great Walter Hagen, who did more than anyone in his game to raise the status of professionals. Pause and smell the roses is more or less what Hagen was said to go around saying.

Some time ago I referred in this column to a Canadian golfer, George Knudson, who was pretty good at the game but discovered that he could not handle winning. "I was wrapped up in golf 24 hours a day, total concentration - and that wasn't me," he said. "I said to myself, `I surrender. If this is what it takes to win, I'm not cut out for it.' Maybe you have to be very bright or dumb to win. I'm in between."

Knudson decided that if he could not be as strong and as intelligent on the course as Jack Nicklaus, or as dedicated as Gary Player, you might as well relax and enjoy it. If you can't beat it, don't let it beat you. Check the flora and the fauna. Go home to the kids. Ski.

Ambition, temperament and the urge to make a lot of money comes into this but any number of people in sport today convey the impression that they would be deaf to Hagen's philosophy. Primed by coaches and the media, all that occurs to them is winning.

The Football Association's director of coaching, Howard Wilkinson, recently touched on this when taking charge of England's Under-18 team. "We must ensure that youngsters learn how to play before they learn about winning," he said. Ted Bates said something similar many years ago when manager of Southampton, but unfortunately nothing came of it.

The notion that games aren't necessarily fun is pathetic and, sadly, a feature of vicarious parental involvement. I am on the dangerous ground of amateur psychiatry here, but a belief held personally is that children should be brought up to enjoy whatever talent for sport they have been born with.

It is conceivable that, but for the explosion in tele-communications, sports performers would not now be taking themselves so seriously. The innumerable explosions of hot air in newspapers has something to do with this too.

We have already gone far in preparing for the kind of future in sport that many people think inevitable. It gives an aching urgency to thoughts on how a sense of humour and perspective can be reinstated.

It is absurd to expect those who earn a living at a game to have the same nonchalant attitude as those who could once afford to compete as amateurs. Times have long since changed but, as Steve Jones proved in Montreal last week, there is still something to be gained from a smile in the face of adversity.