Think and you're a loser

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The Independent Online
THE BRAINY sportsman is a rare and hallowed figure in this country, much loved and admired. A man who can score magnificent goals and count up to 10, without once referring to his fingers, is a man not to be underestimated. And if he can talk to Elton Welsby without saying, 'the lads gave 110 per cent,' or 'it was the right result on the day, Steve,' then he's clearly worth all the awed worship that comes his way. Gary Lineker. Alan Hansen. Now try naming a third.

But then the notion that sport and thought might in some tenuous way be connected is a deeply comforting one. When things are going badly, we need to know that someone somewhere knows what he's doing. Not that anyone does, of course, but it's still a nice idea to cling on to.

None the less, the whole concept of intellect in sport has taken a severe battering this week. After years of dedicated research, an eminent sports psychologist has concluded that sportsmen achieve their greatest results not when humming snatches of Beethoven symphonies, or solving complex mathematical problems in their heads, but when their minds are entirely blank. Thought during sport does not enhance performance, it impairs it. A brain isn't an advantage, it's a downright inconvenience.

Needless to say, this is excellent news for sportsmen who might fairly be described as 'cerebrally challenged'. It's so much easier to empty your mind if you don't actually have one, and the success of a number of prominent darts players and American tennis professionals can now be placed in some sort of perspective.

For the brainy, though, this is bad news. If you have a huge throbbing brain like an alien from Star Trek, emptying it can be a considerable feat, which may be why Mike Brearley was usually out for nought. The vaster your cerebellum, the more likely you are to start deconstructing dialectical materialism as the ball zooms towards you at 100mph. To achieve great things, you must still that flowing surge of intellectual energy. You must unthink.

All of which answers a few questions for anyone who saw that slow-motion replay of Linford Christie winning the Olympic 100 metres. What was he thinking about? Fame? Glory? Wheelbarrows full of money? Now we know that he was thinking of nothing at all. His mind was utterly empty. And that's how he won.

The way is therefore clear for any aspiring young athlete who wishes to reach the pinnacle of his particular sport. You'll still need all the usual things, like talent and sponsored cars, but you must also spare some time for spiritual enlightenment. Learn the disciplines of Zen Buddhism, and try to achieve detachment and inner peace whenever you're going for a late tackle. Hire the blind priest from Kung Fu to give you some tips and call you 'Grasshopper'. Dedicate hours each day to meditation and study of ancient texts. Soon, you too could achieve a measure of personal tranquility and possibly even the ability to sit in the lotus position without rupturing yourself.

And after many years of dedication and diligence, you may even reach the ultimate state of intellectual blankness, or Gazzana, as we spiritual masters call it. Few ever attain Gazzana. It is thought that a great priest named 'Five Bellies' possesses the secret, but no one has yet had the courage to ask him for it.

There are many dangerous quests to be fulfilled on the way to Gazzana - the ingestion of many gallons of a magical liquid named 'lager', and rigorous physical challenges on the steps of certain sacred nightspots. But you can recognise those travellers on the route to enlightenment who may have reached this mythic state - they grin madly and hold thumbs aloft whenever they see a camera, and exude a weird, unearthly aroma, known to worshippers across the world as 'Brut'.

Alternatively, there's always the good old frontal lobotomy, which after all never did any snooker player any harm. It's clear, though, that spiritual enlightenment is the way forward for sport, and no doubt any number of con- men and rip-off artists are even now preparing to cash in.

(Marcus Berkmann's complete video course on Zen in sport is now available from selected retailers, price pounds 169.99.)