Brian Viner: Sports psychology's debt to Aesop

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The Independent Online

For the eighth consecutive year I am billeted with my sister-in-law while covering the Wimbledon tennis championships, a fortnight-long dose of what we left behind when we quit London for the delights of rural Herefordshire in 2002: an urban buzz, restaurants within walking distance, the regular siren call of emergency vehicles, and foxes. Lots of them.

In the Welsh Marches, with farmland surrounding us as far as the eye can see, we hardly ever spot a fox. To be sure they are out there – 13 decapitated chickens a few years ago left us in no doubt of that – but only rarely do they show themselves. Yet this week, walking back to Jackie's house fairly late at night, but not so late that there haven't been plenty of people around, I have spotted three foxes, or possibly the same fox three times, insouciantly trotting across the road. Maybe it is time to vulpinate, if such a word exists, old Aesop's fable about the town mouse and the country mouse. Certainly the town fox is a brazen creature compared with his country cousin.

Speaking of Aesop, and foxes, this week I took my in-laws to dinner at the Fox and Grapes, a gastropub on Wimbledon Common coincidentally run by a Frenchman, Cedric Bosi, who used to operate a splendid pub-restaurant out in the sticks near us, and whose departure for the city, with his more celebrated brother Claude, is still greatly lamented in north Herefordshire.

Earlier, I had ventured that the Bosis have inherited a curious name for their pub, but my brother-in-law Tony, a much more erudite fellow than me, explained that it relates to Aesop's fable about the fox that covets grapes just out of his reach, and on walking disconsolately away consoles himself that they were probably sour anyway. Hence, the enduring expression "sour grapes".

This was all news to me, and Tony had even more news, telling me that the story of the fox and the grapes is often used to illustrate the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which apparently means the uncomfortable feeling of holding two conflicting ideas at the same time, or in this instance, wanting something badly but not being able to have it. It was to reduce the dissonance that the fox told himself the grapes were sour.

Tony then cleverly related this to his own sphere of work, motivating people in business. It is important, he said, not to offer them a vision of the future that is unattainable, because then they will become dissatisfied with the level they are at. The trick, in other words, is to convince them that the grapes are just within their grasp, because then they will know they are in the right place now to garner future rewards.

It didn't take too much of a leap, even for me, to apply this to sports psychology, which these days is practically an industry on its own, not least in the world of top-level tennis. I can see that it could actually have been de-motivating yesterday to tell the young British hope Laura Robson that she could get all the way to the final. The third round was just about attainable, the final wasn't.

On the other hand, I seem to remember another of Aesop's yarns about confounding the odds, but I'll let Tony explain that one tomorrow night, when we go to the Hare and Tortoise in Putney.

Cats, fiddles, artichokes, camels ... I'd just like a pint

The Fox and Grapes is a good example of a pub name that is not as weird as it might sound, and there are plenty of others in London. Even some of the most seemingly incongruous pairings of words have a certain logic; for instance, there is a pub near Waterloo Station that was called The Artichoke for more than 200 years, until some plonker whimsically renamed it The Elusive Camel.

When it was taken over again, the new owners decided to reinstate the old name, but were loath to alienate the customers who had come to think of the place as the Camel, and so it became The Camel and Artichoke.

As for the even more bizarre-sounding Queen's Head and Artichoke near Regents Park, apparently it was originally run by Elizabeth I's head gardener, who used to grow artichokes there, so fair enough.

And the famous Old Bull and Bush by Hampstead Heath, immortalised in the jolly music-hall song, owes its name like every other Bull and Bush in the country to a corruption of "Boulogne Bouche", where Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, won one of his battles. Less likely to please Henry's ghost, the Cat and the Fiddle supposedly derives from Catherine "La Fidele", the nickname of his long-suffering and hugely popular first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

In love with the town that's big into leather

A more recent arrival in this country, the former Tottenham manager Martin Jol, a Dutchman who played for West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City, declared himself delighted the other day to be taking up his new post as manager of Fulham. He loves England so much, he said, that he even enjoyed living in Walsall.

I couldn't help wondering what the good people of Walsall made of this back-handed compliment, so I phoned Walsall Council, where they denied even knowing about it, but pointed out that their town has plenty going for it, including a marvellous art gallery. "And we've an excellent leather museum," added the woman on the phone. "I shouldn't say it but we're big into leather round here." My next job is to find out whether Martin Jol was aware of that.