“THE hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” (Cus D’Amato – Mike Tyson’s trainer)
Within sport, as within life, the concept of bravery is one which is often used by all sides for their own gain. People talk about being brave, about wanting others to be brave and, on the sporting field, demanding that the players they watch ‘be brave’ on their behalf.
In recent times, we’ve heard the likes of Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers talking about wanting their footballers to be brave. We see them continue to pick players above others despite them making mistake after mistake trying to play the ball out from the back, and we see them ridiculed by the national press, TV pundits and fans around the country for not changing the way they play in the face of failure. In response, we see Guardiola telling a press conference that John Stones has bigger balls than anyone in the room, and expressing in no uncertain terms why he loves him so much.
Bravery. Some would have you think that being brave means having the ability to punch someone in the face. Others might tell you it’s threatening a neighbour and close ally with war if they don’t do what you want. Some might say it’s looking after yourself when the world is tough and you don’t want to be exposed.
What do you think it is? Do you think you’re brave? Have you done anything this week, this month or this year that is truly brave?
In a football context, it’s interesting that our manager talks about being willing to hurt yourself, not your opponent. Compare the way our players took an aggressive approach to the derby to the way Everton’s lads looked after themselves first. Was Ross Barkley’s challenge on Dejan Lovren brave? Or Ashley Williams’ ridiculous challenge on Emre Can? Or were they reckless and cowardly?
Bravery on a football pitch, though, is far more than being able to tackle effectively. We discussed on the TAW Player Review show this week the art of finding space on a pitch by standing still. Think of all the players you’ve watched down the years who somehow seem magically to find themselves in pockets of space despite the rest of the game going on around them like a hurricane. As if they are standing in the centre of the storm, unaffected by the chaos.
Imagine the bravery it takes to be playing football in a derby or in a cup final in front of tens of thousands of people, with millions watching on TV, all demanding that you run around and kick everything in sight, to instead decide to stand still and wait. To hold your position. Having the courage in your convictions not to make some caveman-like demonstration to those who you represent in order to seek their approval, instead to know that standing still or drifting a few yards one way or the other will find you the space you need to be effective.
We all want players who want the ball in these games, who don’t hide in the midst of battle. Imagine the courage that takes. Imagine when you demand the ball the first time and you give it away, to the vocal annoyance of the 50,000 people watching from the stands. Then imagine the courage it takes to demand the ball again next time. And again, and again. No matter how many times you demand it and give it away, you demand it again. That’s bravery.
How do most football fans react when they see a player doing that? They go wild with anger. They demand that the player is substituted and the manager ceases to play this ridiculous style of football. When we say we want our players to be brave, we don’t mean all the time. We mean we want them to be brave only on the condition that they are subsequently successful. We want them to want the ball, but only on the understanding that they are not allowed to fuck up.
But this simply isn’t how it works. Being brave inevitably leads to failure. If you are brave often enough the one thing you can guarantee is that sooner or later you will fail. If you step up to take every penalty in every big game and every cup final, you might receive the adulation of the crowd for years on end for being faultless. For being brave and heroic. But, sooner or later, you’ll miss, and you’ll have to face the taunts of those on your side and those of your opponents. You’ll be haunted by the mistake forever.
The true sign of bravery is that when the next penalty is to be taken, you volunteer to take it and start all over again.
If you demand the ball throughout the biggest games of your life you will, sooner or later, give it away in front of your supporters, at which point they will howl with anguish. Some of them will scream abuse at you and use words only previously reserved for their bitter opponents. Next time the ball comes near to you, every fibre of your body will want to hide and let someone else take the ball, but being brave dictates that you override that desire and you ask for the ball again.
It’s amazed me over the years that people look at others who display bravery in any walk of life and they dismiss it as “but it’s OK for them, they don’t get scared”. As Cus D’Amato said, the feeling of fear isn’t what separates the coward from the hero.
Do you shy away from public speaking because it frightens you? Or avoid difficult conversations because they make you uncomfortable? Do you look at others who appear to be able to take all such situations in their stride and brush it off as something they are just lucky to be able to do? If so, it’s worth remembering that most people in those situations are just as scared as you are. Most people don’t want to take a penalty. Most people don’t want the ball when the going gets tough. But what separates the heroes from most people is that they do it in spite of the fear. They step up to the plate despite everything in their body screaming at them to hide in a corner and let someone else do it. They demand the ball even after they’ve given it away. They try an audacious volley from 35 yards even though they’ve missed the last two.
I write about bravery and I have clear images of Dirk Kuyt and Luis Garcia in my head. Two footballers who epitomise bravery in every sense. Players who want the ball in big games, who risk the wrath of the crowd for the greater good of the team. I lost count of the number of times I heard my own dad slaughtering Garcia for trying a flick or attempting to score from outside the box, but I always loved Luis doing it. I want to see footballers score outrageous goals and I understand that you can’t score those goals without missing plenty of other chances.
I love the great Wayne Gretzky quote of “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you never take” and I love to remind myself that even the greatest people on the planet fail far more than they succeed. Think about your favourite striker of all time. Whoever it is, they missed more chances than they scored. The key to their success was that they didn’t stop. They continued to try to score goals despite having missed previous chances. They didn’t let the fear of failure prevent them from achieving success. That is bravery.
Great leaders such as Klopp, Guardiola and Rodgers (yes, I’m including Rodgers – just wait and see), make it clear to their players that to achieve success they have to walk through the fires of failure. To play like Barcelona you have to be willing to make a mistake in front of millions of people that will lead to the opponent scoring a goal. When it goes wrong it looks horrendous. It looks amateurish. The irony is that when it works, the very same people who slaughter the players for making mistakes announce loudly that this way of playing football looks easy, and they should always just play like that.
These managers show bravery in knowing that they take the blame when things go wrong and the players take the credit when things go well. That’s the only way they can create a culture in which their footballers can thrive. An environment in which mistakes are accepted as an inevitable consequence of development and of progress.
Bravery. Not the lack of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of it.
To hear Paul discuss bravery on this week’s Review show, alongside Neil Atkinson and Sean Rogers – SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player