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What Sport Tells Us About Life Summary

I’m a huge sports fan. Whether it’s football, golf or rugby, if it’s on I will watch it. There’s something compelling about watching sports live that I can’t quite put into words.

Growing up, I wanted to be a professional football player. The dream was to play for my team, Liverpool FC. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the talent to make it as a professional footballer.

Reading What Sports Tells Us About Life I got a glimpse into why I didn’t make it. The best sportsmen and women are committed, hard-working and gifted individuals.

If anyone could do what they did, the spectacle of sports would be diminished. I believe that’s one of the reasons we love sports so much.

These people are out there performing tasks that we wished we could perform. We are living our dreams through them as we watch them act out what we may have envisioned for ourselves when we were young.

This book was an illuminating read into the lives of sportsmen and women and the issues around them. It’s written by a former professional cricketer whose insights are lucid and well-thought-out.

If you’re a sports fan, this is a great book to get a deeper understanding of the world of sport.

What Sport Tells Us About Life summary

Takeaway 1 – Amateurs used to be more respected

One of the trends of recent years has been the increasing professionalisation of sport. It’s now a billion-dollar industry, with slick media operations and stars that are known the world over.

Go back 30 to 50 years and this was not the case. Sports stars were widely-known but they were nowhere near the global stars we see today.

Indeed, rugby, a hugely popular sport in English-speaking countries, did not become fully professional until the early 90s. 

The game was proudly amateur and it was a controversial move to switch to a fully professional as many people thought the game would lose some of its appeal and tradition as a result.

This belief in the amateur game can be traced back much further to a time when being an amateur was admired. Many golfers in the early 20th century were amateurs and lauded. Most notably, Bobby Jones, who won several major championships during his career.

Somewhere along the line, the word amateur has gone from one that was cherished to one that is met with derision. Even now, the word amateur is an insult. It refers to someone who is incapable of doing things properly.

As sport has become more and more commoditised, the love of the amateur has been replaced with derision at their lack of ability compared to their professional counterparts. This is despite their love of the game.

With sport seemingly headed in one direction only, it’s unlikely this reverence for plucky amateurs will return anytime soon.

Takeaway 2 –  Is the free market ruining sport?

Following on from the downfall of amateurism is one of the reasons for its demise, the advance of the free market in sports.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than in football. The Premier League and the UEFA Champions League have become much more predictable than ever in recent years.

While it may not be obvious who will win the competitions, you can normally predict the teams that will be there or thereabouts.

The eye-watering amounts of money that have been pumped into the game have resulted in a lot of going to the top which skews competition. 

This is then exacerbated by the rise of super-rich owners who buy clubs, tempt the best players with ridiculous wages and distort the field even more.

What this has led is a more in-depth analysis of players so that teams can find those who have been undervalued and steal a march on their rivals.

The free market distorts the transfer market, which exorbitant fees paid for strikers and midfielders, but lesser ones for defenders. Although this is showing signs of changing in recent times.

However, as long as players are coming into the market, then there are always the odds that the established order can be upset.

Sport may be less predictable than it used to be, but the success of Leicester City, who won the English Premier League in 2016 despite being 5000-1 outsiders, shows that anything can, and will, happen in the world of sport despite the advance of the free market.

Takeaway 3 – Some top players feel like they operate on a level above others

If you have seen Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods or LeBron James play, you’ll know that they are special athletes. They transcend their respective sports and for good reason.

They are top for a reason and due to their ability, they may think that they have a special ability to mould the game or course to their whims.

This is what Ed Smith believes Zinedine Zidane thought during the 2006 World Cup Final. Captaining the French team against Italy, it was to be Zidane’s final match before retiring from football.

He had returned from the French team after retiring from international duty and had been the player of the tournament in leading his unfancied side to the final.

In the opening salvos, he scored a penalty to put the French 1-0 up, which was cancelled out when the Italians scored later on.

Smith argues that because Zidane was used to operating on a higher level than most other players, he had become accustomed to games going his way.

With the match teetered on the edge, Zidane saw an effort on goal denied by a brilliant save from the Italian goalkeeper. He lets out a roar of anger at this outcome as it goes his narrative that it is his destiny to win the World Cup in his final match.

Smith believes this explains what happens next. Infamously, Italian defender Marco Materazzi utters something to Zidane, which was later believed to be derogatory toward his sister. In a fit of rage at the game not going the way he had envisioned, Zidane sticks his head into Materazzi’s chest and is sent off.

His narrative is destroyed, his team goes down to ten men and they lose the final in a penalty shootout. Zidane’s reaction was down to his belief that he could bend the match to his will because it had happened so many times before.

When it didn’t, he lost control and let his anger get the best of him. It’s an interesting theory and one that seems plausible if you consider how prone sports stars can be to tantrums and meltdowns. John MacEnroe and Serena Willians in tennis spring to mind as a few examples.

The curse of excelling in a particular sport may be that you become accustomed to things going your way that when they don’t, you don’t know how to deal with it. This is a lesson we could all take heed of in our daily lives.

It can also lead to problems if you’re not in the right mental state to handle setbacks. The tragic tale of Robert Enke in A Life Too Short is a case in point. When things go against elite performers they can also spiral down if they are that way inclined.

This feeling of a loss of control can be hard to deal with.

What Sport Tells Us About Life review

This What Sport Tells Us About Life summary has looked at an intriguing book by the former English cricketer, Ed Smith, on what we can learn from sport.

It’s an interesting read and one that will open your eyes to the life of an elite sportsman. It’s one a lot of us dream of as children, but one we often look at through rose-tinted glasses.

The reality is somewhat different. It’s not all perfect, as Zidane’s last match shows. When you’re that good and things don’t go the way you intend, that can be disheartening.

In some ways, this book nails a lot that is wrong with sport in the modern world. One is that we pay probably give too much credence to sports stars, they are human like the rest of us.

While Smith makes an interesting point that market forces are making sport less competitive, as evidenced by the sheer number of teams that have won consecutive league titles in Europe’s top football leagues.

My only disappointment with What Sports Tells Us About Life is that it wasn’t longer. It’s a short book and I do feel that Smith could expand on some of his points and make different ones too.

Still, it’s a good book and one you’ll enjoy if you’re a sports fan.

Who should read What Sport Tells Us About Life?

Anyone that is interested in sport in any way will enjoy reading this book. It will make you look at sport in a different way and consider some burning questions.

Even if you don’t like sport, I think you’ll find this book to be an interesting read due to the questions it raises and their relevance to our lives.