Lessons from the sports field

published on 15 Jan 2014

It is no secret that I am a sports fan, and that I am an avid Manchester United supporter. So, it would not surprise many to hear that, on being given the opportunity to watch them play at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day, I grabbed hold of it with rather indecent alacrity.

Many of you will know that my beloved Reds were beaten that day by Tottenham Hotspur. I was seated at the Stretford End – traditionally, the source of the most vocal support. Some of the fans around me blamed the referee; some, rather unreasonably, in my opinion, vented their frustration at the Spurs players. (I cannot describe the aggressive passion with which this ranting was expressed.) However, I saw things rather differently to many of my fellow supporters.

I saw where the problem lay – it was not the referee, nor could it possibly be the uncooperative Spurs team who, despite the best (read: worst!) wishes of my fellow supporters, were not sticking to the script! No, my attention was on a team that seemed to have lost its hunger for victory, that was operating considerably below its potential, seemingly content, complacent, sated by its own success. The enthusiasm and energy, the drive and determination, the commitment and competitive edge that one would expect of champions was not there for the better part of the game. These only became evident when they conceded the second goal. I turned to my friend (a Spurs fan) and expressed my concern – calmly, I hasten to add – that they only started playing to something nearing their full potential when it was too late.

A fortnight ago at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s past triumphs appeared to have become a present barrier to working with total commitment for future success. (There is a strong parallel with the England cricket team and their approach to the recent Ashes series in Australia, but I believe I have made the point without having to inflict unnecessary pain!) The very heritage United celebrates appears to have become a hindrance to their drive for new accomplishments. They seemed to be in a “that will do nicely” mode rather than “that and better will do”!

On the way home from the match, my friend, the Spurs fan, told me an interesting story. It was about rowing, and I was relieved that we had moved off the topic of football given the outcome of the match. The story featured the British 8+ rowing team which participated in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and was in stark contrast to the Manchester United experience.

Up until 1998, the form of the rowing team had been dismal. They were ranked seventh and risked not even making the final even if they qualified for the event. In 1998, the team sat down to discuss their situation. They agreed that they had three options: 1.    They could continue as usual, and expect the same mediocre results; 2.    They could admit their mediocrity and give up rowing; 3.    They could do something completely different to effect a different result.

They chose the third option.

The “something different”? They agreed that for the next two years leading up to the Olympics, they would examine everything they did – individually and as a crew – with a “litmus-test” question: “Will it make the boat go faster?” They were diligent in following this rule. “If I go to the pub, will it make the boat go faster?” or “If I spend 70 minutes on the rowing machine, will it make the boat go faster?” And, despite overwhelming odds against them – which were epitomised by the British commentators expressing doubts during the race that they could win even when they were ahead – they won gold!

Their past failures were used as a springboard in their everyday to work with total commitment for the future success they wanted.

These two stories from the sporting world have significant lessons for us. It is vital that we refuse to let our triumphs be a barrier to future success and that we use our failures as springboards to future victory.

As we fast approach our 150th anniversary, as a territory, let us be wary of resting on our laurels, of being complacent about past success, about going through the motions, about losing our hunger for “even greater things”.

There are still people dying in the world out there who need Christ, let us make sure that we continue to be out there, in the middle of the muck which mires so many people, rather than standing on the parade ground looking smart. Let us drop the posing and get on with the practice of being whom we claim to be!

And, while we’re getting on with it, living on the edge, let us keep our focus sharp, by being diligent in applying our litmus test: “Will it make us fit for mission?”