In Ford v Ferrari – the Oscar-nominated film that tells the story of Le Mans 1966 – there’s a memorable scene where driver Ken Miles looks out over a racing circuit at dusk. “Out there is the perfect lap,” Miles tells his young son. “No mistakes, every gear change, every corner, perfect. Can you see it?” “I think so,” his son replies. “Most people can’t,” says Miles.
During this sporting hiatus I’ve been pondering perfection, and the discipline it takes to achieve it, born of the sense that everyone around the world is using their Covid-enforced break more productively than me. I picture writers hunched over laptops, artists at easels, chefs in kitchens, all finalising the masterpieces that will enrich our worlds on their return. Meanwhile in backyards and garages, ranks of mini-Messis and Serenas and Steve Smiths clock up their 10,000 hours, while I perfect the length of my afternoon nap.
Blessed with unexpected time to fill, which could be devoted to the minute daily improvement of any skill I chose, I have found my mind more scattered and distractable than ever. I’ve felt overwhelmed, and decided to pursue something more realistic, namely the rewatching of every Marvel movie in chronological order.
We know that high achievers and sports stars are made of different stuff from the rest of us – it’s why we put them on pedestals. And yet a lifetime of interviewing them has impressed on me how very normal most are, how ordinary their daily routines, how relatable their struggles. True, they are far better at self-discipline – but it doesn’t always come naturally to them. Yes, they have perfection in their sights – but they have to learn how to stop it paralysing them, too.
Whatever the marker – Federer’s forehand, Tiger’s tee-shot, or Simone Biles’s beam dismount – the pursuit of perfection is always a paradox. The more you desire it, the more dangerous its lure. In golf, the difference between winning and losing can be a matter of millimetres. Propelling a ball hundreds of yards into a four-and-a-quarter-inch hole is a process built on biomechanical precision – and yet, in the context of gameplay, it’s bested by psychology. Why else do players suffer dramatic collapses when they’re top of the leaderboard?
This is where sports science is making its biggest advances. In the 1990s, the quest for perfection focused on fitness training: footballers who once viewed the ice bath as somewhere to keep the beers cold were now expected to use it to deal with excess lactic acid. The new millennium brought us big data – a wave of analytics that could illuminate the tiniest of weaknesses. In 2020, sport faces its final frontier – the mind.
“It’s the one element which you’ve never been able to measure,” says Jeremy Snape, the former England cricketer whose company, Sporting Edge, provides psychological-based consultancy to high-performance athletes and business organisations. “You couldn’t measure the fact that when I walked out to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar my belief in my ability was 32% but Darren Gough’s was 98%. But these human challenges – courage, adaptability, instinctive decision-making under pressure – are fundamental.”
As professional sport becomes ever bigger business, the pressure on its participants increases exponentially. Sport follows a binary narrative – creating heroes or villains – and the result can be paralysing. “Our brains are built for survival,” says Snape, “so often our primitive instinct is to protect our self-esteem rather than take a risk and go for glory.”
In other words, set yourself the goal of perfection and you’ll worry more about the consequences of falling short. “Perfectionism can be good for driving your work ethic and your attention to detail. But it can also cause stress, procrastination and even avoidance – because you’re afraid of not achieving it. The really great sportspeople have the courage to throw themselves into any endeavour with 100% commitment, knowing that it’s going to be imperfect.”
There was no better example last year than Ben Stokes. From the nerve-shredding World Cup final to the greatest Test comeback of all time at Headingley, Stokes snatched improbable victories not by playing perfect innings but by believing that, as long as he was at the crease, his team still stood a chance.
Perfection can work best as the ever-elusive prize that pushes performers to peak preparedness and it’s a theory supported by the research of the American psychologist Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset has become a must-read for athletes. Dweck argues that it is limiting to see talent as a fixed, innate “gift”, something you have or you don’t, because such thinking encourages people to show competence in areas where they’ve already demonstrated it.
Instead, Dweck outlines a “growth mindset” which asserts that each of us is learning incrementally every day, becoming wiser and more skilled as a result of both our successes and failures. Its exponents tend to meet uncertainty and new challenges with more courage – because they are not looking to protect their pride.
The message resonates in all walks of life. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re pitching business sales or playing an international rugby match, you have to believe that you’ve got the ability to learn quickly,” says Snape. That, he says, is the new competitive advantage.
When we emerge from lockdown, of course, all of us will be adapting to a new world. Maybe something we can learn from sport, in our new environment, is not to feel overcome by the magnitude of the challenges ahead of us but to throw ourselves into them with less fear of failure. Or maybe it’s a simple reminder to stop framing sportspeople as heroes and antiheroes. After all, if I want wonder-women and super villains, I’ve got Marvel.