If you don’t know David Epstein’s work, then you should — he wrote The Sports Gene, which is well worth your time, and now has a new book out, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
I heard Epstein discuss this book on a Longform podcast recently, when he said that one of his working titles was Roger and Tiger — as in, a comparison between someone like Roger Federer, who played a lot of different sports before focusing on tennis with some success, and Tiger Woods, who was famously focused on golf to the exclusion of everything else, almost, from the time he could walk.
So far so good.
But then Epstein said something really interesting about the reaction to The Sports Gene when it was published a few years ago.
“A thing that started to affect me a little bit,” he said. “I started getting invited to sports conferences after The Sports Gene, a world I didn’t know existed.
“All of a sudden I was getting invited and asking, why are these people interested in me?
“And I found they were interested in performance, whether it’s a chef or a pilot or an athlete or whatever, how those high achievers attack their problems, so I’d be invited and people would ask me questions about their HR policy, or hiring and recruiting.
“And I’d say, ‘that’s really interesting and I’m glad it (book) resonated with you enough to ask those questions — but at the same time I think in many of these cases sports can be a bad environment from which to extrapolate to a lot of other things’.
“Sport is zero-sum. It’s totally controlled, there’s a lot of repetitive patterns in a very constrained environment.
“So sometimes I think when we extrapolate things from these zero-sum set-ups, like sports, the extrapolation doesn’t work that well in the rest of the world.”
In that minute or two Epstein articulated perfectly a vague but nagging notion that circulated in my head for quite a while.
Why is it sportspeople of all stripes pop up at these kinds of conferences and summits when often what they have to share is by definition worthless to their listeners?
(I differentiate here between the entertainment/after-dinner circuit and the conferences Epstein refers to, though not everybody can make that distinction. I remember the HR manager of a multinational company telling me about the time she refused to pay a former rugby international for a presentation that was more suited to a boozy club dinner than the mid-level managers at a mid-afternoon work conference.)
There’s a further distinction to be drawn here, because there are plenty of sports and coaching conferences at which managers and trainers and players could make valuable contributions.
But those other gigs, telling managers how to handle staff rather than players, how to realise potential in an office or sales force... if your expertise was generated within a sport, with its framework of random rules, then how can that expertise be applied to the most Darwinian exercise of them all: business, red in tooth and claw?
Epstein, to give him his due, didn’t just say sports was a bad fit, but “in many of these cases sports can be a uniquely bad environment from which to extrapolate”, and it’s a premise easily proven.
If you feel someone isn’t putting it in while training for a big event, you can drop them; if you feel someone at work isn’t putting it in, try firing them.
Apologies, by the way, to anyone of my acquaintance making a few bob on this circuit. Nothing personal.
I’ll go further: if anyone wants to hear the musings of a ‘thought leader’ on why they shouldn’t bring sportspeople to their conference, I can be contacted at the email address below.
Because it happened last weekend I was inclined to leave it go, but then I thought again.
I refer to Zak Moradi, the Leitrim hurler who chipped in with a point from play in the Lory Meagher Cup final last week. Moradi came to Leitrim 17 years ago from a Kurdish area on the Iran-Iraq border.
This is one of those stories that you can become desensitised to within seconds, almost, because it gets so much airplay, but it deserves some reflection.
It was significant that in most of Moradi’s post-game comments he focused on the game itself, the twists and turns which brought Leitrim to their extra-time victory over Lancashire.
That’s the normality, the kind of self-deprecation you expect from someone who started on the bench in an All-Ireland final (“Even when we went four or five points down we just kept at it and kept the head and as they say, keep the good men on the bench!”).
But the background story was a powerful one in a terrible week for people trying to make a better life in other countries. Congrats to Zak and his teammates on their win, and on brightening a grim few days.
I see that Martin O’Neill got the heave-ho as Nottingham Forest manager last week. If I had a euro for every Irish person who said/thought/tweeted/texted ‘now you know what he’s really like’, or some derivative of same, I’d be a wealthy man.
However, I saw some accounts of O’Neill’s time as manager that suggested some players didn’t bother to warm down after games. Or couldn’t make it to the team bus on time to get to a game.
Without wanting to sound like an old codger cursing the young people (too late, too late — everybody), how can players like that be managed? If you get to that level in a professional sport — and there can hardly be a more competitive professional sports environment than world soccer, given the numbers alone — how can you just decide to switch off, to numb the drive and desire that drove you up the ladder?
I would have thought that the habits that accrue in long years of eating properly, napping for energy, staying in nights, hydrating religiously and so on would be difficult to drop, but clearly I’m wrong. Granted, there may be the occasional physical freak who can just coast along on the genes and a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, but surely the vast majority of professionals make it by dint of savage dedication?
Or am I just being naive?
At the Limerick hurling press call last week a couple of gents slipped a free book into my bag, which obviously made us friends for life.
At Last is a chronicle of Limerick’s success in last year’s All-Ireland championship and was written by Ciarán Crowe (former principal of Patrickswell NS) and Joe Lyons (principal of Ballybrown NS).
The lads have produced Green and White, the Limerick GAA magazine, for over two decades, and this latest production is a rewarding read for anyone with an interest in hurling, not just Limerick hurling.
Sorry it took so long for me to get around to it, but hope it goes well for all concerned.
For plenty of learnings and effortless naivete try michael. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dalo's Hurling Show: Limerick obliterate Tipp, Davy's checkmate, So unKilkenny. Laois embody Eddie
Anthony Daly reviews the hurling weekend with Brian Hogan, TJ Ryan and Ger Cunningham. In association with Renault - car partners of the GAA.