The Best is yet to come

Following yesterday’s post, I was interested to read a story in today’s Guardian about Ulster rugby’s European Cup semi-final and in particular that of their hooker Rory Best. Once again I could empathise with his story. Best is Ireland’s most capped hooker but he’s had his fair share of disappointments and set backs as the article reveals. In fact, some of the setbacks have contributed to thoughts of quitting:

…there was a time when I was enjoying it more than rugby. I wasn’t looking forward to games. It just wasn’t as fun as it used to be.

I know these feelings. I have the same about my own job. I even have the same thoughts about heading out on the bike as well. For best, the game – his job – had become all-consuming:

if we lost it would have destroyed me for the whole weekend. I couldn’t let it go.

I know how he feels, I can almost hear the inner dialogue that must have been going on in Best’s head. I’ve been there too.

But it’s not a story of doom and gloom. In fact, it’s a heartening story of how you can have different focusses in life, how these can provide distractions (if that is the right word) and how together they provide balance in life. As Best says:

When I get home now I drive to the farm, the gate closes behind me and, apart from my throwing, that’s rugby over with. I’m not as wound up.

And, as well as the usually quoted life balancing elements of family, farming plays its role. A European Cup final is for many rugby players a pinnacle of their career but not necessarily for Best:

The week of the final coincides with the prestigious Balmoral Show where Best hopes his prize bull, Logie Lustre, will conquer all in the Aberdeen Angus category. In an ideal world he would be up at 5.30am to wield the black soap and brush down the beast ahead of a different type of sporting contest.

Sounds like a handful to me but it seems to keep Rory Best happy and balanced. There’s definitely something for me to learn from that.


Put Down Again

Well that stirred up a few comments then. When I wrote my last post I was anticipating a response but not quite the response I received. Thank you to those of you who provided some technical insight around horse racing and particularly the welfare of horses. Whilst I understand the logic for the decisions made, I remain sceptical as to why in a multi-million pound industry the easy way out is ll too often followed. That debate will rumble on and it is not the heart of the issue that I was highlighting. Revisiting the post I can see I’d put the emphasis on the wrong detail. So let’s try again.

In Put Down, I was trying to highlight the way in which disposability seems all too easy in life unless there is some value in the thing which might be disposed and at the same time the almost arbitrary way in which that value is bestowed.  My urge to write it was from personal reflection. In all honesty, many is the time that I feel on the scrapheap myself.  Having pursued a traditional career I often now feel rudderless, put to one side – sometimes in cotton wool, sometimes in a bin liner – and given up for, if not useless then could have been better. A host of contextual factors shape this but I can’t help feeling in a last chance saloon far too often.  What do I do now? How do I reshape my life?

This is a theme – a series of recurrent questions – that has sprung up remarkably often this week. Yesterday I read Daniel Friebe’s interview with Italian cyclist Ivan Basso (unfortunately only available in hard copy in this month’s Procycling magazine). Some of you will know that Basso was the next Italian Grand Tour star until his admission to associating with the wrong “sports doctors” led to a 2 year ban. Coming back from that ban he has shown glimmers of the form which gave rise to those great expectations but has all too often failed to reach those heights again. Put aside your views on doping, riders who have doped and the appropriate length of punishment, there is something more important here. He is 34. His best years are arguably behind him. He made a misdemeanour, paid the penalty and now has a second chance. Basso comes across as a character shaped by his past, as a rider who won the Giro d’Italia, who’d finished second in the Tour de France. A rider who was expected to fulfill his career by taking the big prizes.  That he hasn’t, that time is running out, that he seems ill at ease with what that means was a familiar tale to me reflecting on my own position. Friebe outlines in the article a series of choices which Basso might make, reshaping his career in a variety of ways – again, familiar territory – but Basso seems most at ease talking not about cycling but his new project owning a Blueberry farm. A lesson for me and others (though he does have some resource to fall back on).

Today, Barcelona FC announced that their coach, Pep Guardiola, announced what had been long anticipated: he was leaving his post as manager. Guardiola is 41. He’s been manager of the Barcelona for 4 seasons. In that time he’s won the Spanish cup once, the Spanish league three times, the European Cup twice and the World Club Championship twice. An enormously successful though short managerial career. In various media outlets there was speculation about impact of the job on his life, Sid Lowe’s article spelling it out quite clearly. And today enough was enough. Why? Because Barcelona isn’t so much a football club, its an all consuming passion, a quasi-flag bearer for an autonomous region/wannabe nation. It’s motto is “Més que un club” – More than a club. And for Guardiola the vultures have been circling – they’ve lost the league title to bitter rival Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, then they lost a supposedly unlossable European Cup Semi-final to faltering Chelsea.  As is so common in football as elsewhere, memories are often short and despite past glories there is the expectation of more to come. Yet for Guardiola I can’t help feeling that there is major personal question of what to do next. He hit the heights so young, what is there left to do? Where does he go from here?

Where this takes us I am not quite sure. For me, the reflection on these two is prompted by the similarities of the environment in which I am, where world class has been the baseline, where the job is almost expected to be your life and where deviation from these parameters is seen as odd. For those looking in from the outside making a change, moving  and changing career seems like the obvious course of action. Being in that position is somewhat different with all the inherent pressures, both real and self-created. Yet there still remains the question of what to do. Feelings of low, diminished or little worth in one position can be a brake on moving forward, undermining confidence and seemingly limiting choices. And whilst work isn’t everything, unfortunately most of us have to and it therefore becomes a prominent feature of life. Admittedly improving life balance would help but being happy (happier) in work would help.

So whilst my initial post was about our disposable attitude to so many things in life, it was really underpinned by my own anxieties and fears. Hopefully this made some sense.

Putting the “i” in team

Something that has been eating away at me for a while is a feeling of loneliness that pervades society these days. Whilst the initial reaction of many will be to think and assert that they are not alone, I would lay down this challenge: in order to be recognised do you have to do more on your own or as part of a team?  A tough question when you start to think about it. Just to ease the seriousness for one moment, this question reminds me of an episode of The IT Crowd in which Moss and Roy feel left out of the celebration of the end of a project that they delivered and where Denholm thanks everyone but the people who deserve the thanks. Quite justifiably the boys from the basement feel hard done by. But ironically this clip also highlights they way in which others can be thanked.

For me this thought process has been ongoing during my return to work. Regular readers will have followed the deficiencies of the organisation I work for in their recognition of human resource needs and the way in which success is a misunderstood commodity.  This forms the context in which my thinking has further formed.  It has become increasingly evident to me that your contribution in this environment is measured by your individual achievements rather than your contribution to a team. I wondered if this was just me, whether it was a product of the institution or the sector that I worked in but there is growing evidence that this might just be a wider trend.

Measuring success is always going to be difficult but the metrics by which we achieve this have become increasingly individualised and ignore the contribution one person may have made to another’s accomplishment(s).  What finally made the connection for me were two articles which appeared on in the last 2 weeks. This week the UCI have announced the all important World Rankings which determine the number of starters each nation can have in the UCI Mens Road Race in Copenhagen in September.  The ranking of each nation is determined by the number of points riders from those countries have scored on the World Tour*. With a course that is believed to suit Mark Cavendish, Team GB needed to qualify as many riders as possible. By being ranked 6th they qualified for 9 starters. Only, they can only start 8 riders because only 8 British riders have scored World Tour points. On the face of it, fine. Luxembourg are in a similar position only their pints have been scored by only 2 riders, the Schlecks.  But where as Luxembourg have a lot fewer riders at the highest level of the sport (as noted in the article), Great Britain have a fair few more. And in gaining some of those qualifying points, other riders are likely to have contributed to the racing. For example, the 181 points that Bradley Wiggins has scored are not just the result of his effort alone but have been secured through the hard work of domestiques, quite a few of whom are British and who have not scored points themselves.

Which brings me neatly on to the role of the domestique.  For the non-cyclists reading this, a domestique is as the name suggests a servant to the team. They are the riders who, as HTC have shown for Cavendish, chase down the break so their sprinter has a chance of winning the race. They are the riders who, rarely seen by the TV cameras, go back to the support cars to drop of excess layers of race clothing from their team leaders and fill their jerseys with bottles and food to bring back to the front.  Without them racing would look a whole lot different for the stars. And yet there has always been some unwritten value of this role to the extent that those riders who had made this their career role have been known as super-domestiques, for example Team Sky DS Sean Yates.  And so reading’s piece on Dimitri Champion a fortnight ago added further fuel to my thoughts. Champion was French national champion (if you can forgive the alliterative pun) 2 years ago. Since that win he has suffered a spate of injuries and now has no ranking points to his name.  Just as ranking points are important to nations, they are one of the means for professional teams to gain access to cycling’s premiership, the World Tour. Riders with points are valuable, riders without points it would seem are increasingly seen as a liability.  Yet again, the ranking system, the metric used to measure success, fails to acknowledge the contributions of others in non points scoring roles. It is an issue discussed in Richard Moore’s book Sky’s the Limit, where Team Sky principle Dave Brailsford discusses the shortcomings of ranking systems based solely on points on the line and how any system can recognise the water carrying, the break chasing and the pacing back of leaders after a fall/mechanical.

And this brings me full circle. Whilst there are lone voices like Brailsford’s intelligently questioning the system, much of the disquiet is muttering and there are few alternatives put forward.  Until then we all make our contributions but increasingly feel less satisfied with what we do, especially when part of larger entities and organisations.  For me this means contributing to research yet feeling I am not valued as much as the person who writes a paper based on the findings of that research.  No longer do we play to our strengths nor a jack of all trades, we must be a master of all trades.  I have no easy answers and of course much of it comes down to interpersonal dynamics. But I still can’t help feeling we’ve gone wrong somewhere and have taken a big step to focussing on the “i” in team and do so at our peril.


*There are many flaws with this system which deserve a blog or book in their own right and which I will not tackle here.