Captain sensible

Middlesex skipper Ed Smith despises platitudinous sports celebs who work the 'motivational' circuit. His writings betray a subtler approach, says Simon Kuper.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

When Ed Smith was picked for England's cricket team in 2003, one newspaper asked: 'Could this be the brainiest man ever to play for England?' After Tonbridge School, Smith got a double-first in history from Cambridge, and did a stint at Harvard. In person, he isn't stupid either. Over a dinner of lamb, extra mash (for the carbs) and a medium-bodied Italian red, a few doors down from his Notting Hill flat, he talks about the 'co-operative subconscious', not a phrase often heard in the Long Room.

Smith, 30, captain of Middlesex, author of three books, and a sceptical student of sports psychology, may be the British sportsperson best placed to enliven the dismal field of athletes lecturing businesspeople on performance. His England career was terminated after only three Test matches in 2003 - horribly, in his final England innings, he was wrongly given out - but in county cricket in recent years only Surrey's Mark Ramprakash has scored more runs. Smith has achieved, and has thought hard about how to achieve.

He comes from a family of teachers. That may explain his propensity to analyse his sport for lessons, and his choice so far to put the lessons more into thoughtful books than into hasty corporate seminars. 'I already speak to schools and businesses,' he says. 'But I am extremely suspicious of cliche-ridden motivational speaking.'

Some sporting legends offer only platitudes: play to win, believe in yourself, bounce back, and so on. And although sport tends to be about motivating yourself for a big event, business is more about the daily grind. Smith is always analysing sporting experiences for wider lessons - his latest book is called What Sport Tells Us About Life. And the daily grind of county cricket may be the closest thing in sport to the daily grind of business. Here are some of Smith's sporting lessons, from his conversation and his books ...


Someone asked me the other day if I thought I was a natural captain, and of course I had to say: "Ask someone else." It would be stupid to blow your own trumpet as captain because it causes resentment, and it's not something you can ultimately prove, other than through results. I would say that to be successful as a captain you have to not only acknowledge that it's your neck on the block, but almost welcome that fact.

You're only ever one or two bad games away from questions being asked. And I like that. The biggest disappointment of my Test career, such as it was, was that it wasn't long enough for people to see that when things get nasty, I tend to play better. Last year, for example, we had a rocky start, the coach disappeared, and a couple of times as I left home I said to my girlfriend at 7.30 in the morning: "I've got to get a hundred today. That's the only thing I can do." And I did, I got three in a row.'


'There are times when people in a team are absolutely maddening, but you do love them. Love is the right word, because it doesn't necessarily mean "like". You love someone, and it's a family, isn't it? I think that, as captain, you can actually foster the love within yourself for other people. It's not what you say, it's what you think. When you're struggling, it's often because you're thinking bad thoughts, and that expresses itself as insincere praise. You have to solve your thinking patterns and think in more generous ways, without being blind to things that need to be addressed.

You can't just say: "Well, I don't like that guy, but I think he's a good player." That's not good enough. You have to be on everyone's journey. When I'm having problems getting through or getting the best out of people, sometimes I imagine they know what I'm thinking. Solve your thinking, rather than coming out with a more elegant set of words.'


'It's the hardest thing. I don't take it lightly. And I didn't take it lightly when I was dropped (from England). I think people need to know that you're not just coming up with the lines, but you're actually feeling it. But obviously you can't feel it so much that you can't play yourself.

If you were a politician and you thought about every person on every waiting-list in every hospital, you wouldn't be in a good position to make a decision. But if you didn't contemplate the pain of any patient on a hospital waiting-list, you wouldn't make a good decision either. So you're trying to take that right balance between detachment and empathy.'


'People are always going to criticise you in your own team, and that's fine. But when they're criticising you or the management too much, you've got an issue. I think bickering is an excuse mechanism. When people become too dependent on excuses it becomes self-destructive. What you've got to judge as captain is the distinction between inevitable low-level annoyance with the captain - which is absolutely fine - and an excuse culture.

Sometimes you just say: "Look, what is your problem? What is it that you're not getting that's going to help you play well?" What inhibits people from playing well, usually, is the feeling that something's inhibiting them from playing well. If they're focused on the fact that there isn't anything to worry about, then ... You've got to remove the obstacles to success.'


'Sports psychologists talk a lot about ambition. No-one ever talks about the dangers of too much ambition. Excessive ambition can cause impatience and crucial lapses of judgment. You're too keen to "do what it takes". So you say the right thing, even when it's the wrong thing. Looking for an opening batsman to eliminate risk and bat all day? "Yes, that's me, sir!" But it wasn't. I listened and changed too much, and I lost my own voice as a player.'


'I'm not sceptical of teambuilding. I'm sceptical of teambuilding coaches. You know, the ones who come in for a fee and start writing things like "There's no 'I' in Team" and that kind of rubbish on the blackboard.

We just had a great week in Portugal with Middlesex. Toby Radford, the coach, organised it. There was team-bonding, fitness, orienteering, Iron Man, and it was absolutely right and we enjoyed each other's company. It was a simple form of living. I have come to view those times when you just get up, go to work, enjoy each other's company, time out, have a bite to eat, drink, collapse in exhaustion, as precious.'


'Yes, winning teams do those things, but so do losing teams. I believe you build team spirit by the small, unremembered acts of kindness and of love - to borrow from Wordsworth. The tap on the shoulder that says more than words; staying on in the bar when you are bored and tired but one of your team mates is down and lonely; not giving pub-talk advice to players who are out of form ... Trying to rise above jealousy.'


'There are two types of success story at a high level in cricket. One is the over-performer, because something "gets him up". We've got some at Middlesex. They are, typically, quite laconic, find it hard to get up on a day-to-day level, no-one there, and on a big day they end up floating to the top of the circus. Scott Styris: very good big-match player, finds it hard day-in, day-out.

There's another type of big-match player who just gets used to being good. Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting (Australian Test players) are so good at batting; they train to be good so that when their big day comes around, it's another day to be good. Some people are just prolific and stay prolific. That's what happened to Goochy (Graham Gooch), eventually.

What do these second types have? They have an unslakeable hunger, every day. They don't rely on external things to get them up. Lots of people bullshit about that, about "needing a big game". People give you that excuse when you get older. They say: "Oh, he needs something to get the best out of him." Well, he can get the best out of himself. Think stronger.

Ponting and Hayden, they're the same all the time. They're hungry all the time. One thing I've learned: you have to get your mental defiance in before things go wrong. You can't just cruise in and then wait for a couple of low scores and say: "Right, I'm going to get it together now." You've almost got to say: "Imagine I'm getting it together before there's a problem. I'm actually going to get that defiant, angry head on that's been wronged."

Comfortable is not where you want to be. You can't get complacent. You can't start thinking: "I've got a nice house, I've got a nice girlfriend, I've written three books, and I've got 12,500 runs." Every day's the day you prove yourself.'


'Don't apologise - for your accent, your education, your good fortune. It fools no-one and demeans yourself ... Almost always, teams eventually learn to love people who are cheerfully themselves, but they will never like you if you are pretending to be someone else ...

'I think Mike Brearley (a predecessor as Middlesex captain, also with a double-first from Cambridge, who led a team of mostly working-class men) managed to transcend the things that often divide people. He was an independent, somehow hard to place. And I wonder if that isn't key to leadership. Being pigeonholed somehow narrows your reach.

In the dressing-room, the people who can really help you are the ones who normally don't respond well to captains, or to people like you. So don't be people like anyone.

Meanwhile, the empty corporate seminars by ex-athletes show no signs of dying out. Perhaps these are best understood as a holiday for business managers and the chance to meet a star - the adult equivalent of children queuing with autograph books.

But Smith offers something more. He has thought about what's wrong with many of the existing sporting lessons for business. He e-mails from a small dressing-room in Chelmsford after a hard day's play:

'Case studies - particularly ones that emphasise your own mistakes and intractable problems - are far better than blanket statements of "positivity". The first thing any leader - or legislator - has to do is work out what cannot be fixed. Then they can devote their time to the issues that are worth it. If you can insightfully describe and analyse transferable situations, your audience can draw its own conclusions.' mt

Ed Smith: What Sport Tells Us About Life - Bradman's average, Zidane's kiss and other sporting lessons is published by Viking at £14.99.

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