Why do opposing professional cyclists help each other? Why is punching tolerated in rugby but not in soccer? Every sports fan will have pondered the answers to these questions while watching top level athletes battle it out at major tournaments and competitions.
David Papineau has the answers, he is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London, as well as being a keen amateur sportsman. In his new book Knowing the Score he combines sport and philosophy to answer some of sports eternal questions.
Why do sports competitors choke?
Top-level athletes are mentally as well as physically special. They are able to screen out all distractions – the crowd, the umpires, their personal problems – and concentrate exclusively on their game plan.
But sometimes the big occasion proves too much for them. If you are about to win your first golf major, or an Olympic gold medal, it is hard not to start thinking about how victory – or defeat – will change your life. And this in itself will make you perform badly. You become distracted. Anxious thoughts fill your head, you lose focus on your performance, and the chance of victory slips away.
How can Roger Federer decide which shot to play in less than half a second?
In fast-reaction sports like tennis and cricket the top athletes have less than half a second to see where the ball is going. That’s about as long as it takes to blink. So there’s no time to for thinking once the ball is on its way. The shot can only be a reflex reaction.
Still, Roger Federer will play differently against different opponents, or in different tactical situations. The explanation is that he is working to a pre-chosen game plan. Of course not everything can be premeditated – he still needs to suit his shots to where his opponent has hit the ball. But which shots he uses will be part of a plan – attack his backhand , maybe, or use a lot of topspin – that he has worked out before the match, or in the breaks between games.
It’s as if he has a number of apps to choose between – routines that he has learned in many hours of training – and then he selects one according to the state of the match. Once he has chosen an app, he can open it and let it run automatically, allowing it to control his instantaneous reactions to his opponent’s shots.
Why do opposing professional cyclists help each other?
I used to think cycle racing was boring, but that was before I understood the complex tactics involved. These all arise because it takes about 50 per cent more energy to push through the wind yourself than to ‘draft’ in the slipstream of another rider.
So if a group of riders tries to escape the pack, they will take turns in the front of the ‘breakaway’, even if they are from opposing teams, to maximize their chance of arriving at the finish clear of the sprinters in the pursuing pack.
And the riders in the pack behind will then also start to cooperate, to improve their chances of catching the breakaway. All in all, cycling is a wonderful model for the way that, even in competitive contexts, it often pays to cooperate.
Why does Test cricket run in families?
Nearly one quarter – 154 out of 655 – England Test cricketers have a father, brother or uncle who also played for England. And it’s the same with the other cricket countries: think of the Chappells, Headleys, Pollocks, Hadlees and Kahns (and that’s just a selection of families with three internationals—there are hundreds with two). Does this mean that there is some special gene for cricketing excellence? Not really.
Compare cricket with football, where family dynasties are fairly thin on the ground. There seems no reason, if you think of it, why genes should matter more in cricket than football. After all, the two sports call for pretty much the same physical types – lithe, agile, coordinated, sinewy, strong.
The real difference, surely, is that cricket depends on specialist training and facilities far more than football does.
So it is the environments that they inherit from their families, not the genes, that project the favoured sons into the English cricket team. The same logic applies more generally, in my view. In any walk of life, if you see children following closely in their parents’ footsteps, you can conclude that their environments are putting them there, not their genes.
Why is punching tolerated in rugby but not in soccer?
Different sports have different codes of fair play. In rugby and ice hockey, a modicum of honest fisticuffs is accepted, even encouraged, earning just a few minutes in the sin bin, whereas in football or tennis a raised fist will result in a multi-game ban.
Similarly, a cricketer claiming a catch that they haven’t made can be fined for bringing the game into disrepute, whereas in baseball even the best-behaved fielders do this. For the most part, however, it would be a mistake to view these differences as showing that some sports are more moral than others.
Rather, they are mainly just alternative conventions of proper behaviour, akin to the way that bowing is required in Japan, where shaking hands is called for in the west. Still, some sporting practices do amount to definite immorality.
Not all conventions are equally acceptable. In my view, faking an injury to get an opponent sent off is simply nasty, and would remain so even if all professional footballers did it. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” only takes us so far. We shouldn’t forget that the Romans practiced slavery.
The difference between acceptable local customs and downright immoral practices is an important one. Everybody who cares about sport has an interest in maintaining the distinction.