A guide to everyday psychology


Old White Men – Emma Raducanu

… and a bit of Gareth Southgate…

In my first post on the subject of ‘old, white men’, I highlighted how bias and prejudice is two-way traffic. Old white men might hold prejudices – but they are also the victims of prejudice.

There was an interesting example of this published in The Guardian (5/July/21).

It concerned the Wimbledon withdrawal of 18-year old tennis prodigy, Emma Raducanu on medical grounds. She was experiencing stomach pains and difficulty in breathing.

John McEnroe, three times Wimbledon champion, was co-commentating for the BBC. He speculated that her problem was the pressure of the situation. This fourth-round match was being played out before millions of expectant spectators. The match had been delayed for several hours and Ms Raducanu, 18, was not experienced in this high octane arena.

According to The Guardian, McEnroe was ‘slammed’ by Ms Raducanu’s opponent and by medical doctors for his comments. One doctor, Alex George, tweeted: “I didn’t realise John McEnroe was medically qualified or that he has X-ray vision!”

Reading the article past the headline, it would seem that McEnroe was deliberately misrepresented. The story that the journalists seemed to want to tell was that of a mean spirited old man making sexist judgements.

An alternative view is that he was merely using his vast experience of the tennis world to guess what might have happened. And, as Ms Raducanu’s team later confirmed, he was more or less exactly right. As Arthur Ashe once observed: “You’re never really playing your opponent. You’re playing yourself.”

Elite Level Sport

The problem faced by Ms Raducanu is common among high performance athletes (actually, it is a problem that applies to all of us in every walk of life, but it is particularly important at elite levels of sport).

At elite level, it is not technical skill that makes the difference between the greatest players and those in the tiers below them. At this level, success depends on non-sporting factors like big-match experience, concentration, self-belief, determination and a mental ‘hardness’.

This latter is the necessary and overwhelming ‘desire to win’ because, for players at elite level, it is no longer a game. They must hate losing an encounter. Arsene Wenger, one time manager of Arsenal football club typified this. Often grumpy in post-match interviews, he hated losing. McEnroe himself hated losing because, as in many other walks of life, you don’t get to the very top without hating to lose.

I’ve never met Ms Raducanu, of course. But I’d be willing to bet my house that behind the beautiful smile she is very steely indeed.

Age, experience and maturity

These psychological elements to elite-level success are (mostly) things that develop and improve with age, learning experiences and maturity. Technical skill alone cannot replace ‘mind-set’ in any sport/human endeavour that requires endurance.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that our minds do not fully develop emotionally until long after they have developed intellectually. And performance at high level requires emotional control as well as intellectual and/or physical skills. This is not to say that people aged 14-20 cannot be superstars. But – broadly speaking – even high-performing teenagers like Ms Raducanu will get better as they get older.

It is why tennis players who reach the very pinnacle of success (for example Federer, Borg, Navratilova, or Billie Jean King) often remain competitive long after they have passed their peak of physical fitness. Alongside technical skill, experience and desire to win, they play at the optimal balance of mental/emotional engagement.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The importance of this optimal emotional engagement was summarised in the “Yerkes-Dodson Law” as long ago as1908.

As tension/arousal/anxiety increase so does performance – up to a point. Then, as tension increases performance decreases. We need an optimal level of engagement – not too much and not too little. And this is – probably – why Ms Raducanu started hyper-ventilating.

There’s no shame in it – and nothing that McEnroe said implied that there was. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It can happen to anyone. The difference between super elite and journey men elite is how they deal with such setbacks in the moment. Lose a match point? Forget it. On to the next.

It is – quite probably – why Gareth Southgate (and later Bukayo Saka, Jordan Sancho and Marcus Rashford) missed penalties that they would almost never miss normally. But would that failure cause them to miss the next one? Almost certainly not.

McEnroe didn’t need medical qualifications to make his hunch. And he wasn’t being a sexist, white old man. He’s just been around elite sports long enough to have seen it all before.

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