“The problem, like most problems in life, probably had to do with his footwork” – Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
I’ve just finished reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, both an excellent campus novel and a perceptive insight into sporting excellence and failure. Its central plotline concerns Henry Skrimshander, an enormously gifted shortstop whisked off to an elite East Coast college on the basis of his baseball ability, immersed in the world of varsity, literature and male bonding. Henry’s autodidactic obsession, polished by his teammates and immersive training, seems to be leading him inexorably to a glittering career and national fame, until one stray throw leads him into a grim spiral of doubt, introspection and choking. He trains harder and harder, only to find it impossible to throw well when he needs to, with time to think in a crucial situation.
As a cricket fan, the sporting scenario presented by Harbach perhaps inevitably led me to think of Jonathan Trott’s recent troubles. Henry’s problems are technically quite different – the skills required of a shortstop are more like those of cricket’s backward point, but with the consistency and regularity of a wicketkeeper – and more comparable to the bowlers down the years who have found themselves afflicted by the yips. Moreover, Trott has, quite rightly, kept the exact details of his condition (if it is one) private, making comparison difficult. But, from a sporting perspective, one can see where Trott and Henry intersect: failure despite exceptionally high levels of precision and preparation. For those who have known little but success, failure can seem inexplicable.
The answer for some, such as Trott, if reports are to be believed, and Henry in the novel, is greater intensity of training. Success comes from working hard and incessantly; failure, therefore, must come from a lack of preparation and practice. Trott is well known for his tics at the crease. Keep working hard, and the flaws will resolve themselves. But if this fails, what next? Try to not try? As Harbach puts it, “you could only try so hard not to try too hard before you were right back round to trying too hard”. Guidance from the media, teammates, coaches is so often the same platitudes repeated ad infinitum, doing little to calm the churning mind. Other influences, such as the relentless international cricket calendar for Trott or the fear of leaving college for Henry, amplify the importance of the success that seems so distant.
Each case is obvious different, and the comparison between different sports, real and imagined, creates a barrier. But those who dismiss Jonathan Trott’s recent break as cowardly or weak would do well to read The Art of Fielding. The obsession that leads to sporting success sometimes needs to be tempered, breaking the vicious circle of “trying to not try too hard”. If a rest, time away from the game and his technique, is the best thing for Trott, not just as a cricketer but as a person, we should give him all the space he needs. Sometimes the footwork needs to be forgotten, not blamed.