The Compassionate Player

There is a very famous scene from the ‘Living with Lions’ documentary, about the British and Irish Lions 1997 Tour of South Africa. Within it, assistant coach Jim Telfer remarks, ‘there are two kinds of rugby players boys, there is honest ones and the rest’. He continues by stating, in his own unique way, that the honest player gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and says, ‘I am going to get better…he doesn’t complain about the food or the beds, or the referees or all these sorts of things….these are just peripheral things that weak players are always complaining about…the dishonest player’. Telfer goes further to compare such honesty to British and Irish people abroad – only happy with the sun and failing to see any further good a different place can offer. His speech is a great piece of sporting TV and rugby history – it also occurred not long after rugby went professional in 1995, with that particular Lions tour representing the link between old and new rugby eras. I really enjoy watching Telfer’s speech but feel that if it was to happen now, 25 years later, it may be called ‘The Compassionate Player’. I use the term compassion as psychologist Paul Bloom does, to mean how we care about another person. Indeed, the latin of compassion means to ‘suffer with’ – its trying to place the experiences of others as equal worth with our own. 

The reason I link compassion back to Telfer’s ‘honest player’ is the common focus, not of our own personal interests or wants, but looking to how we can also care for others around us. In essence, ensuring the development of ‘we’ as more important than ‘me’. As psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues have illustrated, caring in any relationship is not simply about ‘talk’ or an arm around the shoulder. Care, therefore, cannot be lip service but rather something we do – in sport this may mean how you look after shared spaces, helping others with a skill, noticing when a team member is low or making sure you get your own work done so as not to hold up others. To express compassion then is to care for the welfare of others, but also for the bigger picture the collective is trying to create. As a professional rugby player once remarked to me about his relationship with his club, ‘I’d be gutted with myself if I came in and treated…the guy cleaning the track, if I just threw a water bottle, and just left it for him to pick up…that would be the worse thing I could do here. I’d rather play terrible than walk in and someone was to say “Barry, how are you doing?” and to just walk past them…it may sound a bit much but I would be genuinely disappointed in myself’. ‘Barry’ here highlights that to show compassion for others and the setting is a crucial part of playing rugby. 

With players, or within clubs, we then need to take up Telfer’s suggestion and ask how do we foster compassion that ensures we see beyond our own individualistic wants. Gottman’s work focuses specifically on married couples, but we can learn a lot in terms of building relationships generally. He advises building a ‘Sound Relationship House’ – this involves creating shared meaning (formal and informal rituals), exploring sporting dreams together (talking honestly about aspirations), being able to repair and deescalate conflict, developing a ‘positive sentiment override’ (the positives we perceive in a setting overrides the negative – as Telfer suggested), and developing shared admiration (scan for success from others, not failures). Specifically developing a ‘house’, or culture of compassion, I believe is not something that compromises performance, but enhances it. Sport is dripping with judgement – rankings, press evaluation, social media, deselection and so much more. If ever there was an industry in need of compassion, it is sport. I often compare this industry to drilling through concrete – it is high pressure, stressful and demanding on those involved. Like the metaphorical water that cools down the drill, compassion ‘takes the heat’ out of such judgement and expectation. Telfer illustrated to the Lions players in 1997 that being honest was a team first focus – to be compassionate extends this to a care first focus. Without caring for ourselves, others, and the project we wish to create, it reduces sport to the instrumental – we are simply going through the motions. 

Worth a read: 

Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. London, The Bodley Head.

Gottman, J. M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. London, W. W. Norton & Company.

See Jim Telfer’s speech in full here.