Friday, 14 June 2013

Musings on the Arts of Running, 'Keeping and Skiing

I’ve just finished reading a book… impressive, huh?Well heres the thing: it’s about sport, but NOT about running…
…having read seven of those already this year, I thought it was time to step back in time and embrace an earlier love of mine!

The book in question is Jonathan Wilson’s “The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper”. See, I used to be a ‘keeper, once upon a time. Not when I was really young: that’s when I was a right-back or right-winger, depending on the era. Not through any gift of speed, dribbling or tackling ability, rather because it’s easier to hide a hapless and hopeless case on the flank. I think I won three league titles whilst in A.C. Sammargheritese’s youth setup, although it’s hard to remember as I never started a game for them in five seasons. Given the side was blessed with some amazing players and would typically win games by at least five clear goals, I always found it baffling that they couldn’t give the likes of me (for I was not alone) the odd game here or there, say when the expectation (truly delivered upon) would be along the lines of an 8-0 victory… I mean, I wasn’t so bad as to put such an outcome in jeopardy… but there you go, ours is not to wonder why. Ours is to gerronwi’it, to turn up for training twice a week wearing our number 47 shirt and to carry on regardless… and I was already alreight at that back then.

It was in the third of those five seasons, I think, that I contemplated donning some cheap gloves and going in goal. Unsurprisingly, the team was also blessed with three good ’’keepers, but at least there wouldn’t be any running involved. I’d always get left behind on the runs that would be the starting point for any training session, before long succumbing to spleen pain and resorting to walking. Not that it was much of an issue, mind, given how badly I’d fair with ball drills anyway. I’d love to say my lack of stamina was the reason I couldn’t get a kick, but I’d be lying: I couldn’t get a kick because… well, I just couldn’t!

Alas, I never did get to don any gloves at Sammargheritese. My Dad expressed his reservations about me standing still in the cold and rain for hours on end. Whether those uncharacteristic reservations were genuine or whether that was just his polite way of suggesting that the goal is not the best place to hide a hopeless case, I honestly don’t know. Probably the latter, with the benefit of the hindsight and the lifelong knowledge that my Dad was and is a keen sportsman whose way weather rarely gets in. Either way, I kept on keeping on being hopeless elsewhere on the pitch. In training, that is – I couldn’t even get near the bench for matches! The only time I came on as a sub for any meaningful length of time was when Simone Sica, our regular right-winger, answered back to our coach in a game at Recco, whereby he was promptly subbed and yours truly came on. I still marvel to this day that I wasn’t in turn taken off before the final whistle, although at least I always was a polite boy.

Eventually, I did fulfill my destiny and end up in goal. I was around fifteen and finally got to stand between the sticks at some football camp in South Yorkshire. And let me tell you, I’m not bad in goal. It was too late for me to command a regular place anywhere, but several friends who’d witnessed my virtually total lack of skills in other positions have since thanked me for winning them games by turning up as a last-minute replacement. I was even once voted “Best Opposition Player” after a game for my church’s team, which in itself may not sound that amazing until you put it in the context of an 8-3 defeat. So yes, I’m alreight as a ‘keeper.

I’ve always maintained that there is one, and only one, sport for which I have a natural predisposition… and that, my friends, is of course… skiing! A Yorkshireman who grew up in Liguria, one born amidst hills who lived on the sun-kissed Mediterranean… why wouldn’t the one sport I was naturally good at require a combination of mountains and snow?
We’d go skiing in the Dolomites five days a year. I say ‘we’… I’d take lessons in the morning, pass on what I’d learnt to my Dad (who’d never skied till then) in the afternoon and then we’d join Mum who’d have spent the day… reading. It was when my Dad was a water-skiing instructor that the two met, although not on the water: Mum loves watching sport and is quite active, just not in a sporty kind of way. Anyway, my Dad could ski on water and was a good sportsman, so he’d pick up most of what I’d pass on. Like so many other things, though, skiing is just so much easier to learn as an uninhibited child, with no fear of failure or, indeed, crashing…
…which led, by the way, to me breaking my leg! I went off the beaten track, fell in fresh snow and broke my tibia. Skis are meant to come off in such circumstances: mine didn’t, my left leg twisted and… indeed, ‘ouch’ and ‘crack’. Dad only turned up a few minutes later, by which time I was surrounded by strangers – maybe leaving him behind wasn’t such a great plan! But I was six and wild, man. I still am when I manage to don some skiis, although that’s not happened in… er… eight years! Even that time Dad told me off for going too fast… this from a man who’s done Sheffield-Portishead in 1h45’! In a Mercs, I hasten to add, not on skis. But I am genuinely good at it: I can go fast, backwards, in the air, on blacks… and all without training, I can turn up on the day and deliver. In jeans, too: Dad and I don’t go often enough to fork out on proper gear, so jeans it is. And if you’re looking for a motivator to not fall down and spend eight hours sodden and drenched… they don’t come much greater!

Anyway – where am I going with this?

That’s right: running, goalkeeping, skiing. What I do now, what it turned out I was good at, what I was naturally good at. Let’s look at commonalities, differences and what these may mean from my perspective. Or, to be more realistic, let me look at all that and waffle on about it: you might as well do summat more useful with your own time, let’s face it. That’s right, put the kettle on!

Preface: For the purpose of these musings (assuming there is one), I will treat ‘goalkeeping’ as a sporting activity in its own right. I’d be more than happy to sit down and discuss how integrated the role of the goalkeeper is in modern football, how that has evolved over the years (e.g. following the introduction of the law banning backpasses, or at least the handling of). For now, either read “The Outsider” or another great book on the evolution of the species, Francis Hodgson’s “Only the Goalkeeper to Beat”. Or John Burridge’s autobiography “Budgie”, even – somewhat of a lighter read. I can lend them all to you. But, from the perspective of the nature of ’keepers and what goes through their head, someone standing in the middle of a 24x8ft (7.32x2.44m) football goal has probably more in common with similar nutters trying to keep out hockey pucks, handball balls and so on.

Firstly, all three sports give you time to think. With goalkeeping, you’re at the mercy of the game, but you will have phases during which, providing you keep switched on and keep adjusting your position, you can afford to ponder a few of the more burdening questions in life. Running is the same: find a steady pace, make sure you’re comfortable, aware of the traffic around you (the runner’s equivalent of players on a football pitch) and you can allow yourself to drift from your silent conversation with your GPS watch. Similar with skiing, although you’re most likely travelling faster than on feet alone and need to maintain a greater awareness of what and who are ahead of you. But, compared to faster sports with frequent breaks (e.g. tennis), these three lend themselves a bit better to the thoughtful type. Which, apparently, is what I am.

The three are also all endurance sports. Don’t you agree?
Running is the obvious one, certainly in my interpretation of the sport I’m no candidate for a nippy 400m! Skiing well, I always found it pointless to stop during the day, let alone to drink (when your aim is to go as fast as you can, don’t drink and ski!), so I’d try to limit stops to when it was time to get back to the top. As for goalkeeping granted, that’s a tougher one. But I’ve been on the receiving ends of some barrages of which I could never see the end, trust me.

Critically, in all three you are responsible for your own performance and results. You can’t prevent a backpass from exposing you to a one-on-one situation, or indeed your captain (a striker) kindly coming back to help out in defence and therefore playing onside his opposing number (yes, I speak from experience). But then nor can a runner do much about race traffic or a skier about stones underfoot: these are exceptions, which do not undermine your habitual level of influence, rather underline it. Some goalkeepers face better opponents and (are called to save tougher shots) than others: but then some runners race up steeper hills, skiers down steeper mountains, than others. The nature of “individual” sports is not one in which you enjoy total and unchallenged influence over all that you do: it is just one where it is harder to blame someone else for your failings.

Pointless waffles like this always benefit from someone playing devil’s advocate. Given it’s a monologue, that’ll be me, then…

I have tried my hand at most sports over the years. However, the one that I played a) the most and b) best than the lot was most certainly tennis. Now is that an individual sport or a team one?

See, I thought you’d say ‘individual’. The reality, certainly in the UK, is different. Most clubs thrive on “club evenings” that promote doubles, in recognition of both its social aspect and the fact that this allows them to have twice as many players on court at any given time. Intra-club leagues generally involve matches consisting of four double encounters: you are therefore part of a team of two on court and a team of four over the course of the fixture. Much as I enjoyed doubles (I was twice Portishead Lawn Tennis Club Men’s Doubles Champion, 2008 and 2009), the reason I picked up a racket was for singles, which I still label as “boxing without contact”. I reveled in that part-physical, part-technical, part-psychological duel, which extended beyond rallies and into what was said and not said, the looks that were thrown and the paces that were pulled, in between them. Singles tennis brought out my grating, abrasive, confrontational nature, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Winning the Portishead Lawn Tennis Club Men’s Singles Championship in 2008 (I beat Pete Lench 6-3, 6-1 in the final, June 29) was a memorable moment. But, as I’ve said before, winning in tennis only really made me better than whoever stood at the other side of the net, whereas I find running makes me better – period. And believe me, depending on whom I’d beaten at tennis (and their moral integrity), the notion that they had lost could make me happier than the notion I had won.

And here’s another tennis-related problem for someone who others say “thinks too much” – a charge I refute, for there is no such thing as ‘overthinking’, merely ‘underthinking’…
…analyse things too much and you will often find a way of blaming yourself. So you will have noted above that I was never crowned Mixed Doubles champion at PLTC. What I didn’t mention was that I was twice a beaten finalist, an expression in itself harsher than “runner-up”. But hey, in tennis “beaten finalists” are merely “first of the losers”, right? It’s not like running a marathon, where you can have, say, 1,029 fellow competitors finish ahead of you yet still feel like a winner?
Anyway, back(hand) to tennis… and the painful memory of those two lost finals! On both occasions my very good partner was my very good friend Zoe. Even now, ask either of us whose fault it was we lost and you’ll get the same answer… not ‘whack’, no, rather “mine”. As in, Zoe’ll blame herself and I’ll blame myself…
…because tennis matches are not lost on a single point. Sure, it may come down to a tie-breaker (and don’t mention those to us!), or to balls where “chalk flew up”. But it’s a long journey to those deciding moments: it takes four points to win a game, six games to win a set, two or three sets to win a match… and all those moments can be critical. After a doubles’ defeat, the two players often have differing opinions of which moments determined the final outcome. Zoe and I would often focus on specific points which meant we’d blame ourselves and look to carry the burden for our partner’s defeat, which is generally heavier than the burden of one’s own defeat. At least with running you win or lose on your own… sure, there’s help along the way (mainly in training, though sometimes also on race day if someone’s kind and selfless enough to help pace you, like Jon was with me in Bristol), but you can only ever cross that finishing line on your own. You might wish it were not thus at mile 23 of a marathon, but it makes the taste of crossing that line all the sweeter… for someone who thinks like I do, anyway. And I appreciate that not everyone would wear a tennis shirt that reads “If it’s not about winning, why do we keep the score?”: I most certainly do, I’ve been trying to flog one for years but nobody’s ever bought one!
And before you get in  there: sure, you also carry a burden when shouldering the responsibility for a defeat that affects many other people, as do many ’keepers week in, week out. I’m still getting over Pegli 1993, thank you very much: the second goal, anyway. But it’s less personal when there’s more than one comrade involved. Whereas with tennis… oh, with tennis it’s personal. Very personal. Everything about tennis is attritional, confrontational and personal. Oh, and don’t worry: Zoe and I never fell out. We just feel bad for each other.

So – is it merely by coincidence that, at different stages of my life, I’ve been attracted to running, goalkeeping and skiing?

The evidence suggests otherwise. Across all three I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to think, to examine the situation real-time and seek to make adjustments, ultimately enjoying sole ownership for success or failure, albeit with some caveats when wearing gloves as the last line of defence for a team of eleven.

All three also reward hard graft, albeit in different ways. Coming from a city whose motto is “Deo Adjuvante, Labor Proficit” (i.e. “With God’s Help, Graft Pays Off”), I appreciate that. Not least because I’m not a natural athlete, not by any means. Some people just have to look at a sport to be good at it. I’m related to a couple of them, though sadly not by blood. But my aunts picked well… whereas me, I’m more of a grafter: I have the mind-set to do OK if I apply myself, but no major degree of God-given talent. Fortunately for me, running lends itself to grafting, as does ’keeping. As for skiing… well OK, I did have an innate talent for that one. Trust me.

Not that I was always a grafter, mind – not as much as some coaches would have hoped. Back in 1993, I started pre-season with Carlo Grasso, an amateur team where my Dad was Sporting Director (yes, Italian amateur sides have sporting directors – it’s a different kind of, er, ‘amateurship’). I was most excited to have a coaching session with former professional goalkeeper Emmerich Tarabocchia, holder of the record for longest streak without conceding a goal – 1,791 minutes, almost twenty matches. What I didn’t appreciate was that I was in for the toughest physical workout of my life: I was hoping to save footballs, not medicine balls! Again, hindsight is 20:20 and it all makes sense now: I regret not sticking around for longer, and not just for the goalkeeping side of things. But, after that first session, I went up to Tarabocchia and, offering a handshake, politely stated:
“Senta – in questo mondo ci son due tipi di persone, quelli nati per farsi il culo e quelli no. Io appartengo al secondo gruppo. Quindi La ringrazio, ma non ci vedremo mai più”
“Look – there are two types of people in this world, those born to work off their arses and the rest. I belong to the second group. So thank you very much, but we won’t be seeing each other again”

And I’ve never seen Sig. Tarabocchia since. Nor have I ever lifted a medicine ball after that day. But I still recall the pain I felt that night… and I can’t help feeling it did toughen me up a little bit, if only by making me aware of what you have to put into sport to get some sort of reward. Medicine balls may be a thing of the past, but early morning runs in the dark, cold and snow… well, they may be here to stay for a while. Not right now, but give it another half year – tops, the way our weather’s been ‘behaving’ in recent years!

It’s probably worth noting that runners, goalkeepers and skiers are all routinely labelled "nutters" for their willingness to undergo pain, expose themselves to physical danger and all that stuff. All in less threatening measure than other sports may offer, you understand. But still, being called a "nutter" is always a bonus, even now that they’ve taken out that bit of my brain.

Last but not least… for the same reasons that they appeal to me, running, goalkeeping and skiing also all lend themselves to some quality writing!
No, I don’t mean this garbage I churn out. So let me leave you with a couple of suggestions (yes, just a couple: for I’ll be honest: I’ve not read owt on skiing, what with it being so long since I clicked on a pair of skiis!) which should appeal to runners, ‘keepers but to normal human beings, too:

Francis Hodgson, “Only the Goalkeeper to Beat”
“The Outsider” is equally good, just probably less accessible to non-union members)

Haruki Mirakami,
“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”
(again, there are other options: I love Phil Hewitt’s
“Keep On Running” but it is probably more suited to runners, whereas Mark Rowlands’ “Running With The Pack: Thoughts from the road on Meaning and Mortality” requires a willingness to appreciate and engage in philosophy that may not be as widely spread as one might hope or indeed assume)

And, in case you’re wondering (as folk who owe footballing victories to me may be doing): yes, I do still consider myself a fully paid-up member of the ‘keepers’ Union. I’m of the view that membership never expires. In that respect, it’s a bit like
another club I’ve recently joined…

So, there you go. Keep on running. Keep on… er, ’keeping. And keep on skiing. Oh, and keep on reading, why don’t you?

Hmmm... lonely, solitary activities which nevertheless engender a huge amount of adrenaline, which for all their individualistic nature need to be placed in the context of a communal event to truly come alive... You
d never guess I'm also into the Art of Bruce Springsteen, would you? What with his fundamentally shy and solitary nature, reflected in two of his finest albums, Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love a nature which is then seemingly turned on its head when he performs outrageously energetic3h30’ concerts in front of tens of thousands of fans?
Guess that
’s the topic of my next post sorted then... or of a future one, anyroad. Next topic HAS to be Longest Day Run. Have you signed up yet? Cmon, gerronwi’it. Mazymixer can’t wait forever.

p.s.: of course, all three sports require gloves. They may be optional in running but trust me, I’ve worn them a darn sight more than I ever thought I would, what with running at silly o’clock in winter and all that. I’d like to think this is nothing more than a coincidence rather than indicative of any fetish, mind.

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