Humphrey Walters on the future of British sport

I was encouraged to find some of my own themes in an interview with Sir Clive Woodward’s colleague and mentor Humphrey Walters just before New Year. At least, I was encouraged to find one of my themes – that another, different one was confirmed by the interview is just downright depressing.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve come to realize that sport holds a different place in the national psyche in Britain than it does in Australia, Germany or the United States. In Britain, sport is still primarily fun, a distraction from the serious business of life. It’s something you can do at the weekend, or, if you don’t want to be quite that active, it acts as a kind of real-life soap opera, with colourful characters bouncing off each other week by week on the back pages of the newspapers. We become serious about sport when big competitions come around – our place in the Olympic medals table, our performance in the World Cups of football and rugby, mean a lot nationally when they are thrust before our attention. Once the circus has moved on, however, our attention is apt to wander. Walters says,

“If you sat down and studied what is going wrong with British sport you would find some very common traits,” he says. “The real problem is that we as a nation don’t know what we want to do in sport. Do we want to retain the public school mentality of ‘play up, play up and play the game’ or do we want to win?

“I’m not sure we’ve got over that hurdle yet and I’m not sure that the people who are running these sports really understand what professionalism is.”

I’m beginning to suspect that we do know what we want – and that the real answer might be Soap, rather than either of Walter’s alternatives of winning or Corinthianism.

Mr Walters, who has also advised several Premiership football clubs, says it is easy to despair at Britain’s sporting failures but much harder to find the solution. The biggest sin, however, is not to look for answers. “Winning businesses ask ‘why?’ all the time,” he says.

“That’s what happened at Marks and Spencer. Stuart Rose came in and he looked at every aspect of the business and asked: ‘Why do we do that?’ The problem with sport is that it is such a closed shop that people are suspicious of anybody who is not steeped in their sport.”

That’s an excellent one-line summary of the Woodward/Clifford experience at Southampton, professional football’s great missed opportunity of the last 12 months.

I’m not sure if I trust in his solution, however:

“I know where I would start,” he says. “Everybody talks about the Aussies, the New Zealanders and the South Africans and their winning mentality. Nobody sits down and figures out just what it is. So what I would do is commission a study to examine whether there is such a different mentality and, if so, what is it?

“I would ask questions like how is it formed? Does it begin in school? Is it because they have a chip on their shoulder? I’ve no idea, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find out. Then I would ask, what is our mentality?”

My problem with that is, who are you going to commission to undertake the study? It would have to be someone from outside Britain merely to avoid a “national curriculum” type situation, where the outcome mysteriously perpetuates the status quo contrary to all good intentions. Britain really, really does not understand where it is coming from on this, and the lack of perspective would be fatal. But would British sportspeople treat a study conducted by people from abroad with anything other than the usual reluctance and denial? And what if the study concludes that we actually prefer things this way – sport as Soap, sport as a place to escape the demands of being an intelligent nation, perpetuating the myth that “passion” and “inspiration” are the national traits and not pessimism, cynicism and weariness?

There’s more to this, of course, and read the whole interview, but this was depressing to see:

What irks Mr Walters is that much of the wisdom acquired during the Woodward reign at Twickenham is now being ignored. “It’s very important to examine success,” he says. “There was no proper debrief after winning the rugby World Cup. Reports were written but they didn’t ask for the view of some people on the bench, the groundsman, the bag man.

“Everybody looks at things differently and every view is just as important because it’s a game of inches. Everybody brings an inch. It’s about sticking them together.”

Mr Walters cites an example of how knowledge from the Woodward era has been jettisoned. “One of the things we did was to change our kit at half-time. Now it’s not happening, or at least some players do and some don’t.

Once the World Cup was won in 2003, all of that silly newfangled stuff could be pedalbinned so we could get back to the proper British values. With the consequent results. I’ve asked the question before, and it remains: what’s the real “bullshit” here – innovation that feeds into a World Cup win, or all the verbiage about “passion” and “inspiration” with all that goes with it?

UPDATE: see how many Britishisms you can find in this Guardian account of Ashton’s first England rugby squad!