In the middle of the current Olympics, the following article in praise of the vicious and complete undermining of one’s opponent verbally was published in a major newspaper in Sydney.
The US expression ‘trash talk’ does not capture the full, systematic intent as practiced by Anglo-Celtic Aussies, to which ‘real sport’ the author Richard Glover refers with pleasure.
Glover, also the drive-time compere for the (national broadcaster) ABC’s local radio, published an article in the same newspaper in 1990 titled ‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat’.
Richard Glover, ‘Sledging skills everyone can use: from Mack Horton to Pauline Hanson,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 12.08.16
In all the fuss about Mack Horton’s criticism of his swim rival, Sun Yang, everyone seems to have forgotten about the British writer Stephen Potter. It was Potter who, back in 1947, first proposed the idea of gamesmanship – a more subtle version of sledging, but one which may be far more effective.
Potter’s book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship; or, The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, is packed with ideas for subtly putting off your opponent. We may need to make it compulsory reading for our Olympic team.
Potter is oh-so-very-English and would never deign to criticise his opponent outright in the manner of Mack Horton. Nor would he agree to be part of Australian cricket’s most famous mutual sledge:
Bowler: Mate, you are so fat.
Batsman: That’s because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.
Personally, I think that moment – usually ascribed to Glenn McGrath and Eddo Brandes – is rather fine. I like the way the harsh accusation of cuckoldry – a more forthright term than “sleep with” may have been used – shares the sentence with the childlike delight we might all feel in receiving a free biscuit.
Such tactics, though, would have horrified Stephen Potter. His aim was to discombobulate the opponent, leaving them with the uneasy sense that “something has gone wrong, however slightly”.
Potter’s books became bestsellers in the ’50s and ’60s – and were then turned into television in the ’70s – all from the starting point of a single game of tennis.
Potter was playing doubles, partnering the British philosopher CEM Joad. They were up against two younger men and were not doing well. Joad, in particular, had just delivered a serve which had hurtled well out of court.
It was at this point Joad stopped the game and remonstrated with his young rivals: “Kindly state clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out.”
The young men hadn’t called the ball, believing it was so obviously out of bounds that a call was unnecessary. They offered to replay the point, but Joad declined – leaving the young men with the uneasy suggestion that, in dealing with Joad’s serve, they had committed some slight breach of etiquette.
His fault had become their fault.
The incident put the two young men off their game, delivered victory to Potter and Joad, and sent Potter on a lifelong course of examining gamesmanship in all its guises.
Perhaps John Bertrand, now president of Swimming Australia, is a student of Potter. Certainly, Mack Horton says he developed the idea of psyching-out Sun Yang by studying the tactics used by Bertram when he skippered Australia II to victory in the America’s Cup.
Bertrand’s gamesmanship then was classic Potter. No insults and no demeaning of the opposition. The Australia II crew merely refused to speak the name of their powerful opponents or their powerful craft. They simply used the energy-sucking sobriquet “the red boat”.
Potter would have cheered.
Some sports psychologists go further: they believe that the best sledge of all is a compliment. Jeff Bond, who has worked as an Australian sports psychologist at multiple Olympics, gives the example of a sunny sledge when playing tennis: “You just compliment the person on the other end about the way they snap their wrist during the serve. And that’s pretty much all you need to do. They’ll think ‘oh, what exactly am I doing’, and their game will crumble.”
The same approach, by the way, is highly effective in golf. Next time you play, simply make the happy observation: “That swing of yours is perfect. I really must study how it is that you are pulling it off so perfectly.” Try it on any normal human being and, by the third hole, they’ll be lying in the foetal position, howling for their mother.
But back to Stephen Potter: he has a million other tips. He recommends, for instance, offering your opponent advice, although, he says, “the advice must be vague, to make certain it is not helpful”. Always, also, present yourself as an expert. When playing chess, for instance, you should randomly make the observation: “Your castle won’t like that in six moves’ time,” even if you have no understanding whatsoever of the game.
And, when playing billiards, do feel free to approach your opponent with a kindly smile, and the offer of a breath mint – preferably seconds prior to a key shot. You can then follow up with the observation that their technique is “incredible”.
Certainly, I’d like to see the sunny sledge brought into politics, replacing all the unpleasant sledging of the recent election period.
“Bill Shorten? A genius. Some of his zingers are just hilarious. Every time he lets rip I feel so inadequate.”
Imagine the psychological impact once Malcolm Turnbull has complimented Bill Shorten in such warm terms.
“Zingers are one thing,” Shorten could reply. “I just admire the way Malcolm has managed to gain such loyalty from his own party. It must be great knowing the whole party has your back.”
As for Pauline Hanson and her forthcoming maiden speech, perhaps someone could wander up just as she’s about to speak.
“Breath mint, Pauline?”