The importance of personality in sport

As the BBC seeks out its Sports Personality of the year, Justin Webb takes a look at the elusive quality - and why the All Blacks have it while England do not

In my whole life I have never, not even once, employed anyone. OK, the odd electrician and plumber has come and gone from the house, but I have never had what you would call “a relationship” where I was the boss. So I am supremely badly qualified to talk about motivation and team building and project leading.


Or am I? Doesn’t it strike you that we are facing, in the modern world, a perfect storm of myopic rudderless leadership? Endless awaydays (the England rugby team for the recent World Cup learnt how to guide horses round a field!). Fatuous mission statements. And yet, buried in the pile of piffle, a deep-seated lack of self-belief and self-discipline.

As the BBC turns its attention once again to the search for the Sports Personality of the Year it’s time to speak up for the individual, for magic that cannot be taught, talent that cannot be tamed. In fact: to speak up for personality itself. It’s time to misquote Pink Floyd: coaches, leave those kids alone.

For the England rugby team, of course, it’s too late. Never in human history has a group of men been so over-hyped and over-trained and over-managed. Once the World Cup started back in the autumn the poor lads looked utterly shell-shocked, and no wonder.

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths.” Those are the ruminations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and they were among the many Big Thoughts plastered on the walls at England’s £3 million, luxurious HQ at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, Surrey. But statements exhorting you to be strong and to learn from life’s adversities are not the same thing as actually being strong and being resilient. In sport, in business, in life: you have to live this way, not read it on the wall. Success and resilience come from individuality and self-motivation.

In public life we are on the road, perhaps, to understanding this. We all know there is a rebellion against machine politicians and a zest for “authenticity”. In a horizontal world in which everyone feels pretty much equal to everyone else we seek out the stars, the jaunty, talented mavericks who can rise to the top based on that little extra twist of ability. But in too much of our life there is a failure to celebrate the individual, to tell him or her, from a very early age, to get out and enjoy themselves and do what comes naturally.

One of the most affecting and beautiful pictures I have seen in recent times was the anarchic, slightly unfocused shot of a group of the Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks. They had gone to visit the grave of a man called Jerry Collins, a fine player who’d died in a car crash. The players took the Webb Ellis Cup with them and crouched down on his grave for the photos. It could not have been more informal, or more heartfelt. Simple and effective, like All Black rugby.

The building of these young men into sporting titans who care deeply about the team was done by celebrating success from an early stage. Everything starts with their talent. Building it, nurturing it, enjoying it. My sole inspirational statement would be “Just do it!” It’s taken, you say? Well, we need to tell Nike to bog off: give us our phrase back. It belongs to us. It belongs to the ages. It’s all anyone needs to know to succeed.


Sports Personality of the Year is on BBC One tonight (Sunday 20th December) at 6.50pm