HomeSportAttack must not be the best form of defence

Attack must not be the best form of defence


MUHAMMAD Ali was an extraordinary showman as well as an amazing boxer; the public never quite knew what was coming! He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, sacrificing his world boxing titles, on a matter of principle, yet he also was famous for speaking loud, long and lyrically about himself and his opponents, ultimately and cleverly describing his boxing style by declaring he would “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.

His shuffle and quick movement around the ring were legendary, leaving opponents chasing shadows, while on a different occasion he fooled George Foreman in their infamous title fight labelled the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 by leaning against the ropes, covering up his head and body and taking many punches to the body that had no penetration or effect, other than tiring out his opponent, before he stepped up to knock out the favourite, but tiring, Foreman in the eighth round.

In effect, what Ali did was follow the principle that defence is the best form of attack; his “rope-a-dope” tactic worked to magnificent effect, although it was perhaps the element of surprise (which is normally the prerogative of the attacker) which won him the day and the fight. In team sports, the same principle is often followed, with a team concentrating on making sure the defence is strong and only plotting for speedy counter-attacks when the opponents are tired and out of position. Such sides believe in attrition and in the gambit that if they do not concede a goal they cannot lose. The aim is to ensure we do not make a mistake from which our opponents can profit.

In sharp contrast to such a philosophy is that which decrees that it does not matter if the opponents score three goals or tries as we will score four. All-out attack may lead to mistakes in defence but they will always be overcome by the constant pressure of attack. By keeping the opponents so busy defending, the theory goes, they will have no time, energy or inclination to attack, so they defend by attacking. The aim is to make the opponents make the mistakes, from which we can capitalise. It would appear to pay to be more aggressive than defensive. Attack is the best form of defence.

There are good and valid reasons on both sides. It may be good to go on the defensive. These reasons are deemed to be in order to consolidate what is in our possession, to recuperate and regain strength after initial breakthroughs, to re-evaluate the next steps. We have to know how to defend. In contrast, many will argue that offense is the best defence, being proactive is better than reactive, active more than passive, as it has the element of surprise, as in an ambush, and of being in control of events. Furthermore, attacking appears more rewarding and less exhausting; we are going forward, not fighting to hold a position. To most neutral observers and spectators, defending appears to be negative, dull and boring whereas the team that goes for all-out attack is considered to be positive, exciting and adventurous. Attack is seen to be more effective than defence.

What applies to sport has, of course, long applied to war, and indeed to business. We must not allow our opponents any time to devise their own strategies but make them deal with our own. We must take the initiative, strike the first blow, dictate where the market is going, and force others out of the equation. It works in sport; it works in war; it works in business, so it must work in life – does it not?

Sadly, too many people carry this philosophy of “attack is the best form of defence” into their daily life and relationships. At school, and therefore not surprisingly in life (as they carry forward what they learn at school), people follow this principle by adhering to the “rule” that we must do to others before they do it to us – attack! Children, and adults, will attack other people by accusing and blaming them for anything they can, simply to deflect attention from their own inadequacies and errors. Their defence, their justification for their actions, is weak so they must attack instead. They must pressurise others into making mistakes which will in turn benefit them.

We as coaches and parents have a firm responsibility to educate our children that life is not a sport or a war or a business. What may apply there, in terms of competition, does not apply to social engagement. We should not have to be constantly defending ourselves but neither should we be attacking others. They removed the bully in hockey years ago. It is time to do the same in life now.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading