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The chicken or the egg

SPORTS teams aspiring to greatness face a difficult dilemma. In order to gain promotion from a lower league they have to buy quality players (to improve their squad) but they will not be able to attract the quality players until they do gain promotion. So which must come first, promotion or player? It is the sporting version of the chicken and the egg – which comes first?


No-one would call Jack Nicklaus a chicken, nor would they dare to describe him as an egg-head. In fact, he has affectionately been known as the Golden Bear for decades. He is also widely acclaimed as the greatest golf player in the four Major championships played each year, having won eighteen of them over his long career. He won the U.S. Amateur Championship at the age of nineteen and came second in the  U.S. Open, aged twenty while still an amateur (remember, ‘amateur’ means ‘one who loves doing it’). He won his last Major title (the Masters) at the age of forty-six and in all he won 117 professional tournaments in his long and fruitful career, before he joined the Seniors Tour where he continued to gain many victories.

Many people have tried to analyse why Jack Nicklaus was so successful in becoming a champion golfer. Gary Player, who along with the charismatic Arnold Palmer was one of the legendary Big Three players at the same time as Nicklaus, while noting Nicklaus’s determination, application, strength along with his tremendous driving and putting ability in particular, simply concluded that Nicklaus had “it”, which may perhaps only stand as an acronym for an Indefinable Trait though it could just as easily stand for Immeasurable Talent.

The answer to the definition of “it” may well best come from Nicklaus himself when he posed an interesting, important yet difficult dilemma: do people enjoy sport because they play well or do they play well because they enjoy sport? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg, enjoyment or ability? The matter will affect how we view the sporting development of our children.

Many people enjoy sport because they play it well, though that should not be confused with saying they enjoy sport when they play it well. Their ability to play well brings them the pleasure (perhaps helped by the results of playing well); however, when they are not playing well, they become frustrated, bored, incensed, jealous. Going out to practise for hour after hour, working on every aspect of their game, as they must do in order to compete, becomes tiresome and unenjoyable. They only enjoy sport because they play it well. If so, that has serious consequences.

Alternatively, others will argue that they play sport well for the very fact that they enjoy playing it. It is not a chore to go out and play; it is not a chore to go out and practise, hour after hour, because it is a delight. Linked to that, top coaches will say that we should focus on players’ strengths as they will enjoy working on them. Indeed surveys have shown that people who play to their strengths are six times more likely to be engaged in their job (or sport) compared to those who focus on their weaknesses (in other words, the things they do not do well). Interestingly and significantly, the same surveys show that seventy-seven percent of parents highlight their child’s weaknesses after a match, not their strengths, which only serves to take away their child’s enjoyment of playing.

Jack Nicklaus, no less a champion sportsman, was very clear in his mind where the answer lay with regard to the question of what comes first: “I’m a firm believer in the theory that people only do their best at things that they truly enjoy.” The fact that he said it with a huge smile on his face clearly underlined the truth and veracity of his belief. We play sport well because we enjoy sport. How could Nicklaus continue at the highest level for so long? He enjoyed what he did. Even when he could not play at the highest level he enjoyed golf so much he went about designing golf courses so others could enjoy the game and in so doing play well at it.

We therefore must ensure that our children have every best opportunity to do well in sport by ensuring that they enjoy sport, that they love sport. If we want them to be a champion in sport, we must enable them to enjoy it; that must be our priority as coaches and parents. If we do not do so, we are the chicken and the egg-head all in one, neither of which comes first, only last. Get it?

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

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