Since March, like many others, I have had a lot more time on my hands. As exercise shifted from the gym to my stationary bike, and activities on evenings and weekends moved from social events to time spent indoors, the amount of time I had available grew massively. The positive within all of this is that I finally had the time to do things I’d been putting off, including making my way through an ever-growing list of sports documentaries.
I enjoy the insights of these shows, as they often demonstrate how sports stars and teams operate on a daily basis and reveal the underlying foundations of their success. There are many lessons we can take from these documentaries, and in this article, I highlight some key take-homes from my recent binge watching of all things sport.
1. All or Nothing: All Blacks
There’s a great moment in Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary series on the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team): They’re losing 22-20 in a match against Argentina in the Rugby Championship, the annual Southern Hemisphere tournament that also includes Australia and South Africa. Having just scored a try, New Zealand has a chance to level the game by kicking the conversion. Lima Sopoaga, usually the second-choice fly half, steps up to take the kick. In the documentary, he talks us through that moment. As he is setting up, he catches a glimpse of the scoreboard: two points down, this is a pivotal moment in the game, and the All Blacks need him to make this kick. The pressure from his teammates, and even from his whole nation, is on him.
How we react in situations like this tells us a lot about ourselves and our character. Sopoaga, in the face of all this pressure, realizes “these are the moments you ask for.” Instead of wanting to avoid the pressure, wanting to be anywhere else but there, he actively embraces it, and the chance to perform that comes with it. This, to my mind, is one of the crucial lessons from this documentary series: Elite athletes are not scared of being in situations where failure might happen. Instead, they embrace it.This is one of the crucial lessons from this documentary series: Elite athletes are not scared of being in situations where failure might happen. Instead, they embrace it, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Although I was never of the same level as Sopoaga, I have raced in two World Championships finals, and I remember the feeling of nerves, the pressure of potential success, and thinking to myself there is nowhere else I would rather be. For elite athletes, there is often something inherently enjoyable about embracing uncomfortable situations; the challenge for coaches is to develop these traits in their athletes so they can perform without fear on their biggest stage. Overall, the All or Nothing series is a fantastic watch, giving amazing insights into how the best team in the world operates and how the best players carry themselves and prepare for their biggest moments.
Key Takeaway: Truly elite athletes embrace the pressure of performance and want to put themselves into situations where they will be tested. To support our athletes, we need to develop this attitude.
2. The Last Dance
In comparison to the All Blacks, there are many athletes and teams where the culture is less than positive, often with an under-explored or rarely discussed dark side. Within this theme, there is no better place to start than the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, it’s highly likely that you’ve at least seen clips shared on social media, but the whole series is highly enjoyable. Ostensibly about the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls team, the docuseries covers MJ’s whole career, as well as key moments from the Chicago Bulls dynasty during their period of sustained success.
A crucial lesson for me came from the clips of the U.S. basketball team at the 1992 Olympics, commonly called the “Dream Team.” The videos show how fiercely competitive their practices were, which many players stated were the hardest games they ever played in. If coaches and players can develop training situations in which they have to work harder than in competition, they will no doubt develop the confidence and skills required for success.
A second lesson comes from how Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls during this period, deals with Dennis Rodman—who we might charitably describe as a free spirit. In the series, Rodman is shown going on a week-long party tour to Vegas, missing some important training sessions. Rather than punish Rodman once he returns, Jackson instead just carries on like nothing has happened. Jackson—whose book Eleven Rings is also hugely enjoyable—appears to be of the opinion that Rodman needs to party and needs to rebel, and that trying to constrain him to “normal” professional behavior would be counterproductive.
In my own experiences, I know of one multiple Olympic medal-winning coach who, dealing with an athlete of a similar disposition, developed one key session for the week. His goal was to get the athlete to do that session—anything else was a bonus. That athlete now has their own Olympic gold medal, demonstrating that sometimes it is better to work with your athletes (and their perceived weaknesses) than fight with them for perfection.Sometimes it is better to work with your athletes (and their perceived weaknesses) than fight with them for perfection, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
There is, however, a dark side to The Last Dance. Jordan is clearly obsessed with winning and exhibits some highly toxic behaviors. The question—which is unanswered in the documentary—is how much coaches and athletes should tolerate this as the price of success. On more than one occasion MJ demonstrates bullying behaviors—including actual physical assault—and this appears to be somewhat accepted by his team as the cost of success. Certainly, MJ thinks so, reflecting as such during one tearful soliloquy. Given the recent sporting abuse scandals that have been widely reported, this should be uncomfortable watching for everyone, and it should drive more conversations around what is the acceptable price of success and what behaviors we will and won’t tolerate on this journey.
- There is an important need to practice like you compete. As a result, coaches should seek to develop realistic training sessions to better support their athletes in being able to perform when it matters.
- Success often comes at a price. As a society, we need to have better conversations about what that price is and whether it is acceptable to us. Building on this, we need to be clear on what behaviors we will and will not tolerate in the pursuit of winning, and continually reinforce the desired behaviors.
The British documentary The Edge details England cricket’s transformational journey from no-hopers in 2009 to the number one ranked side in the world in 2013. Although not necessarily its main theme, the film explores the darker (or at least more private) side of sport. We see Jonathan Trott openly discussing his mental health and anxiety battles, which demonstrates how athletes are people too and subject to the same battles that we all go through. Other players detail the highs and lows of their sporting journey, which further adds to our understanding that all is not always rosy in elite sport.
Like The Last Dance, The Edge asks the question of what is the acceptable price of success—which is demonstrated by Coach Andy Flowers’ relentless drive for it and his own reflection that he has often got the balance wrong. Finally, we see how, once the team reaches its goal of being number one in the world, it is somewhat of an anti-climax. This topic is similar to that of the HBO Sports documentary The Weight of Gold, which covers the mental health of athletes who have reached the top and find it to be much less fulfilling—and substantially more empty—than they thought it would be.All involved in sport should, as highlighted in this documentary, be increasingly aware of the mental health challenges posed by elite sport, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
I went through similar, but far less extreme, experiences during my career. After winning a bronze medal at the World Under-18 Championships in 2003, I remember struggling for motivation at competitions I viewed as not at the same level, and I perhaps didn’t celebrate my selection for the 2008 Olympics—the pinnacle of my career—as much as I should have at the time. I think it’s an important reminder for us all that the journey is often more enjoyable than the destination. If we build up the goal result and put it on a pedestal, thinking that everything will be amazing afterward, we will inevitably be disappointed.
Key Takeaway: We often expect that success leads to happiness, but in many cases the journey is more fulfilling than the destination. All involved in sport should, as highlighted in this documentary, be increasingly aware of the mental health challenges posed by elite sport—and winners are far from immune from this.
4. Building Jerusalem
Switching sports, but staying with England, I finally got around to watching Building Jerusalem, which, like The Edge, is a story of how an England team rose from underperformers to world champions. In this case, it is the England rugby team; knocked out of their home World Cup in 1999 at the quarter-final stage, they turned themselves around to become World Cup winners in 2003. The documentary has multiple key themes—one of the main ones is how Clive Woodward, the England coach, led this revolution through innovative thinking and approaches. Matt Dawson, the England scrum half, even comments that if you were a half-decent salesperson with a sports science product, Woodward would likely have bought your services—he genuinely wanted to leave no stone unturned.
One of Woodward’s innovations was hiring a vision coach, Dr. Sherylle Calder, who is still involved with the team today. Calder worked on improving the peripheral vision and spatial awareness of the players, but also had a secondary, unplanned, important role—she taught the England forwards Afrikaans, allowing them to understand the lineout calls of South Africa, England’s opponents in a crucial group game, and subsequently nullify their threat. Woodward is perhaps one of the key drivers of what eventually became known as marginal gains, a now somewhat maligned approach to leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of success.
Building Jerusalem also has important lessons for game day performance. Although strong favorites to win the World Cup, in a group game following their win against South Africa, England was struggling against relative minnow Samoa: At half time, Samoa led 16-13. A key part of this story was England’s ability to grind out results. They might not be playing well, but eventually they proved too much for Samoa, running out 35-22 victors. They then struggled against Wales in the quarter-final—again trailing at half time before turning it around.While we might expect and desire to win in dominant fashion, sometimes it’s important to ‘win ugly’ and just drag yourselves over the line, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
This is an important lesson to us all: While we might expect and desire to win in dominant fashion, sometimes it’s important to “win ugly” and just drag yourselves over the line. This belief in the process was illustrated in the final, which went to extra time. The message to the England team at this point was just to do what they usually do—nothing special—and, if they did that, they would be successful. This success came with 26 seconds left, as Jonny Wilkinson kicked the winning drop goal.
Jonny Wilkinson brings us back to the key themes discussed in other documentaries. At this stage of his career, Wilkinson was an obsessive: He couldn’t leave training without kicking six consecutive penalties successfully and would typically take 500-600 practice kicks per week. This obsession propelled Wilkinson and England to World Cup glory, but it came at a price. There’s an amazing moment in Building Jerusalem where Wilkinson describes his emotions in the seconds before the end of the game. He knows that England has possession, and that they’re going to just kick it out to secure victory, but he doesn’t want the game to stop. In those few seconds, Wilkinson knows that they will win the World Cup, but that they’re still on the journey—the process by which he is obsessed—and have yet to arrive at that destination. He knows the referee’s whistle will bring an end to this journey, but he doesn’t want it to end.
The next 18 months were an injury hell for Wilkinson, as his obsession drove overtraining: He played just 940 minutes of rugby during this period. Wilkinson eventually found happiness, embracing Buddhist principles and ending his career with a hugely successful five-year period playing for Toulon in France. In the last match of his career, in typical Wilkinson fashion, he scored 84% of his team’s points, leading them to victory in the Top 14 Final. Nevertheless, this happy ending should not obscure the dangers of obsession with sport, as Wilkinson’s career is a powerful reminder that we should develop the whole person, not just the athlete.
- Once the basics are taken care of, an innovative approach to athlete development and elite sport can support success. Even if it has no direct effect, if the athletes believe that they are the best prepared, that can give them masses of confidence.
- Elite athletes are at risk of developing perfectionist behaviors; while this certainly helps them achieve success, it tends to come at a cost. A common symptom of this is excessive training, which may be an important warning sign to look out for.
5. From The Inside Out
Despite having lived in Australia for five years, I’ve yet to truly get into Australian Rules Football. However, in my constant search for interesting sports documentaries, I came across From The Inside Out, an hour-long film that covers Collingwood, an AFL team based in Melbourne, and their 2018 season.
The documentary details a club in transition; in the 2017 season, Collingwood—or the Pies, as they are commonly known—finished 13th in the table, well outside of the playoffs. There were calls for their charismatic young coach Nathan Buckley to be fired. Instead, the club offered him a two-year contract, and in the 2018 season detailed in this documentary, they came in third in the league and made the Grand Final, losing by five points. The documentary, as with others discussed here, has a mental health angle; in this instance, Adam Trealor, a key Pies player, discusses his battles with anxiety. What is really pleasing to see is that Collingwood rallies round him; their Chief of Culture and sports psychologists support Trealor in overcoming his issues, and he plays in their Grand Final loss.
From The Inside Out also deals with a culture change—Buckley is aware that the club has a long reputation for being aggressive, causing them to be disliked. He tries to instill a more welcoming culture, using strong links to the local community and fans to develop the player’s collective story. There are many examples of this in the documentary, including bringing fans with illnesses to speak to the players about what the club means to them. You can see the effect this has on the players—some of them are moved to tears—and it results in an overall change in culture, with the well-being and development of players as good people being paramount. At the end of the documentary, Buckley reads a letter from a lifelong Collingwood hater, congratulating him on the great work he has been doing—an example to Buckley that his process is having a positive effect.
Key Takeaway: Culture change can be difficult and “fluffy”; an important step appears to be defining and then operationalizing the desired behaviors (i.e., what does “respect” look like?), and then promoting these behaviors through a variety of means—in the case of Collingwood, often though storytelling.
Hungry for More?
Similar to From The Inside Out, and sticking with the theme of culture change, Amazon’s The Test tells the story of the Australian cricket team, and their rehabilitation from the 2018 ball-tampering scandal. New coach Justin Langer, a former international cricketer for Australia, is keen to change the perception of the squad, and it’s an interesting watch as to how he goes about doing this—but there is a small hint of propaganda throughout!
Andy Murray: Resurfacing is a very enjoyable documentary that details the rehabilitation process for athletes, warts and all. In this case, it covers Murray’s battles with hip pain, his attempts to overcome and deal with it, failed treatments, and potentially a comeback. It illustrates the psychological toll injuries have on athletes; many times, we see Murray getting frustrated or emotional.This documentary is a great example of the retirement process for many athletes, and the doubt it causes—making it an important watch for those involved in sport, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Throughout, there is a storyline that this might be the end of his career; at one point, we see Murray in his hotel room, considering whether this will be his last competition. He can’t decide: He clearly loves the sport, but his body has had enough, and it’s sapping his enjoyment. Murray calls his wife, who says “If you’re looking for someone to give you permission to retire, this is it.” Murray makes up his mind, but then changes it, before changing it back. It’s a great example of the retirement process for many athletes, and the doubt it causes—making it an important watch for those involved in sport.
Finally, The Australian Dream is an eye-opening account of AFL player Adam Goodes and his battles against racism in sport. It’s really uncomfortable to watch, acting as a strong reminder how sport often acts to intensify social issues, and how, while we think we as a society are doing well, we can always do better.