Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Why I’m grateful to Gareth Southgate and Ben Stokes

As someone with a loud inner critic, I welcome their liberating approach to sport 
September 6, 2023

Dear England, the play about Gareth Southgate’s transformation of England’s national football team, transfers to the West End this October. I saw it during its summer run on the South Bank; Joseph Fiennes looked and sounded so utterly like the England manager that he could stand in for him on the sidelines at their next game. The rapturous applause at the curtain call seemed as much for the real Southgate—his uplifting achievements, his empathy and compassion—as the acting. 

Here was a story deeply concerned with failure, and the athlete’s natural fear of it. In the play, Southgate, who famously missed the penalty that put England out of Euro 1996, is determined that none of his young players should suffer the same mental agonies that he did. His resulting philosophy is a sea change from the traditional machismo of English football, and it baffles the suits in charge. “Fail in order to win? Share your doubts? Fucking feelings?” asks the chairman of the FA, incredulously.

The performance I attended fell in the middle of the England cricket team’s fight for the Ashes and I couldn’t help but note the resonances between the two. Ben Stokes’s England side have, for the past two years, been playing an entirely new brand of cricket that has thrilled some and infuriated others. “Bazball”—named in honour of the team’s maverick coach, Brendon McCullum—gives players the freedom and autonomy to play the way they want to, rather than the way the situation demands. It also tells them to enjoy themselves rather than worrying about the outcome. 

In cricket, such an approach has a huge impact on the run of play—not least because it’s a sport where securing a draw from a losing position is often as desirable as a win. Stokes’s England aren’t interested in drawing matches, however. They don’t wish to be constrained by the acceptable, the sensible or the orthodox. They want to play unfettered by the fear of failure. 

As such, Bazball can seem to fly in the face of received wisdom and, more significantly, challenge the very nature and purpose of competitive sport. Why play a game at all if you’re not bothered about losing? This is the chief reason it has upset some fans. England’s performances under Stokes and McCullum are as unpredictable as they are dazzlingly entertaining. Their team has pulled off some truly unlikely victories; it has also sacrificed strong positions for weaker ones.

It’s surely no coincidence that this novel approach has emerged at a time when concepts of self-care and self-expression are so highly valued. I think it’s also notable that, over the past couple of years, therapists and psychologists alike have spoken and written extensively on the crippling pressure of the “inner critic”, the voice that can crowd our heads with negative thoughts about ourselves. 

The inner critic is integral to the human mind—it exists to protect us from the shame of failure—but if allowed to dominate, it can become one of our most powerful adversaries, undermining our self-esteem and sabotaging all our efforts before we’ve begun. Any number of recent self-help books have been published on how to quiet, calm, conquer or even embrace our inner critic. What Southgate and Stokes alike have been doing is to apply that concept in the sporting environment. 

Personally, I couldn’t be more grateful to them. I’m not immune to being irritated by Bazball: as a long-time England cricket fan, I still have kittens when their captain does seemingly nonsensical things like getting out to an unnecessarily risky shot or declaring the innings with his best batter still at the crease. But where most professional sporting mantras are intimidatingly unattainable—faster! higher! stronger! (and other things you’ll never be)—this approach is as liberating as it is inspiring. 

Go out and live life the way that suits you best. Oh, and don’t give yourself such a hard time about it. As someone whose inner critic is very noisy indeed, that’s a message I can never hear enough.