Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite by Alistair Brownlee
At the time of writing, we have just witnessed the final of the Euros. England vs Italy at Wembley and just in case you missed the result, Italy won on penalties. It was pretty heartbreaking to watch. Both teams having played their hearts out for 120 minutes reduced to a penalty shootout, one on one. I felt for players on both sides, brilliant footballers who missed a penalty. In particular the 5th penalty taker for England - Bukayo Saka - a young 19 year old and clearly gifted player, who was in tears. I have no doubt that he will learn all he can from the experience, will continue to shine and the next time he takes a penalty, will take the net off.
This all served to remind that at the end of the day, these players are human. Gifted? Very much so. But what makes a champion, a champion? Is it talent alone? or mental grit? A laser focus? or are the sporting elite just merely superhuman individuals?
One of my favourite all time athletes is Alistair Brownlee, double Olympic Gold medallist in the Triathlon. He is from Yorkshire and in interviews comes across as likeable and actually very funny. (Who can forget his interview where he described his brother Jonny - another Olympic winning athlete as a 'tactical numpty'). He has an iron will and he's written a book. I treated myself to a signed copy.
In his quest to define 'Sporting Greatness' double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee has spent four years interviewing and training with some of the greatest minds in sport to discover what it takes to become - and remain - a champion.
This was an absolutely fascinating read. Please note, it is not a biography but Alistair does share some of his personal experiences as well as a few funny anecdotes along the way.
The people that Alistair has interviewed reads like a who's who of some of the biggest sporting talent - AP McCoy, Chris Froome, Ronnie O'Sullivan amongst many. Most fascinating was the chapter about Kilian Jornet, an inspirational ultra runner and mountaineer who pushes himself well beyond the pain barrier because he genuinely loves what he does.
Each chapter is devoted to one or two sporting heroes, and covers a topic - does environment play a factor? How much is talent a factor? Is focus and motivation born or bred? Each chapter explores this well through a series of interviews between Brownlee and his subject. The athletes are a breed apart and reveal fascinating information. Michael Johnson, the US athlete who dominated the 200m and 400m events, talks about surrounding himself before a race with a carefully selected group of people. Not necessarily a hard-talking coach, or at the other end, people with well-meaning platitudes, but people in between.
All of this is tempered with Brownlee's down to earth attitude. He comes to the conclusion that athletes are actually not necessarily a breed apart, a superhero with special powers who can just show up and win everything. Instead it seems to be a balancing act of individuals with talent who are prepared to work harder than everyone else in the room.
The most poignant chapter is about failure. As Brownlee says, athletes and sportspeople fail more than you probably realise. Here the mental game plays a factor. Bouncing back from failure. let it affect you forever and fade into the background or run with it and succeed.
It is appropriate that I am posting this review now. Today sees the start of the Olympic games. Sporting greatness beckons for many of the athletes representing their countries. There remains a fascination with just what the human body is capable of. How much can they lift? How fast can they run? and just exactly how do gymnasts do triple somersaults on a beam measuring 4 inches wide?
This is a fascinating read for someone interested in what makes a champion tick, someone already doing sport or someone like me who adores watching the Brownlees race whilst eating cake. I loved it.