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Illuminating the Minutiae

I awoke with great anticipation on Sunday morning. I was out of bed and had the coffee made in plenty of time. Just after 8.30am I sat down to watch Andy Murray in the Australian Open final. He had had a very promising two weeks and looked back to his form of a year or two ago.

Murray had lost the final at the Australian on three occasions previously – surely this was his time?

The early games were explosive, with the two players trading blows – each having their ups and downs. After two sets they had won one set each on a tie break. This is going to be an amazing match! In fact Murray might win it – he is 2-0 up in the third set. But then what happens? Djokovic wins 12 of the next 13 games and the championship is his. Another disappointment at the last hurdle for Murray fans.

I think what was most disappointing was not that Murray lost, but the manner in which the match so quickly fell from his grip. We all know Andy has resilience, we know he can persevere, and we know he can dig deep. But somehow he was lacking the determination of Novak. Djokovic appears to never know when he is beaten. On top of this, Murray started to lose his cool a bit. It’s entirely understandable – the pressure he is under is unimaginable for most of us. But why was Djokovic able to keep his cool? What is the difference between these two players?

Both players have prepared meticulously in recent months; both have huge strengths and a few obvious weaknesses to their game (Murray’s second serve; Djokovic’s overheads). Murray admitted after the match that he was distracted in the third set by Djokovic’s apparent injuries and effectively that he let himself down mentally. It is amazing how often it is this psychological battle which sports people have with themselves which is the difference between winning and losing at the top level. This certainly doesn’t need to be pointed out to me as an All Black fan, who until 2011 suffered every four years as New Zealand failed to turn their clear superiority (except in 2003) into a World Cup triumph.

There are so many analogies in education today which are taken from sport. What’s the connection here? I think the point is that you can prepare meticulously and you can hone your skills, but if you really want to achieve something special you must keep pushing and you must leave no stone unturned in your determination to be the best you can be. I try to get this point across to my Sixth Form Latinists. They’re all pretty good at translating Latin and getting the meaning of a sentence, but at A Level it can come down to the subtleties of the language. Can you spot the little elements in the grammar which affect the author’s meaning? Can you get what a Roman means when he/she expresses something in a way which has little connection with how we think in our society? These are the sorts of things which are the difference between a good classicist and an excellent classicist.

A good example of this in sport in recent years is the British cycling team. Under coach, Sir David Brailsford, Great Britain became the dominant tracking cycling nation in the world. Amongst the things Sir David insisted on was careful and thorough washing of thumbs by cyclists. Why? It helped to prevent them getting ill. He also insisted they carried their own pillow with them around the world so that they would always get a good night’s sleep. His point was that the little things can make a difference – his philosophy was one of ‘marginal gains’. He told BBC Sport in 2012, ‘The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.’

I think there is another lesson here as well, about how important it is to take control of your own destiny. As Andy Murray allowed himself to be distracted and became wound up by his own frustration, Djokovic calmly took control of his destiny. The Latin motto for Truro High School isluce magistra, which I would translate as ‘with my teacher as my light’ (an ablative absolute for those of you who are wondering). The teacher does not control a pupil’s learning destiny – they shine a light. Some teachers might be better at shining the light than others, at finding what it is important to illuminate, but it is the pupil who must take charge of matters. As a learner, and we are all learners always, we should aim to examine every inch of what is illuminated and we must not neglect the minutiae. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is what makes the difference.

fiat lux.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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