‘Thinking in Words’ – Using Sport to Develop First Person Writing

As a lover and player of various sports growing up, both competitively and for leisure, this internal voice, or monologue, is something of great importance to an athlete and vital when taking part in sport.

Constantly, athletes berate and question themselves. Whether it be during training or competing, at an amateur or professional level, players use an internal monologue, not often seen or witnessed on TV.

Take Tommy Haas for example, an experienced tennis player. He is not going to win the U.S. Open. At 36, the German is the oldest player in the men’s field and is clearly past his prime. (His peak rank was No. 2 in 2002.) But in 2013, after years beset by injuries, Haas had a renaissance. He beat Novak Djokovic last year, becoming the oldest man in three decades to defeat a No. 1 player. Clearly Haas is in great physical shape. His mental game, too, is one of the best in the world.

So, what is Haas’ mental approach to tennis? The video below, from the 2007 Australian Open quarterfinals, gives us a fascinating, rare glimpse at an athlete’s innermost thoughts. The scene: Haas, serving at 15–40 and one set from elimination against Nikolay Davydenko, nets an easy forehand. He has now had his service game broken for the fifth time in the match. As he sits during a two-minute changeover, he excoriates himself in his native German. (Note: The video’s pop-up English subtitles may not appear on tablets or other mobile devices.)

****Watch out for swear word.****

Here’s the transcription:

You can’t win that way, Haasi. It’s not possible. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work. Just too weak. Too many errors. Too many errors. [A group of crowd members start chanting something in English. Haas then thanks someone in English for bringing him something.] It is always the same. [Blows his nose in a towel while a spectator can be heard shouting, in English, “Come on, Thomas!”]

I don’t want this anymore. I don’t feel like it. Why am I doing all this? For what? For whom? Except for myself. Why? For which reason? I can’t do it. I don’t get it. I’m paying people for nothing. For absolutely nothing. [He starts sipping from several different bottles and is quiet for several seconds.] That I can get excited over it. You’re a retard. [The same male spectators begin to chant something that sounds like “Let’s go, Tommy!”]

Once again, you didn’t go to the net. Nicely done. [Finishes drinking, takes off baseball cap. Smooths back his hair, puts cap back on.]

But you’re gonna win. You’ll win that match, come on! You can’t lose it. Fight! [Stands up and walks back on court.]

The video then shows Haas win the next point, an 11-shot rally, with a backhand down the line. Did his court-side monologue help him perform well? Many people in the field of sports psychology would say no—that Haas’ “self-talk” was overwhelmingly negative, and negativity hurts athletes on the field of play. Closer examinations of Haas’s self-directed diatribe, however, reveal that it may be more useful than you’d think.

On the field, course, track, pitch, pool or court, you are on your own. Even as part of a team, sport can be a lonely place, especially if mistakes are made and performance is affected. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for professionals – the physical and mental demands required must be so difficult to maintain. Those at the top, work hard, train even harder and have to be mentally tough.

One of those players that springs to mind, is that of Zinedine Zidane – a famous professional footballer who played for France, and clubs including Real Madrid, Juventus and Bordeaux to name but a few.

He was an idol of mine for many reasons (and still is) but is well-known for his bursts of anger and pure rage. A well documented example of this, was during the World Cup Final in 2006, where he head-butted an Italian player (Materazzi) for apparently making personal assaults on him. This ended in the player being sent off, and France being beaten. Unfortunately, because of this, Zidane will not only be remembered just for his ability on and off the ball, but incidents such as this where he lost control of his emotions.

It’s his character that interests me a lot though. Here, within the film ‘Zidane – a 21st Century Portrait’, he is filmed for the duration of a game versus Villarreal. With accompanying music by Mogwai, cameras and microphones capture his every move. A lot of it is from the first person and shows glimpses of what a footballer senses during a game.

Here’s a clip from the film itself:

Within the clip, and throughout the full film, Zidane narrates over certain parts (in subtitles) and talks about the voices he had whilst playing football growing up. I’m sure some of you can relate to this too!

He talks about the sights and sounds in the crowd; smells and feelings during the match, giving us a glimpse of what can through the minds of sportsmen and women. I think you’ll agree, some of them aren’t what you’d think.

Below, are some possible teaching ideas for using the above as a stimulus for writing. If you have any other suggestions or ideas, please comment or share them with us @johndcotter www.primarywrite.com

Thanks so much for reading.

Teaching Ideas: 

  • Develop sensory writing by firstly discussing the things Zidane could hear, see, smell and feel. List these using a senses grid.
  • Extend upon what the player could sense. What else could he possibly hear?
  • What happens next during the game?
  • Using descriptive writing and devices, write about what can be seen, such as the glaring floodlights.
  • Write a short recount about the match or a match, from the perspective of a chosen footballer – even themselves, with focus on using their senses and personal tone (positive and negative).
  • Live tweet from the mindset of the player – doesn’t have to be Zidane. This can be any sportsperson.
  • Show the pupils a short video clip of a player in thought, during a match at an important moment.
  • Use a comic plan (via @inspiredmind5) to write the thoughts and internal monologue of a player – possibly Andy Murray during the Wimbledon final or US Open final. Screenshot key images and moments where the tennis player is having a break between games.
  • Commentate on a recorded match or computer generated FIFA game in class.
  • Write a newspaper recount on a game. Not necessarily football, but another sport.

You can buy the album by Mogwai here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Zidane-A-21st-Century-Portait/dp/B000HT2KVQ

You can buy the full film ‘A 21st Century Portrait here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B000IMVERS/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_dp_ss_1?pf_rd_p=479289247&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=B000HT2KVQ&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=1GJXJ97YYRNW0R1Y4B6F



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