There was a fascinating article in the Daily Telegraph this week about the New Zealand rugby union set-up's approach to team building. Overseen by a former international volleyball player called Gilbert Enoka, the All Black's dressing room creed is most notable for its revolutionary "no dickhead policy", which basically takes a very strong line on people being dickheads.
This is achieved in part by members of the team taking it in turns to sweep the dressing room floor, thereby proving they’re not dickheads. And beyond this, by players speaking honestly and openly to one another in a culture of muscular free-flowing non-dickheadish, humble, manly, tearful . . . Well, you get the idea.
Enoka has apparently been influenced by a company called Gazing Performance Systems, which helps sales reps using a technique called “blue-head thinking”. He has some good lines of his own, too. “If you neglect nourishing who you are, you just become a team that operates skin deep; we have to be a team that operates bone deep.”
Plus my favourite: “The brain is made up of three parts: instinct, emotion and thinking.” And by now I’m pretty sure you’ve also noticed the excellent irony here. Against all odds, the brains behind the All Blacks successful “no dickheads” policy would appear to be, on the face of it, a bit of a dickhead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, quite the opposite. Enoka is clearly very good at whatever it is he’s doing. It is simply that the broader picture suggests he may have got this slightly back-to-front, and in practice attempting to eradicate dickheadedness seems not just fruitless but self-defeating. Let’s face it, a no dickheads policy, properly implemented, would pretty much destroy professional sport altogether, not to mention robbing us of some of the most glorious teams and individual athletes in history.
This is not to denigrate sports people personally. Away from the trials of trying to win they are, of course, just a bunch of people like anyone else. But in competition mode these are not everyday human beings.
To excel at such reductive, mechanical tasks – hitting a ball, running in a circle – while maintaining the degree of fearless, blinkered, all-consuming competitive display though which sport becomes a kind of art form . . . Well, we’re going to need bold, finely engineered human beings. And not just that. We’re going to need dickheads, too. The finest, most psychically magnificent dickheads mankind can produce.
This has been evident enough in the recent book-based rehashing of the careers of Roy Keane and Kevin Pietersen. Off the pitch, Keane seems quite nice now. As a player he had it all: passing ability, tactical intelligence and above all that insufferable self-destructive drive to succeed insatiably at certain physical activities that don’t in the end actually matter in the slightest.
Put all this together and you have the galvanising heart of Manchester United’s relentless winning machine, a player who was famously furious with Dwight Yorke for enjoying having just won his first major trophy, for going out to a few discos, squiring the odd model – while outside there’s Roy being dragged off down a corridor, yelling where’s the pasta and fruit, where’s the heart, the fury the soul the madness?
Similarly, Pietersen was at his most captivating right at the start of things with England when he appeared centre stage looking like a visitor from another planet, a luminously needy embodiment of pure unapologetic talent. This has always been the best part of him as a cricketer and personally I’m convinced his book would have been much better received if he’d simply called it ‘Yes, I Am A Wonderful Arsehole’ and replaced the cover photo with a shot of himself, all smiles, performing an outrageous air switch-hit with a latex replica of Andy Flower’s severed head.
Yet for all that, it isn’t hard to see what the no dickheads policy is about. Steve Archibald famously suggested team spirit was “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” but at least in those pre-modern times the forces acting on individual athletes tended to force them together rather than drag them apart.
Whereas the movement now in all sport is towards atomising, separating out, the celebration and empowerment of the individual. In this light, the no dickhead policy – we are together: we are bonded in being vehemently, unifyingly anti-dickhead – seems as good a device as any in helping to construct a coherently blinkered team out of the competing gravity of individualism.
Hence, in rugby union, teams will often adopt a tone of all-consuming uber-seriousness – a business of real men with real feelings really feeling their feelings – that sees each match treated with the kind of tearful, lip-trembling reverence usually reserved for the funeral of a sad, brave horse.
There is, though, perhaps a little danger here and a fear for those caught up in the homogenising machine. Who thinks of the dickhead now? Who will nurse his foibles when teams are so keen to control the variables?
Successful athletes, the ones who soar above and justify the whole ragged, hilarious business, are often the ones with that edge, the kids who spat and snarled and never gave up. Bring us your ungovernable egomaniacs. Long live, ragged, rough-edged human potential. Viva KP and Keano! Viva dickhead! Guardian Service