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Nobody's perfect, but we all think sports stars should be

Time was when we used to excuse each other's failings with an 'it could have happened to a bishop'. Then, when bishops did all but pay disturbance money to paedophile priests, 'it could have happened to a bishop' was summarily deleted from the vernacular. And so all we're left with is 'nobody's perfect'.

Yet the quest for perfection goes on. Sportsmen and sportswomen are definitely among those who are the most constant in their pursuit of perfection. Sports people generally go for golds when listing their New Year's goals. They demand the highest standards from within.

Most civilian perfectionists impose impossible standards on others while going easy on themselves.

We know a man who had his mother iron his boxers, but demanded his wife should get her figure back barely three weeks after giving birth to twins. The marriage lasted no longer than a football manager on a meagre budget. He has a new wife now and I'm told he bought her a nose for Christmas.

It's all in the perception of how we see ourselves and the mind is the last untamed frontier. We were among the 1,500 fortunate enough to attend the Asylum show at the INEC on New Year's night. Keith Barry hypnotised these two local Killarney lads. One man was a Martian and he spoke in a series of high-pitched beeps and squeaks which were remarkably similar to a copulating gannet. His pal was dazzled into thinking he was a translator.

"Beep, beep, squeak, eek eek neek eeeeghk", exclaimed the Martian excitedly.

"What did he say?" asked Barry of the translator.

"I'm not sure," replied the rusty linguist, who obviously hadn't heard a word of Martian since George Hook at the Autumn Internationals.

"Ask him what's his favourite food?" suggested the hypnotist.

"Beep, geneek, neek, eeek beep, jeep-jeep-peep-peep?" asked the translator.

"Geep, geep, beek. Eeeh, meeghk, chingmengelekkee neek, beek!", replied the Martian.

"What was that?" asked the hypnotist.

"He said they love bacon and cabbage above in Mars."

We can safely deduce that not only are there more 'E's' in Martian than a drug dealer's bathroom cabinet, but it can also be persuasively argued that if a hypnotist can get two cute Killarney boys to converse in inter-planetary tongues, the navigation and exploitation of the secret conduits of the brain is the key to the quest for perfection.

Padraig Harrington's sports psychologist is Dr Bob Rotella. I once mistakenly referred to the American as Dr Bob Nutella on a radio programme. Calling a sports psychologist after a chocolate spread made from nuts is probably a classic example of a Freudian slip. Nobody noticed. Not even Nutella or Dr Bob, who could at least have sent on a free jar and a badly needed voucher for a consultation.

Harrington won his Majors and then he reached permanently for the stars he had already slam-dunked three times.


He may also have fallen victim to his inherent courtesy and 'the fame never changed me' attitude all Irish sports people have to uphold for fear of being branded a big-headed git in a country where one degree of separation is the norm.

Harrington has a word for everyone, and that must be wearing in itself. Having watched him before he hit the big time, Padraig was always courteous to the fans; it's just that now everybody wants a piece of his time.

There was also the hunting down of a Tiger who was still burning bright before he succumbed to the dubious delights of the forests of the night -- and he was as close to perfect as it gets, on the golf course. Hopefully Harrington can get the balance right. He needs to ease up on himself a little, but not too much. There's great stuff in that man and he will win a Major this year.

The better you are, the tougher it is to maintain the same high standards. The fans take a certain impossible-to-repeat performance as a benchmark, and you and everyone else must live up to that.

We demand standards from our sports people we would never ask of ourselves or our own kids. There has to be pressure to perform, but how much is good and when is it too much?

A friend worked for a bank and they asked him to increase his sales year in, year out. "The secret", he said, "is to have a good year, but not too good because the bosses will look for you to improve on your best, which is just that, your best, and cannot therefore be improved upon."

The imposition of these impossible targets was what brought down the world economy and the English soccer team.

Thousands have taken to following rugby over the last few seasons and many are experts. It's like pinning a Michelin star on your chest after you've boiled your first egg.

I've noticed in recent years that spectators are not as easily roused. Nowadays it takes something special to get them going. The younger kids are fine. Their memories do not stretch back to Miracle Matches and Grand Slams.

Irish rugby fans used to be the loudest. Many still give their all but most just sit back waiting to be entertained. We would be as well off if we sent cardboard cut-outs to the games.

There are some players who cope better than others.

For three or four seasons, Keith Wood was where Richie McCaw is now. Woody was the best rugby player in the world.

He is incredibly positive and loyal. There was the huge commitment to training and he managed the transition from amateur to pro while enduring a succession of injuries that would have finished most of us. I think it was his self- deprecating humour too that kept him going. "I wear sweat bands to keep the hair out of my eyes."

He pushed himself to the limits and pushed too hard at times, but he knew how to have fun. There's nothing wrong with having a few beers or taking time out. Woody's analysis on Newstalk is a masterclass on tactics and common sense: two vital character traits needed to escape from the unremitting pressure to be the best.

Now that sperm banks are heading the way of Anglo Irish in this the age of the stem cell, we could take a sliver of the premium cuts from those who have proven themselves at the very highest level.

But even if we transplanted the best cells from each and every great and mixed them all up in the genetic blender, we would still not succeed in creating the perfect sports person.

So how hard do you push yourself to attain the impossible goal? Where's the dividing line? When is less more?

Each case has to be taken on an individual basis. There is no general solution. It's not just sport. Teachers wonder if they are pushing students too hard, or not enough. It happens in every walk of life.


The last words of the slack wire-walker when he fell from on high after he changed the whereabouts of his last will and testament from his right to his left pocket were: "It's all a question of balance."

The difference between falling and staying upright really can come down to tiny margins.

The stress test that breaks us may be the very thing that saves us in the long term and there is a peculiar comfort when you pass a phone box and you know the compulsion to rush in and tog out as Superman has left you forever.

Maurice Fitzgerald was one of the classiest and smartest GAA players of all time. He had the legend of his mentor Mick O'Connell from over the bay in Valentia to emulate. His father Ned was an All-Ireland medal winner and at every match Maurice played, the ghosts of past heroes haunted his every move.

Maurice never felt the need to be better than anyone, past or present. He knew too that while there were perfect days, there was only so much we humans can do.

I had the honour of observing him at close quarters for a season and I hope that he does not mind if I let you in on his secret. It took me years to figure out and I'm pretty sure this is an accurate reflection of what was going on in the mind of a very bright man.

Maurice Fitz just tried to be better than himself.

Irish Independent