Clairvoyance in the commentary box: a vignette from the psychopathology of modern life

I remember being at a wedding reception talking to someone who was 70 odd.  I asked them whether in their day it was normal for the bride and groom to put the tip of the knife in the cake and then beam at the cameras for two or three minutes – celebrities on their special day. Sure enough, back in the day, the camera was at the service of life, or was most of the time, not vice versa.

Today I’ve noticed a similar, subtle but profound difference in the zeitgeist. Listening to the Australian Open commentary it’s extraordinary how much psychologising goes on. Now filling in all those hours with chat is probably quite difficult, but the current formula (or perhaps it’s just a formula built around Jim Courier’s style) is endless speculation on what the players are thinking/feeling.

“Take us inside Novak’s mind Leyton” says Jim, and sure enough Leyton does his best in the role play. Roger Rasheed is on hand in hushed tones in the stands telling us what it’s like. He’s right there you see. Well so are Jim and Leyton, but he’s so close he has to speak quietly – and of course that means he can get even further inside the players’ minds. (Quiet – Roger is trying to hear the players thinking.)

And it turns out that whoever is asked to take us inside a player’s mind really can!  They just say what they reckon the player is thinking – though it seems pretty likely they have no more idea than anyone else. Bruce McAvaney is into this schtick like a rat up a drainpipe of course and is endlessly asking Jim “So what would he be thinking as they change ends”. 

Is this a terrible thing? Well no it’s not.  It’s a ‘manner of speaking’. I guess we are all able to insert the implied “my guess is that he’s thinking . . . ” at the beginning of each of Roger Rasheed’s speculations. And culture makes these kinds of shortcuts all the time. “How do you do?” must have begun as a question but today is a routine, polite greeting.

But I would like to say that I don’t like it either.

It is banality masquerading as expertise. And one of the reasons I’m particularly aware of it is that I get asked clairvoyant questions all the time in media interviews. Not just within what might be claimed as my domain of expertise “how will the economy be in a year’s time?” which in my opinion is silly enough. Often radio journalists will ask me to say how the average Australian will react or a politician or God knows what. Just pretty much anything that’s coursing through their brain at the time.

It is the cult of the expert in the box together with the cult of the amazing super athlete. Often it turns out that what goes on in the mind of one of these athletes is related to their being a true champion. Well some of these guys are amazing there’s no doubt, but if I’m to have my awe inspired, I need a little variety a little insight, not the same endlessly banal psycho-dreck. There is also something pathetic about the way in which it elevates both the expert and the celebrity (the athlete) above the rest of us who look on adoring, and waiting for guidance.

The whole thing is an exercise in aggrandisement. It’s ill-suited to what is, or used to be our national culture which fancies itself as egalitarian. John Newcome was in this mould. Corny and folksy, he was nevertheless quite insightful about both tennis technique and the match temperament of the players. He’d often point out why a shot did or didn’t work out – the player didn’t get down to the volley properly, tended to toss the ball too high on their serve or whatever.

Last night Pat Rafter played Roger Rasheed’s role in the stands and didn’t seem to play along with the psycho-babble script. On one occasion he asked the question from the stand rather than the other way round – asking Hewitt in the box whether it was particularly difficult to serve to Nadal and why – and what he’d do in Federer’s position. They then had a chat about how Nadal was in nappies when Pat was playing which was funny, and then we learned how Hewitt finds it serving to Nadal (he said it wasn’t too bad, particularly where one could serve to his backhand in the deuce court).

It was a lot more interesting than the umpteenth inane speculation about what Nadal was thinking at the time. In the post match interview Jim Courier asked Nadal what he asks all of the players in his post-match interview. “What were you thinking when you were down a break in the third? Take us through that.”. Rafa told him he was thinking that he really really wanted to win the point.

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Stephen Bounds
9 years ago

Love the pic, Nicholas — your article is worth it for that alone :)

To partly play devil’s advocate: just as explaining how holding a racquet at a certain angle assists in making cross-court backhands, discussing a player’s mental state can explain trends over time such as why they’ve put 10 shots in a row into the top of the net.

So there’s a place for psychoanalysis. It is typically done well in test cricket, which is a mental test of endurance as much as anything. But I agree that much of current sports commentary is the equivalent of a reality-show voiceover, and about as interesting.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

It’s an indication of how media covers Tennis, against say two generations ago, in response to social and cultural change in general.
It was a game Australia once owned, apart from the Americans. We expressed our triumph over the forces of darkness as the Romans did at the Colosseum, as we symbolically despatched contesting forces from “other” locations, to the rapturous applause from Aussie commentators. We finally duped ourselves into beleiving that sport was the ultimate sole measure of human worth, that the annual disciplining of off shore interests at Kooyong and Wimbledon was the only requirement and symbolism of, an instigation and preservation of an Aristotelian timelessness and confirmation that our final pre eminence was of a natural state affairs.
Like the Aztecs, we dutifully proffered our annual offerings in “other” (if symbolic)offerings, that the Gods be propitiated and the natural order continue.
From the mid seventies, the country began a slow realisation that supposedly easy times could come to an end, as our elders from depression times had warned us. Yet somehow the dominance ended and foreigners came to pre-eminence in sports that were once our fields of excellence.
Coinciding with de-industrialisation and higher educational standards, we began instead to seek new forms within which to regain or express our identity, contesting instead in art and culture. The Bradmans and Lavers of earlier times became the Rushes and INX’s of the next one.
This left the people running tennis and media with a problem- difficult to draw audiences when Aussie players could no longer cut the mustard at top level,so the narrative had to change. We expropriated people like Courier and MacEnroe, transmorphed into examples of our previous triumphs;”us” and our creatures despite the fact they had been once our adversaries and had these cultivate an attitude of detachment, creating a site for our own rehabilitation, this time as wise philosophers rather than as combatants- Timelessness restored.

Marks
Marks
9 years ago

@3

“I’m objecting to its crudeness and – to use a rather pompous word the vulgarity of the way it’s being done by Jim Courier and the crew right now. The way it’s done is to pay homage to the ‘expert’ and the ‘champion’ – ie the ex champion in the commentary box that they will have some hotline into the mind of the champion on the court. It’s risible.”

You mean sports reporters are just like political reporters?

Who’d have thought it?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

Paul at #2. Well said.

It reinforces my impression that in the early 70s everything changed. The world (or maybe just the West) peaked out, or plateaued out, or started to slide sideways – or something.

derrida derider
derrida derider
9 years ago

“… filling in all those hours with chat is probably quite difficult …”

Got it in one. I do wish they’d do what the cricket commenters do and talk about the weather, or the epic 1954 match at Lords in which Nigel Fotherby-StJohn smashed some colonial bowler over the long-on boundary. Better yet, get Kerry O’Keefe in – a genuinely funny man (both funny ha ha AND funny peculiar).

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

The least uninteresting part of cricket on TV (or cricket generally) is watching the grass grow.

(Apols for the double negative, but ‘most interesting’ didn’t seem at all correct.)

FDB
FDB
9 years ago

The least interesting aspect of cricket is hearing people who don’t happen to like it bang on about how boring it is.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

That’s really saying something.

observa
observa
9 years ago

Listening to the Australian Open commentary it’s extraordinary how much psychologising goes on.

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller

Or maybe it’s just a case of time gentlemen please, your time is nearly up!

observa
observa
9 years ago

Cricket is a very unique phenomenon on TV. If we hadn’t developed the culture of it, it’s very hard to see anyone developing it again.

Some of us can recall long summer afternoons with McGilvray the pencil, coconut and radio but it all seems a wee bit distant from the 20/20 crowd and the third umpire, etc.