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Building a winning mentality

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John Beattie | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

How is it that Scotland can win the medals it does? Our athletes, at times, defy logic.

A few years ago I met the Samoan rugby team, who were to play Scotland at Murrayfield the next day.

They had been to see Braveheart, that accurate portrayal of everyday Scottish life brought so lovingly to the big screen by Mel Gibson.

Robbie Renwick won gold in the 200m for Scotland

They told me they were scared of playing Scotland because Scots are "warriors". Scotland won.

Anyway, I'm watching the lawn bowls, sitting in the shade, and feeling patriotic in the middle of a scorching Delhi lunchtime.

Patriotic because our national trait, which is to talk Scotland down and be negative, has been confounded here in India.

I wish, as a country, we could bottle the kind of guts and determination some of our athletes have shown here and give it, free, to every person in Scotland.

After a strange morning of queasiness - you should not take strong anti-biotics before breakfast - I am back in the ring as the infection created by a cut elbow recedes.

So much for early morning swims. That is my story and I am sticking to it your honour.

But here's today's question: I need someone to explain something to me; how Scottish people beat the Australians, New Zealanders, and indeed the English, at anything?

What do you mean we have never beaten the New Zealanders at rugby?

Australia, for starters, has a population four times as big as ours and a sporty culture.

I can picture little Australian children picking up tennis rackets and running outside, past their barbecues, throwing off their thongs (er, that's what they call flip-flops) and whacking the odd ball or two in anger.

At the same time, for most of the year, Scottish children brave the rain. Mummy's thongs are in the tumble drier.

Yet, Colin Fleming from Linlithgow, who took two years out to finish a degree and work for a bit, partnered Jocelyn Rae in the mixed doubles to a tennis gold medal by beating the top seeded Aussies.

How the heck does that happen?

Marvellous, and I won't even mention Judy Murray's lads.

Australia is surrounded by water, there are more swimming pools in Melbourne than in the whole of Scotland, and yet Robbie Renwick, a Scot from Aberdeen who now lives in Glasgow, is the fastest Commonwealth man over 200 metres in the pool.

The irrepressible Hannah Miley also won a gold, and our relay team beat England to win silver.

Absolutely brilliant. A Martian, visiting, would say "Xwrgy, fafu, spurtic" which means "this not possible."

And have you ever cycled on Scotland's potholes - sorry - roads? Two young women, Jenny Davis and Charlie Joiner, took silver in the velodrome.

For me, that medal was as important as any. Two years ago Davis was a judo player and Joiner a hockey player.

It sends out a message that hard work and that "warrior" outlook gets you places, as does the talent transfer system, a system designed to win medals.

And every time I see Mathew Pincent I realise that English people come from a marginally different gene pool and they are bigger than us.

I know this sounds crazy, but I think two things come out of this.

The first is that Scottish people, me included, are inherently pessimistic and negative.

We are brought up to be argumentative but not loud, stubborn but not positive, and to ensure that winners are never allowed to be lauded too extravagantly... just in case.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with some of that, as over-confidence can have terrible consequences.

That, actually, breeds a certain bite in every Scot. There is an abrasiveness to us that I like.

The second is that we do have a "warrior" outlook, even though we might think we are a nation of softies.

I watch Susan Egelstaff the badminton player and I see it in her, I see it in our boxers, I saw it in Eilidh Child and her silver, and Steph Twell and even, as we speak, I see it in nearly 40 degrees of heat as our bowlers try to win a gold medal.

We never talk ourselves up, but, actually, some of the athletes here have shown something peculiarly Scottish.

Right, how do we get this into a bottle?


  • Comment number 1.

    can't we just have another 'insightful' article on the lessons India has to learn from the 'home countries'.
    scots are wannabe englanders, face the reality.

  • Comment number 2.

    Maint123. Nope, not wannabe Englanders. We share an island, we are pretty similar, but I am Scottish, and supported England at the bowls when they were playing Australia.

    As far as India learning lessons - that is not what I suggested, I said that they should let modern India, the powerful business India, run these kind of events. India has a growing economy while ours shrinks, but there is over staffing, inefficiency, transport chaos and disorganisation all around the games.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well John, transportation has always been a problem with Delhi, and even with the metro now, the situation hasn't improved much. Although I agree that the games would have been better if a private organisation was in charge of things because our bureaucratic structure is a joke, as you might have noticed by the huge list of dignitaries that Mr. Kalmadi read out at the opening ceremony.

  • Comment number 4.

    As someone born in Delhi and brought up in Glasgow (two Commonwealth Games for the price of one!), I have to agree with John's sentiments about India building on its strengths. I love India but when I return there I find some aspects of the bureaucracy overwhelming. However, I do think that this aspect is improving, albeit slowly, and greater scrutiny of India internationally is no bad thing to help move its processes into the modern era.

  • Comment number 5.

    John, I think you may have overdosed on curried haggis and now your kilt's too tight. Whilst we celebrate the successes it is only reasonable to mention the disappointments, others may call them failures.

    The much heralded wrestling squad and one of the largest at the games will return empty handed.

    The heavily funded cycling team returns with one silver medal and with no disrespect to the girls, but it was in an event with only 4 entries.

    Then there are our lawn bowlers. Only the men's pair qualified for the play-offs eventually losing in the match for the bronze making this the poorest performance by Scottish bowlers since bowling was introduced. Surprising as we in Scotland seem surrounded by bowling greens just as "Australia is surrounded by water" . England qualified in all 4 disciplines winning 1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze so I hope the reasons for the poor performance are not given as the hostile climate and condition of the green.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    EileenDover, the bowls hasn't finished yet. Only two of the three events in both the mens and womens categories have completed. The singles are still underway, Paul Foster is acknowledged as one of the best in the world and is tied for second in his group. The Scottish womens entry is sitting in third in a qualifying spot. It's a bit premature to declare the bowls teams performance as the worst ever.

  • Comment number 8.

    Both Paul Foster and Claire Johnstone are through to the quarter finals and still in contention for Gold. Could still be a decent return from the Bowls squad.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi John
    I thought this blog I found in the Guardian might be of more use`to you than me stranded in dull grey St Andrews.

  • Comment number 10.

    John - your both right and wrong in what you say in this blog.

    The guts, mental strength and determination of our sports persons is to be celebrated.

    Your right in that we have a small population compared to countries like England, Canada, India etc. and therefore if you have a large number of people specialising in one sport, they are not available to specialise / take part in another sport.

    Nevertheless, I think the whole numbers thing can be a red herring. I think sporting ethos, facilities, parental and school / community encouragement are huge factors to any sporting success, and more important than population size. Structures to identify and develop talent - that are not nepotistic or based on 'old school tie' networks - are also needed.

    Oh ... and the BBC are not helping your argument with their function to show the medals table per head of population! Isle of Man, Wales, New Zealand and Australia along with lots of Pacific Islands are all above us in this table.


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