Thursday, 18 October 2007

Jonny and the art of imperfection

Jonny Wilkinson has only just become a hero. When I say only just, I mean this year, 2007.

How on earth can I say such a thing about England's greatest ever rugby player? Because perfection inspires in a different way to excellence.

In 2003, Jonny changed English sport by beating the Australians, in Australia, thereby fulfilling his own talent as well as that of the England team itself. This was the fruit of Jonny's perfectionism - he is the most dedicated professional the world has ever seen, who will not settle for second best. His dedication to perfect goal kicking is legendary. He would take 99 kicks in practice, and if the 100th was wrong, he'd start again.

Notoriously, Jonny's is a driven, troubled mind. He will not sleep if he does not do well. He cannot live with himself if he makes a mistake. Therefore, he will pratice endlessly to control what happens on the pitch. And til 2003, he never really did make a mistake. He was driven, by fear of imperfection, to be perfect. And he pretty much was.

But, as the great Simon Barnes once wrote, it was as though in exchange for that winning kick in Sydney, Jonny entered into a Faustian pact in which he would never play properly again. Since that time he has played 17 matches in 4 years. He has injured both knees, his back, his kidney, his feet, his neck, and if I remember correctly, his bicep. I think he threw in a hernia operation too.

It is Jonny's response to this that marked the beginning of his hero status. Because Jonny
showed the same dedication, determination and guts to come back from all those injuries. For someone who worked so tirelessly to eradicate the flaws from his game, he must have begun to doubt himself, and realised that fate was his master after all.

But he never gave up. Instead he came back again and again and again. He even made it to the world cup final.

But now here's the real lesson.

He is not the player he once was. He just isn't as good. His kicking is not as good. He missed crucial kicks against both Australia and France and gave too much possession away. He is also in a team which is nowhere near as good as 2003.

The moment Jonny became a hero is not when he was perfect - kicking England to victory and never making a mistake. No, Jonny because a hero when he started missing kicks, yet STILL carried on doing his best for the team. And Jonny's best still wins games for his team, partly because he is still good, but partly because he inspires his team mates.

Sure, it must be great having a perfect player in your side. But this doesn't inspire those around you in the same way. In terms of teamwork, in terms of all being in it together, of the sheer value of having a man such as this in your side, I suspect England would take this new, damaged Jonny.

This is now a Jonny Wilkinson who knew perfection, but who then fell short. Then without ego, he shrugged even that off, and set out once more do his best for his team.

I know many perfectionists, and I can be one too. But now's a good time to remember, Jonny's best can still be good enough, though it is not always. But he became truly inspirational when he became imperfect, and still kept trying.

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