When my sister and I were children, our Dad used to help while away car journeys by telling us stories from his youth. One of our favourites was the tale of the tug-of-war competition.
His National Service (back in the days when it was compulsory for young men in the UK) seemed to comprise playing sport and organising sports teams. He was a natural athlete, an inspiring leader and competitive to his core. And there were good sportsmen in the squadron. They won everything – except the tug-of-war competition. One day, Dad was taken aside and told to do something about it.
Think tug-of-war and you think large men, almost as wide as they are tall, terrifyingly strong and immovable. The pool of men Dad had available didn’t tick any of these boxes. But he’d been given his orders and, being a competitive type, he wasn’t going to throw in the towel.
He started training the “volunteers” and worked out that they had two things going for them. First, there were no stars and so everyone was equal. As a result, they were more likely to work together as a team, which he saw as invaluable. Secondly, they were desperate enough to follow a plan.
Dad spotted that a tug-of-war team holds the rope taught, but relaxes just before a major heave on the rope. A team is also thrown very slightly off balance when anyone moves their feet. His tactic was for his squadron’s team to exploit these weaknesses.
On the day of the competition, they were the minnows, but they held their nerve, worked as a team and won the competition. I think Dad got a weekend pass as a reward.
I thought about this story at the weekend when watching some of the Euro 2016 football matches. The need for teamwork is obvious (although that didn’t always shine through in the matches I saw), but goals tend to be scored when there’s been a lapse of concentration or a few seconds of weakness.
At this level, there isn’t a vast difference between any two teams, but seconds of weakness – or seconds of brilliance – can make the difference between winning and losing, victory and defeat. But don’t discount boring, work-a-day teamwork. No amount of brilliance – or sheer good luck – can replace it.