From United to lowly star, success is born from patience

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 11, 2014

PATIENCE? Just don't tell a Manchester United fan about patience. For him it's just an archaic, puritanical English name for women and a game of cards played by pensioners. But patience as in waiting calmly for streaks of wins, for points, for trophies, that's just hard. Because he's not used to it. He's been fattened with EPL titles and he didn't buy a ticket for this poverty of goals and a pause in progress. His world is now, not next season.

The owner in football, of almost any club, is his echo. He didn't buy his club to be patient. High investment seeks rapid returns. And so from Cardiff City to Fulham, all season managers have lost their heads. Chelsea's Roman Abramovich often dismisses them with the nonchalance of a man opening a bottle of wine. He will change, till things change. Billionaires have their own version of patience.

Football is not alone in dancing with this paradox: Sport celebrates the art of motion and craves rapid reward, yet it is essentially about waiting patiently. Not just waiting for selection, for matches to start, for endless flights, but waiting for skill to flower. It is a capacity for long suffering articulated by Singapore's fine footballer Hariss Harun: "Patience is a form of courage. It is an under-rated sporting word that is not given enough importance."

Hariss does not advocate firing United's David Moyes for he knows that winning teams resemble exquisite pieces of architecture that require a deliberate and unique masonry. Australia's new cricket coach has his players reciting jokes in a huddle every morning, one tiny piece of his philosophy of sport as fun. They found victory, but patiently, and it is this trial and error which makes for sporting adventure: No one is certain what will work, and when.

We can argue Moyes' capability and Alex Ferguson's culpability, but any search for fresh signings and any arrangement of new formations is only promised with time. Only in films do good teams morph into great in two hours.

Singapore football under coach Bernd Stange, is attempting, says Hariss, a "more attacking, short-passing, possession game". It requires both altered mindset and changed body. You need fitness, he says, you have to help team-mates, run onto balls and into spaces. It is like a ballet company perfecting a complex movement under a new choreographer.

Missteps are routine and failures multiply. But in a revealing truth applicable both to mighty United and lesser Lions, Hariss notes: "Everyone is frustrated, but it becomes a test of teamwork and the character of the individual within the team. Is he made for the big occasion and does everyone pull together or do you point fingers?"

Patience is a learning of emotional control, it is an attitude which is akin to a suit of armour. It protects dutiful athletes whose hymn is work, wait, watch. Even Roger Federer, 32, let slip that "maybe I'll play my very best in March-April" by when rhythm might return. Patience's beauty is that it is a cousin of hope.

Of course it is complicated for athletes to hunt success and watch their peers seize it, yet must fulfil a patient process. Only a thousand practice strokes turn a slice backhand into instinct, only a thousand squats turn legs into meaningful tools. It is champion's belief in plan and trust in labour.

Singapore shooter Jasmine Ser recounts a fundamental shift she made in her stabilising technique. "I tended to trigger before being fully stable. I could still shoot a 10, but coach Kirill Ivanov showed me how to be more stable." It sounds simple, but it took her a year and a half to be comfortable. "It's a changing of your instinct, it's very mental." But she pushed, and says, "it's about how much are you willing to accept".

Athletes, and teams, will read suspicion of their stagnant skills in newspapers, yet they know the observer can't look within them. Improvement is so subtle it is not immediately evident in a contest and only the athlete knows: I am better, I can feel it. As Michael Jordan once noted in an ad: "I know what is within me, even you can't see it yet. Look me in the eyes. I have something more important than courage, I have patience."

In a planet devoted to instant photos, one type of fan still won't care to hang around to admire every sporting virtue. It is why longer, unfolding sports, where beauty lies in patient watching, are thirsting for oxygen. In late 2013, the New York Times had an opinion piece on baseball titled "Is the Game Over" while cricket has recently evolved an entirely new version - Twenty20 - where waiting is sinful.

But other fans are more tolerant, they relish the developing of a team, they admire Rafael Nadal on whose sweat-stained face lies the truth of his patience. If rallies become an endless multiplication of shots, he waits, he knows his chance will come. It makes him a miserable man to play.

Moyes currently is plain miserable as he works in a club who are unaccustomed to waiting. His only weapon is history, in Ferguson's own gradual growth and in the words of a wise Russian. "The strongest of all warriors are these two - time and patience," wrote Leo Tolstoy. He should know. War And Peace, by one count, is over 560,000 words. As with readers, sporting fans should figure that sometimes it's worth waiting for the end of a story.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 11, 2014

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