During the five decades that I have been involved in sport, I heard many “educated” people, who should have known better, making fun of sportsmen’s intelligence, verbal and thinking skills. That refrain has been repeating itself with constant regularity throughout the ages. So recent comments by a politician that any idiot can become a cricketer did not surprise me.
Many of our sportsmen were outstanding ambassadors who literally “put” West Indies on the world map. The best of them are still admired, respected and loved by billions of people around the world. Apart from a few musicians, no other West Indians, however exalted they were in regional professions have come close to matching that level of universal recognition, appreciation and acclamation.
In that regard, Lord Learie Nicholas Constantine deserves special mention. Just one or two generations removed from slavery, Constantine went to England in 1929 and by 1969 he became the United Kingdom’s first black life peer. Lord Constantine was a cricketer, lawyer, journalist, broadcaster and Trinidad and Tobago’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. After cricket, he became a politician, a founding member of the People’s National Movement in Trinidad and subsequently a minister of communications in the Trinidad government. An advocate against racial discrimination in later life he was influential in the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act in Britain. He was knighted in 1962. Not bad for a poor black cricketer from Petit Valley, Trinidad.
We usually see things, not as they are, but as we are. So our biases and prejudices usually show their ugly faces when we are assessing the quality and worth of other people, particularly those whom we consider to be in a lower social, professional or educational class.
Many years ago, I learned a valuable lesson from Errol Barrow, Prime Minister of Barbados. Soon after I returned to Barbados from Australia, Prime Minister Barrow asked me to accompany him to a local supermarket. While there, an old man, barefooted, unkempt and scantily dressed asked the prime minister if he could have a word with him. The prime minister listened to him for five minutes and after the old man left he turned to me and said: “That old man just gave me the answer to a problem that my government has been unable to solve.”
He added: “You should always respect and listen to people who want to talk to you, no matter who they are or what they look like. You never know from whom good ideas and solutions will come. It would have been very easy for me to underestimate that man’s knowledge and intelligence and ignore him. But look what I would have missed had I done so.”
Intelligence is a tricky thing to measure. The results are influenced, not only by the person’s culture and “logic bubble”, but also by his “universe of action”, the environment and set of circumstances in which he operates.
In 1971, four American psychologists gave an intelligence test to a group of Liberians. The purpose of the test was to arrange 20 items into four groups—food, food containers, clothing and instruments. Instead of sorting the items the way the psychologists expected, the Liberians used functional pairings, sorting the potato, one of the food items with the knife which is an instrument. They claimed that the knife is used to cut the potato and stressed that this is the way anyone with intelligence and common sense would arrange the two items. Repeated attempts produced the same result.
The psychologists then asked the Liberians to sort the items the way a stupid person would. They did so exactly the way the psychologists wanted them arranged. The psychologists’ perspective of intelligent behaviour was the Liberians’ perspective of foolish behaviour and vice versa.
Although the two groups were working in the same place, they were operating in separate “logic bubbles” and “universes of action”. Consequently, they were seeing and assessing things from different perspectives.
According to Dr Edward De Bono, Western civilisation has been enamoured with the clash system of thinking in which two sides with opposing views and desires fight it out. This adversarial system covers argument and debate and pervades our politics, courts, and even our day-to-day living. In today’s polarised world, this style of thinking has become the dominant and at times the only form of thinking.
When one side attacks, the other side defends or counter-attacks. They criticise and discredit each other’s ideas and become highly aroused and inflexible. In some cases they become personally offensive. Consequently, they stop listening to each other and are then incapable of seeing any good ideas in their opponent’s argument. Proving the other side wrong is one of their most important priorities because each party incorrectly believes that proving the other side wrong would automatically make them right. Clever tactics are often developed to ensure that outcome. In the end, one side wins and is happy and the other side loses and is resentful. The side with the stronger argument or the louder voice often wins, but loudness of mouth and strength of argument do not guarantee correctness of argument. Win/win outcomes are extremely rare in this form of thinking.
Critical thinking is prevalent and well taught in our schools and universities. But where did it originate? According to de Bono, it came from the Church. In the old days, preserving theology was taken very seriously and this meant attacking and destroying any heresies that might spring up. The Church focused on and excelled in the skills of argument and destructive criticism. Showing the heresy to be nonsense preserved intact the Church’s theology.
Since the churches built and controlled the schools and universities in their own image, this idiom became the dominant style of Western thinking. Adversarial thinking is an important part of thinking but it is dangerous to use it as the dominant and only form.
Sport is about physical and mental performance. Athletes are judged by their actions on the field. The skills of literacy and numeracy dominate the thinking in politics and in many other professions in which the rhetoric/reality gap is wide. The skills of numeracy and literacy are required in sport but they are not as important as the skills of operacy or doing. Unlike people in many other professions, the athlete can’t just talk about what he is going to do; he has to go on the field and do it. Coaches often say that talk is cheap.
Regrettably, many people in our countries mistakenly equate quick thinking and verbal fluency with signs of high intelligence and effective thinking.
Academic intelligence and sport intelligence are very different things. While the academics are well trained and excel in logic and analytical thinking (process thinking) they tend to be somewhat weak in the field of perceptual thinking; an area in which good athletes excel. In today’s rapidly changing world, perceptual thinking has become the most important part of thinking. It is the area in which most mistakes in thinking are made.
Having had extensive experience in both the academic and sporting fields, I am willing to say that in my humble opinion, good sportsmen are better thinkers than many of the people in other professions. This is so because of the quality of their perceptual and creative thinking, as well as their capacity to adjust to rapidly changing game situations. Good sportsmen know how to identify the challenges in the situations they face, how to think calmly and clearly about them, and how to tailor their skills and resources to capitalise on them.
So I would like to tell the learned Barbadian politician and some of his colleagues that cricketers are not idiots. They are brighter than many of the people in their profession.
According to Albert Einstein: “The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking that we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level as they were created.”
If Einstein is correct, all of us in the Caribbean must learn to address our issues and challenges from a different level of thinking, within a new perspective. That means toning down adversarial and destructive thinking and raising our perceptual, creative and design thinking to standards that exceed current levels.
— Dr Rudi Webster is an author, former West Indies team manager and performance enhancer