I expect great commentators are those who are really doing something they love. They don’t just love sport, but they love the art of communication too.
Contrary to what you may think however, leading practitioners don’t always make the best analysts (late Australian cricket captain and commentator Richie Benaud and John McEnroe being notable exceptions). To excel in a particular field you need to have a conviction mindset and a heavy dose of self-belief. Analysts need to be more open to new ideas and less interested in directly influencing what’s happening before them. Yet it’s common for top sportspeople to make the leap from player to commentator. Some succeed, while others struggle.
In a recent podcast for Intelligent Life, professional cricketer-turned-broadcaster Ed Smith discusses why the psychology behind excellence in sport is the opposite of what’s needed to be a good analyst of the game. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Of course, viewers and listeners want to hear from great sportspeople. They’ve been there and done that, so they have the authority and experience to explain how a player might be feeling, or why a team is behaving in a particular way. However, as Smith explains, sports stars don’t always succeed as commentators because they’re generally uncomfortable with uncertainty.
Commentators and analysts need to be able to adjust their thinking as the facts change. A large part of success in sport, however, is about conviction and a belief that you’re better than your opponent. Commentators need skepticism and rationality, which are traits that can hinder performance in sport.
Commentary is a skill quite different from anything delivered on the track or field. Radio commentators in particular need to be able to observe and describe not just what they can see, but also communicate a feeling, or the ambience in a stadium. Great commentators excel in uncertainty, relaxed about being unable to influence the outcome of what is happening on the pitch.
Great sports commentary is an art, underpinned by expertise and an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, all delivered with perfect timing and tone. The best commentators resist the urge to say too much and are comfortable, on television, to let the images speak for themselves. They make it seem effortless, but there are hours of work that go into preparing to commentate for a hundred-meter final which lasts a mere matter of seconds.
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