Ed Smith, the former Kent and England batsman, current commentator for BBC Test Match Special, has a particular template to his columns and essays that he contributes to outlets like ESPNcricinfo. Among my circle of cricket friends, it is called as “Ed Smith 101”. A typical Smith cricket column will include references to some 18th or 19th century philosophers, Malcolm Gladwell and and/or Nassim Nicholas Talib, something thrown in about a tribe of people from a corner of the world that seem to possess certain genetical traits, nifty turns of phrase from some pop culture icon, citing of some scientific research done in the USA or Europe, and a couple of cricket insider anecdotes thrown in, all neatly wrapped as an attempt to make a pseudo psychoanalysis of sports and sportspersons.
His recent offering at ESPNcricinfo, published on July 25, 2016, “Why sportsmen need stress” is another that follows the Ed Smith 101 template to a T. There is a reference to Bob Dylan; there is Nassim Talib; there is a researcher from Stanford University quoted; there is Nietzsche; there is an insider anecdote about English cricketers Alastair Cook and Joe Root; all neatly wrapped in to a 1000+ words pseudo psychoanalysis on stress and how sportspersons seem to thrive in it. (I’m sure we all know how we react to project deadlines and bosses hot after our asses to put together this powerpoint or close this deal; make that sale or complete writing that technical paper; we too seem to thrive in it just as well but that’s besides the point.).
In the aforementioned piece, Smith opens with turning a Bob Dylan lyric around for the topic of the week, and after telling us “First cricket, then a little science”, spends the first half of the piece talking about Cook and Root’s ability to soak up the pressures of expectations in international cricket, aided by couple of observations from English camp insiders. All solid so far.
It is the “science” portion of the piece that caught the attention of @mkrishna23 who shared it on Twitter. (Disclaimer: I’ve met Krishna a couple of times while watching Tests in England, and I follow him on Twitter which is how I came across this.)
There seems to be an awful lot of similarities between the piece published on The Economist on July 23, 2016, “Stress: What makes us Stronger” and Smith’s piece at ESPNcricinfo. You can read both the pieces and make up your mind but I thought I’ll place certain passages from both columns side by side, here. *[There is no byline provided in the Economist piece. It is possible that Smith wrote both the pieces, or not.]
Economist: FOR centuries physicists have used the word stress to describe force applied to materials. It was not until the 1930s that Hans Selye, a Hungarian-born endocrinologist, began using it of live beings. Selye injected rats with cow hormones, exposed them to extreme temperatures and partially severed their spinal cords to prove that all these sorts of maltreatment affected the rodents in the same ways: they lost muscle tone, developed stomach ulcers and suffered immune-system failure. He used the word for both the abuse of the rats and the health effects. Later on, it started to be used for psychological suffering as well.
Ed Smith: The modern concept of “stress” is less than a hundred years old. For centuries, it belonged to the language of physics: the force applied to materials. Only in the 1930s did Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist, transport the idea into the realm of live creatures. He exposed cows and rodents to extreme physical deprivation and suffering in order to study the effects on their immune systems and musculature. Subsequently, the word started to be used in the context of psychological as well as physical suffering.
Economist: Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.
Ed Smith: Stress is now defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”
Economist: Other scientists extended the original physics metaphor: just as many materials can withstand stress until a certain point, it was thought that humans could cope with stress if it did not become too severe… But above a certain threshold humans, like metal bars, would break.
Ed Smith: Psychologists have tended to view the ability to handle stress as a finite capacity. Beyond a certain point, human beings, like inanimate physical objects, would crack and break.
Economist: Now a new body of research is challenging that notion. Some scientists posit that what matters is not just the level of stress, or even its type, but how it is thought about… [A] study by Alia Crum of Stanford University’s Mind and Body Lab and others found that students who believed stress enhances performance were more likely to ask for detailed feedback after an uncomfortable public-speaking exercise. And seeing stressors as challenges rather than threats invites physiological responses that improve thinking and cause less physical wear and tear.
Ed Smith: But the academic consensus is now shifting. We’re learning that the way we perceive stress changes how it affects us. A study by Alia Crum at Stanford University showed that, once the association became established that stress enhanced performance, professionals found “stressful” circumstances led to heightened engagement and diminished ill-heath.
Economist: Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Upside of Stress”, helps people rethink stress by telling them that it is what we feel when something we care about is at stake. She asks them to make two lists: of things that stress them; and of things that matter to them. “People realise that if they eliminated all stress their lives would not have much meaning,” she says.
Ed Smith: Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Upside of Stress, invites people to make two lists: things that cause them stress, and things they care about. “People realise that if they eliminated all stress their lives would not have much meaning,” she concludes.
Having now talked about the cricket and science, Smith throws in a couple of terms of biology, Nietzsche and Talib references, and concludes by saying that there isn’t a need for us to worry about the elite sportspersons and the pressure they are performing under, because, “they are probably loving it”.
Last week, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the wife of the GOP nominee, Melania Trump made a speech in trying to introduce the Donald Trump she knows to the American electorate. A journalist recognized certain passages from the speech, as they were parts of Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC in 2008. As soon as the side-by-side juxtaposition of the similar passages went viral, it was first denied that there was any plagiarism involved, and it was sheer coincidence. Later on, it was stated that 93% of Melania’s speech was different from the First Lady’s, and so what’s the big deal? But ultimately, it was conceded that the passages in Melania’s speech were actually “inspired” by Mrs. Obama’s speech and one of the campaign staffer took the responsibility for it.
Now, I do not know who wrote that Economist piece as there’s no byline provided, or how much Ed Smith was inspired by it. He could very well have cited the Economist in his CI piece and we wouldn’t be having this conversation; He may very well have written the Economist piece and repackaged it for Cricinfo, I do not know, but the fact is that there are remarkable similarities between the two. So much so that if you read both the pieces, it would be reasonable to conclude that Smith pulled a Melania.
- – updated with the stuff in brackets at the suggestion of @DuncanMack149