WINNING changes everything.
It is the immutable law of sport. It may also be true of life. Andy Murray, Scots and wry, might allow himself a brief smile in the aftermath of his US Open and Olympic triumphs. In the dark, ancient days of, say, June this year, the Dunblane tennis player was routinely caricatured as a surly, brooding character who "choked" when faced with the biggest challenges.
Today he is lauded almost universally as the gritty fighter who never gave up, the very reincarnation of Bruce and his spider, the Caledonian competitor who would not be denied whatever the odds.
The 25-year-old is now being touted as the hero who showed Scots how to step over the fissures in our collective psyche, how to succeed when all seems doomed, how to use the positive to beat the negative. There is a gaudy portrait being drawn that depicts Murray as Braveheart, using his racquet as a broadsword to dispel self-doubt, to condemn those Celtic demons to perdition, to show that Scots are the best, if only we believed in ourselves.
But it is not difficult, instead, to picture Murray having a chuckle at all of this. He has a instinctive, native aptitude for self-deprecation and will be slightly baffled by the image of himself as the standard-bearer for a new, improved Scotland that will be packaged to survive the doorstep challenges of the 21st century like some nation-sized packet of Daz.
The truth is that all top-class sportsmen suffer doubts that can only be dispelled by winning, and they fight furiously in adversity. It is what separates them from the merely talented. The question is not what Murray has done for his country or even what his country has done for him, but rather – what kind of nation seeks to use an individual and his personality as some sort recipe for a better communal life? The answer, of course, is a nation that is still unsure of itself; a nation that does not quite know itself.
It is daft and, perhaps dangerous, to take Murray and his story and decree that whatever a multi-millionaire can do in breaking through doubt can be replicated by a junkie in Possil or a harassed middle-manager in Bearsden.
Scotland's problems with emotional health cannot be swatted away with the force of a Murray backhand, but there is a lesson in every experience, even one as singular as that of the Dunblane player. Is it possible to put Murray metaphorically on a couch and delve into what makes him both peculiarly and triumphantly Scottish and what makes him fallibly and frailly Caledonian?
This approach is hampered by two factors. The first is that Murray is constitutionally reticent and is among the dwindling number of top sports stars who has never employed a psychologist.
Any investigation into his mental make-up would be resisted by him. I have conducted many interviews with Murray and been present at dozens of his press conferences but the only intriguing soundbite I ever elicited from him was: "Only my mum gets me." Murray does tennis, he does not do celebrity confessionals. I am one of the dwindling breed of journalists who thank him sincerely for that trait. The second problem with using Murray as a cipher for Scottishness is severe. It concerns the validity of taking him as some sort of template for the common man when he is, frankly, the uncommon man. This is a Scot who has raced along the road less travelled.
Yet there are traces in the superstar that link him with fellow Scots trudging on less elevated paths in terms of wealth and fame. Murray has a work ethic and strong family values. He places a high premium on loyalty.
He is – like most Scottish males in their 20s – a master slagger of mates. It is, after all, the only way one can tell them that one loves them without industrial amounts of alcohol.
On court he can seem tormented, even troubled. Off it, he is invariably at ease. Yet some seem to need Murray to conform to an image of a dysfunctional human being who finally found salvation on a court in New York. This version of events offers hope to a nation struggling with the fall-out of an emotional, psychological and spiritual crisis that has been treated with drugs and alcohol. If Oor Andy has been redeemed, then surely we all can be. The hurt of a nation can thus be banished by Andy's tunes of glory. It is a theory full of whimsy and one that would not survive cursory inspection. Its only significance lies in why it is being posited at all.
That Scotland has problems with emotional literacy is as obvious and as painful as a butt to the napper. The symptoms are laid bare in Carol Craig's book, The Scots' Crisis Of Confidence, and they induce a wince of recognition from this observer. They include a collective and individual lack of confidence, an inability to see the world in true terms, a tendency to criticise heavily and not constructively, the strong injunction to know your place, and concerns about the vulnerability of our identity as we live in the shadow of a bigger country.
Craig, chief executive of the Centre For Confidence And Wellbeing, insists she lacks the in-depth knowledge to comment specifically on Murray or sport, but points out that any great achievement can be followed by "anxiety produced by the fear of not repeating success". When Murray said last week he felt relief, rather than joy, at winning the US Open, he was exhibiting a strong Caledonian trait of not being able to express positive emotion. Yet he has found it all too easy to express negative emotion, crying so much after his Wimbledon defeat to Roger Federer that one feared officials would call for the covers to be put on to protect the Centre Court surface.
She likens the situation to "that great Jimmy Shand anecdote when he was asked if he was elated that Bluebell Polka was top of the charts. He replied that he had never been elated in his life. We can hold back on positive emotion and Andy may be a bit like that".
There is danger, too, for a personality like Murray, that the obsessive drive for success can cause strains and the internal voice can constantly issue criticisms.
Craig points to research suggesting constructive criticism has become unacceptable to some. "There have been reports that coaches in America have faced angry responses from parents when they have criticised their children. The parents say: 'How dare you damage my child's self-esteem with your comments?'"
Yet good critical feedback is central to any improvement and Murray has improved through working with Ivan Lendl, who has shared his experience of initial failure before winning.
One of Craig's contentions is that Scots can find it hard to take optimism from good events yet can take it from bad events. Murray has shown he can do the latter. After every major defeat he retreats into his cave only to emerge with a renewed sense of purpose. For example, a crushing defeat by Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon was followed by a stay in bed so long it would have shamed a student. The Scot, though, finally rose, grabbed the DVD of the match, watched it repeatedly – and divined how he could and would improve.
"He now has to take optimism from a good event," says Craig. "This sounds straightforward but it is not, for some Scots."
For Craig, however, the sporting story that most spoke to the Scots' crisis of confidence did not occur at Flushing Meadows but at Hampden. During Scotland's World Cup qualifier against Macedonia, which resulted in a 1-1 draw, Craig Levein's side was booed regularly and loudly by fans. "That is unbelievable," she says. "How can anyone believe that booing will improve performance or provide any motivation for the next occasion?"
It is a view shared by Scotland striker Kenny Miller, who was surprised to hear loud criticism during the match. He understands supporters' feelings of frustration, but says: "I think that can be let known towards the end of the game, not during it. It can transmit on to the pitch." Here, then, is the acme of Caledonian self-destruction: the response to a bad performance is to increase the likelihood of it becoming worse.
If Murray has escaped or risen above many of the fallibilities of the Scots psyche, he now faces the weary inevitability of dealing with an enduring symptom of Caledonian angst. He will be cautioned "not to get above himself".
Donald MacNaughton, a Brora-born performance coach, is familiar with this situation. He tells a story about when he was in Monaco, working with racing drivers. "I was sitting in a beautiful apartment overlooking the Prince's Palace," he recalls, "and I wrote in a blog how 10 years ago I'd had nothing and now I had a business and how grateful I was."
Back in Scotland, he learned from a friend that another acquaintance had said: "Donald has been boasting on the internet."
Similarly, Murray now faces the wrath of those who may feel he has moved on from Scotland and Scottishness. He may, therefore, be a victim of the Scottish cringe rather than an example of it.
"Scotland is a harsh environment geographically," says MacNaughton, who works with high-profile performers across several sports. "Historically, we are a tribal society and the positive aspect of that is that everyone has to stick together to survive. The negative side is that anyone who moves away or becomes individual is viewed with a deep suspicion that can turn quickly to antagonism. The unconscious looks for familiarity; unfamiliarity equals danger. Anyone who represents that can be cast out.''
He believes Murray is an introvert who has found a kindred spirit in Lendl, a dark Czech as opposed to a dark Celt. "Murray didn't just become mentally strong in a moment. He has always had that in him. But he has identified with Lendl and that has helped him."
But how can the office worker, the unemployed man or woman or someone suffering from addiction or deprivation take inspiration from Murray? It is absurd to cast this most unprepossessing of sportsmen as the ideal torch-bearer to lead us out of any collective darkness.
Perhaps the most important lesson from his US Open triumph is a universal, rather than a peculiarly Scottish, one. The Murray narrative resounds to the strong force of endurance. It testifies to the dividend that can be accrued from hard work and discipline. This, too, is part of the Scottish way, though it has increasingly been neglected as the culture of "easy money" was followed by the hard lessons of accrued debt.
Murray is, proudly and unambiguously, a Scot, but he is one of a most modern variety. He is no Anglophobe and lives happily in Surrey with his English partner. He left home, like many of his compatriots, to find a considerable fortune yet he still has that Scots drawl and recognisable Scottish traits.
He has slowly matured and diluted the anger that could suddenly consume him, though it can return with dramatic effect. He has finally overcome the doubt that compromised his happiness and cast a shadow over his professional life.
He has experienced the unimaginable darkness of the Dunblane tragedy and he has endured the more mundane but still painful occurrence of his parents' divorce.
His is a story with inspiring overtones, and we Scots can surely walk a little taller because our fellow countryman has taken on the world at tennis, and won. But Murray cannot be looked upon as the template of how to change a national psyche just because he hit a ball with more accuracy than a Serb on a patch of hard court in New York City. He must be celebrated and enjoyed as a sportsman but never viewed as a saviour.
He does, however, testify eloquently to one lesson: it is possible to change. But to change a nation we have to treat the damage inside each person. And while others can help, inspire and perhaps lead by example, ultimately the change must be made by the individual. That can be very, very hard for most and seemingly impossible for some. And if this appears too dark a conclusion, blame the Scot in me.
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