I have read that, on average, a doctor will probably never be better than he or she was as a young, freshly-minted doctor. Skills, information get rusty.
The only exception to this rule, I’ve read, is surgeons. Surgeons get better the longer they are in the profession. Studies have concluded that the reason for this is constant and immediate feedback about how they are doing. For a surgeon, every touch, every decision produces an immediate reaction, an expected one or something unexpected. Other medical specializations don’t have the same amount, quality, or immediacy of feedback.
Applied to other professions, it occurs to me that being an Arsenal player is similar to being a surgeon. You can’t touch a ball at the Emirates without getting immediate, palpable feedback. A good touch or pass is met with approving mmmhmmms or applause. A bad touch, a giveaway, a poor pass—these are met with sighs, groans, a collective tsk-tsking. In my estimation, this feedback is so immediate that every Arsenal player should improve by at least 10% each time they take the field.
You quickly begin to recognize that it would take a certain frame of mind to be the subject of such a bizarre amount of feedback each time you go out to do your job. I imagine someone sitting behind me at work, watching me interact with software. “Don’t touch that!” “Are you sure you spelled that right?” “I don’t think that’s the most efficient use of a pivot table.” And on and on. Imagine if this feedback was collective, from thousands of people who all are better at watching you do your job than you are at doing it.
And these are the people who love you as well as you are maybe ever going to be loved. Then there are the people who hate you, pretty much on principle. When an opposing player makes a poor kick at the Emirates (and at every other football stadium), the entire stadium razzes you. “Aaaaayyy!” we emit as the ball sails far from where he intended it to go.
Obviously, the people who subject themselves to this require a certain thick-skinnedness, an ability to shake it off and continue working. It’s not only on the field that they face challenges, though. The world is full of people who want to tag along on the coattails of your fame, to use you, to have reason to mislead and manipulate you, to feed your ego. Others harass you when you’re out in public, make it hard to breathe, to live.
And all of this occurs while you are relatively young. Just as you are getting to a level of experience where you might see through people who may not have your true bests interests at heart, get used to the criticism, learn to handle the pressure and the constant attention, well, it’s just about all over.
Many fans say, “Well, that’s why they get paid the big bucks,” but it doesn’t stand to reason that it’s in any way easy to be the best in your profession and also to easily tolerate the conditions of your profession.
Tony Adams was the leader of one of the most impregnable defenses in Arsenal history. He joined Arsenal as a child and never played for any other team. He was beloved by the fans, was referred to as “Mr. Arsenal.” He loved Arsenal. “I will sign any contract Arsenal puts in front of me without reading it,” he said, an astonishing admission by today’s standards.
He had amazing leadership qualities and charisma, and was made the team captain at the age of 21, insanely young.
But he was also damaged goods, full of deep-seated “self-loathing,” as he described it. This manifested itself in a descent into alcoholism that involved serious car crashes, jail time, fights, very nearly missing team flights, even playing drunk. He drank when he was lonely, happy, sad, bored, busy. When he married, he had no recollection of the day itself as he was in blackout throughout the entire day. The video that was taken stands in for his memory. And having seen snips of the video, he looked ok. The people who knew him best must have known, but to a casual observer, he looked like he was going through the motions quite well.
Tony Adams was one of the lucky ones. He was ultimately able to see the end game in his descent and was able to work through the recovery process. He was able to continue in the profession for which he was so well-suited physically and intellectually. Some say that the discipline imposed by new Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who arrived in 1996, helped him through the recovery process, with his emphasis on proper eating, sleeping, and so forth. The fact is, no one knows why one alcoholic manages to put it aside and another can’t.
Tony Adams’ career was preserved and he retired at the age of 36 in 2002, having served as the captain of the first team for nearly the entire time he was on it.
Since retiring as a player, he’s had a life in the sport as a manager, not a particularly successful one, but enough to enable him to stay in it. He’s also devoted his leadership skills, charisma, and humility to help others in their own battles with alcoholism.
I haven’t read his book, Addicted, yet, but it is on order and hopefully winging its way across the pond.
Tony Adams’ statue at the Emirates is situated near the entrance closest to the Arsenal tube station, after you go up the stairs and cross the bridge.
I love this photo of Tony Adam’s statue that I took when we were in town in March. He is in the thick of the crowd, a member of the family. His arms are thrown out in celebration.
In this moment, he is free.