I have been a fan of Hull City football club since my dad took me to my first game in 1984. Since then, hundreds of times, I’ve sat in the hallowed stands of Boothferry Park, and subsequently the KCom Stadium, to support my team; and over the years I’ve grown to understand a lot about the dynamics and behaviour of a football crowd. But, on Tuesday, September 30, 2003, I witnessed something completely new. Something which deepened my understanding of how to interpret people and the support they offer.
The occasion was Hull City v Swansea City in the English Second Division. In a turn of good fortune, I had managed to get hold of four complimentary tickets via work, so on this chilly autumn evening I took three friends along to watch the game. As we took our seats, I gazed around the stadium. The 21,000 people there almost filled it to capacity, and the atmosphere intensified with anticipation as kick-off approached. Hull City were having one of their best seasons in decades and there was a real excitement about the place, and this particular game mattered a lot. If they could beat Swansea, Hull would register their third consecutive win, and go to the top of the table.
Even though I’m a veteran of hundreds of matches, this one stands out in my memory. We were an interesting bunch: three of us friends were long-term football fans, while the other one had never watched a game before in his life. To be fair, Dave had no real interest in sport but had gamely tagged along for the experience, which characterised his wonderfully curious attitude. So, in the sporting spirit, I explained to him the background and context to the game as best I could, sincerely hoping my friend would enjoy the drama and be caught up in the immediacy of a live contest.
As the match progressed, two key incidents arrested my attention. They weren’t about the game as such. They were about Dave. In the first one, Lee Trundle, Swansea’s star player, broke through Hull’s defence and unleashed a shot on goal. Thankfully the shot was tame, and the ball trickled harmlessly into the welcoming gloves of Hull’s goalkeeper. Suddenly, Dave leapt to his feet, clapping furiously while everyone close by turned to see who was applauding, and—more importantly—why! That shot on goal was such a non-event that even the Swansea fans weren’t applauding the attempt, and nor were the Hull fans clapping their goalkeeper’s ‘save’. But Dave had seen something that excited him, and so off he sprung, expressing his appreciation. All by himself.
The second incident came when, after 27 minutes had elapsed, Hull City scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game—the apex of an hour-and-a-half of intense group agony. The blessed relief was palpable as Hull’s Stuart Elliott headed the ball into the back of the Swansea net—cue thousands of men, women, boys and girls jumping to their feet to release a deafening roar of celebration. Dave? Dave just sat there.
I’ve pondered this game, and these incidents, many times over the years. What were Dave’s experiences of that game, and just how differently were he and I interpreting the same events? More importantly, what has this got to do with people supporting us and our work?
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH CHEERLEADERS
I encourage my clients to surround themselves with cheerleaders as much as possible. I don’t mean pom-pom-waving dancers, but enthusiastic, vocal supporters—people who believe in you and what you do. Everyone I consider to be a friend is also a cheerleader of some kind. And, in return, I do my best to support and spur my friends on with their work.
One lesson I learned from watching Dave at the football was that, even with the best of intentions, cheerleaders can’t cheer effectively if they don’t have an interest in the game, or haven’t had adequate enough exposure to understand its rules. Nor can they respond and encourage appropriately if they haven’t grasped the aims of whoever it is they are trying to support.
This is why a clear understanding of what you do, and why, is vital for anyone you allow to deeply influence your creativity. If you are not accurately heard, and fully understood, even the most genuine attempts at encouragement can seem like insincere platitudes, or even random acts of bizarreness. And it’s even more awkward when the cheerleader doesn’t realise their own lack of experience is showing.
The fast pace of an unfamiliar sport was too much for Dave to comprehend at the first time of asking (Which is entirely understandable, I’d be exactly the same if you took me to a game of Aussie Rules Football.) The nuance and strategy that makes the game so enthralling for many of us were, to him, lost in a blur of noise, colour and movement. So, the simple, pedestrian passage of play he applauded so vigorously revealed his naturally embryonic understanding. His cheering was genuine alright—clearly heartfelt, but due to his limited experience and insight, the only person it benefited was himself. It offered no actual support to the team, although it did wonders to invigorate the cheerer himself—who was, it has to be said, having a whale of a time.
This kind of interaction is worth keeping a keen eye out for, as it can be confusing or upsetting for a cheerleader when your response to their most genuine attempts to encourage you is, at best, muted, and often one of bafflement or even hurt. So, try to be kind whenever it happens to you, and seek to understand the motivation and perspective of the cheerleader if you can—as it’s likely they haven’t fully understood yours.
This lack of comprehension also inhibits the cheerleader from being able to celebrate your victories. While watching the match, Dave was so far behind the pace he hadn’t anticipated the possibility of a goal as it approached, nor was he able to respond, even when over 20,000 other people were on their feet cheering. He just didn’t get it.
At one point he was the only one standing, and at another point he was the only one sitting—his responses perfectly reversed. If you have cheerleaders who are blind to your desires and unaware of the parameters you’re working within, it is likely you will receive this inverted kind of support. It has an uncanny ability to consistently miss the point, and neither cheerleader nor artist connect in what ought to be a fulfilling shared experience. In fact, this kind of interplay can create a painful relational gulf that generates an unpleasant aftertaste of frustration and misunderstanding. It is difficult for everyone when a cheerleader offers you the best they have and yet their support seems disingenuous and hollow.
So, surround yourself with people who understand you and show a willingness to learn the nuances that characterise your creative world. And, on your part, take responsibility to educate those who wish to offer support. Don’t presume that things are obvious, and do be patient. Otherwise, you risk having nothing in common with each other, and your cheerleader won’t be able to remind you that you have what it takes, because they’ll never actually know if you do.
The above is an excerpt from The Creative Wound: Heal Your Broken Art