Sport is won and lost in the head. Darts exemplifies this. It seems simple. Standing behind the oche, throwing darts at a board, trying to go down from 501 as quickly as possible – finishing on a double. It’s not as easy as it appears. If you’ve not played before, or for a while, and throw three darts you’re surprised at how quickly gravity takes effect, readjust, and feel a hint of self-satsifaction when you hit what you were aiming at.
The players at the top level excel at this day in, day out. In scoring 180 they are putting three darts in a segment about the size of a filter on a cigarette. And while they do not hit everything they aim for (the 9 dart finish, darts equivalent of the 147 in snooker, or the cricket hat-trick) is still sufficiently unusual to merit huge publicity (Sean Greatbatch has built an exhibition career on a nine darter in a Dutch tournament).
In their pub teams, or at exhibitions, these top players average 33 a dart, or more, finishing spectacularly. 125 finished with 25, bull, bull rather than treble 20, treble 11, double 16. They play for show. And then come the tournaments. And the curious psychological pressure encountered by sportsmen at the highest level can render the very best inept. A couple of years ago a European player (Albertino Essens) made his way through the early rounds at the Lakeside in the BDO tournament and then came up against an Australian ZZ Top lookalike, Whitlock. Essens suffered from dartitis. He couldn’t let go of the dart. His usual throwing style, jerky, lacking the fluency of the greats, became a parody of itself as he aimed and aimed and aimed and couldn’t let the dart go. (Essens played today and won).
However, when you have two players otherwise playing well, the psychology of darts, of sport, becomes clear. In darts you cannot directly affect your opponent’s throw. You cannot block, you cannot return, you cannot tackle, you cannot snooker. The sole pressure you can exert is pyschological. If you play well it increases the pressure on your opponent. If your opponent scores 100 and you score 180 your opponent knows that he or she must keep pace, or the leg will be gone. If you have a finish left, the only way your opponent can pressure this is to try to leave a simpler finish, or any finish, to place in your head that scintilla of doubt, the risk of defeat: the risk that if you miss with any one of the darts you will lose. And when a player starts thinking the game becomes harder, the throwing style – the muscle memory built up over the years – goes.
Darts is at its best on television when the pressure seems not to get to the players, when no matter how important the leg the players still perform, irrespective of the pressure the other puts on.
On New Years Day the greatest darts final of all saw two great players Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld play at their best and go into a tie-break leg in a decisive thirteenth set. Both Taylor and Barneveld hit 180s in that final leg. Neither player buckled. The quality of the BDO tournament on the BBC this week is a poor relation to that. Yet, I’ll flick the red button every evening this week, watch the games live, enjoy the atmosphere. Cringe at the commentary (Tony Green’s salacious, “Lovely ladies” as the camera pans to reveal young women in the crowd). Feel the pressure behind the eyes of the darts players’ wives – whose initial demeanour becomes increasingly frenzied as the game goes on. Revel in the heroes – the tram drivers, and green-keepers. Ordinary people, none super-fit, and the only six packs are the ones on the tables. For darts is the true people’s game, the perfect sport for the televisual age.