Darts is a game of fine margins. In the latest edition of the series, Luke Moore talks to some of the great and good of the game to try and understand What It Takes to rise to the top...
"In darts, pressure at the top level is unfathomably high and a solid action is much more likely to stand up to the it. Intense pressure creates diamonds, but it also bursts pipes."
In Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, the seminal 1999 movie about a once-great-but-now-struggling American football team, Al Pacino's coach Tony D'Amato breaks the sport down into tiny measurements that make the difference between winning and losing. In one of the greatest monologues in modern cinema he implores his players to put themselves on the line to gain territory piece by piece. Yard by yard. Inch by inch.
'We claw our fingernails for that inch.'
Well, if American football has inches, then darts has millimetres. Pull one throw a tenth of a centimetre, one dart, and that will probably be the difference between success and failure. The margins are so tight that a miniscule change in the throwing action that would be imperceptible to the untrained eye or the casual onlooker can mean a dart failing to hit its target. Repetition is all. A solid, consistent throwing action is the holy grail. Because in darts, pressure at the top level is unfathomably high and a solid action is much more likely to stand up to the it. Intense pressure creates diamonds, but it also bursts pipes.
Think of it like a penalty shootout in football. And then think about taking that penalty hundreds of times and wanting, expecting and needing to hit the correct spot every single time. There may not be a goalkeeper in the way, of course. But the goal isn't exactly big, either - on a key shot, the target area is just eight millimetres wide.
I'm interested in finding out what lengths dart players will go to in order to rise to the very top of their sport, what tactics and strategies they adopt in a quest to master that most tense, nervous yet thoroughly entertaining game of skill which comes to a head at Christmas each year with the world championships at Alexandra Palace. I went along a number of years ago as a punter, and it was the marriage of two worlds - the utter chaos of the floor, populated as it was by thousands of drunk fans, each more in the festive spirit than the man next to him, a scene juxtaposed strikingly with the calm, clear concentration of the dart players up on the stage, foot pressed sideways against the oche, trying to drop a pointed 25g tungsten arrow into those tiny beds. Precision bordering anarchy, separated only by a flimsy metal barrier and a man in an orange polo shirt.
Getting down to detail
Stephen Bunting rose through the ranks like many professional players. He started off at the British Darts Organisation (BDO), the Professional Darts Corporation's rival organisation which now serves as more of an academy for players to learn their trade, before popping across to the PDC where the real money and glory is. After winning the BDO version of the world championship in 2014, he made the switch and is hoping to one day follow players such as Raymond van Barneveld and the great Phil Taylor in winning world titles in both structures.
He's so far been thwarted each time in the PDC version, most recently just this last weekend in a crushing defeat to the unfancied and unranked Darren Webster in devastating fashion. Needing just one double eight to win the match, he missed five chances at the shot and his opponent took advantage. Bunting's failure to master the millimetre means his tournament is over before it's even begun.
As far as finding out the things players try in order to hit the summit in this game, Bunting seems like a good place to start. At age 31, he claims to have been playing for over 20 years already, and says he 'fell in love' with it since being introduced as not much more than a toddler by his father, a keen enthusiast for the arrows himself. At just 15 he won the Lancashire Open having spent his formative career practicing in his parents' garage for six to seven hours a day from the age of 13 (this is a common theme among dart players - Betfair ambassador Wayne Mardle's obsession started even younger, at age 11).
"People don't see how long the road to the top is. It's a long, long road and if you don't put the work in, you won't reap the rewards", he says. "I was driving all over the country with my Dad, playing tournaments, and when I wasn't, I was practicing again. Seven hours a day sometimes, as a 13-year-old kid. I played tournaments in four different countries in a month this year, and when you're away from your family (Bunting has a four-year-old boy), it can be very hard."
And is it just practice to try and achieve that muscle memory and repetition, or is there more to it?
"There's a lot more to it. For example, one thing that's apparent up on stage at Alexandra Palace is the heat. It's so hot up there. So in my practice room at home I get all my gear on that I know I'll be wearing in my first match. Then I crank all the heaters up in the room so it's 30C, and I start my practice at the exact time I know my match starts. If my match starts at 8:30pm, that's when I start practice. I'm trying to replicate everything ahead of time."
In spite of this practical and mental detail, one of the fascinating things about darts is that is still appears to be untouched by such modern trappings so typical of sport in 2016. There doesn't seem to be any great single theory or school-of-thought that dictates success, no approved coaching method and few sports psychologists - surprising given how acutely important the mental aspect appears to be.
And what's more, so much of that appears to be so intangible. It's possible to witness a player almost literally not be able to miss for a period of time that can straddle many legs, yet in a moment that hot streak of form disappears into thin air like the dry ice that accompanied his walk on. Even the very best suffer - Michael 'MVG' van Gerwen is well-known for having a sort of up-and-down inconsistency to his play. Despite winning seven titles this year, he can go from unable to miss a thing to relative chaos from one minute to the next. This is no more apparent than at Alexandra Palace where inconsistent form has meant he's just one world title in nine attempts.
Another issue is fatigue. The PDC Worlds is a long tournament, and despite the sneering jokes of armchair fans about how it's impossible to get tired just throwing a dart at a board for an hour, it's clear that mental fatigue is a very real battle to be fought. When you factor in that pros are playing more tournaments than ever, all over the world, that only serves to exacerbate the potential exhaustion.
All this is of course a far cry from what's often referred to as the 'Golden Age' of darts, back in the 1980s. Players back then were regularly seen drinking and smoking on stage, live on TV, and darts' innate appeal then seemed to have an almost 'he's one of us' dimension to it, something that although hasn't been totally exiled is certainly very close to being yesterday's news. Players are no longer permitted to drink alcohol not only onstage but in the crowd either, whether they've been eliminated from the tournament or not, and the increase in number of tournaments as well as the prize money on offer means regular boozing is incompatible with such a busy schedule.
Simply practicing isn't enough
Although sports psychologists that work with dart players do seem to be few and far between, I did manage to find one. I was able to track down and speak to Dr Linda Duffy, a sports psychologist and manager with a PhD in the Psychological Effects of Practice and currently working out of Middlesex University, as well as managing the career of young darts pro Josh Payne. Josh is a 23-year-old making his debut at the World Championship this year. Duffy is a former ladies world number one herself, and probably knows more than anyone about the mental and psychological aspect of the sport.
"First of all, just practicing isn't enough", she says. "It has to be the right kind of practice. A lot of these players will just practice games of 301, 501 or 1001 and there really is no point in that. What they need to do is what's called 'beneficial practice'. Things that are going to help them at important moments. Outshots are key, and so is repetition."
In fact, as well as not being helpful to a dart player's game, Duffy believes it can go even further than that. "As I've said, what I often find is that dart players are practicing the wrong things and there is evidence to support the idea that, far from improving their game, it can actually make them a worse player."
So, the correct kind of practice is paramount, then. But what's also important is the mental side, and while players like Bunting remain unconvinced of the benefits of having a professional to help them with the more intangible areas of the sport, Duffy is already assisting the next generation of players mentally to get the most out of their profession, something that could get those millimetres on their side. "With Josh, we are trying to teach him to think in the right way. It's a truism in darts that players hardly ever play as well in tournaments as they do when practicing on the floor. Maybe we can overcome that by getting him to not only approach high-pressure situations slightly differently but to think differently about the situation too."
And she also agrees that darts has come a long way since the 80s. Something ex-world number one and 1988 World Champion Bob Anderson can confirm. "There's an old saying that goes, 'The bigger the carrot, the quicker the donkey will run.' These players have now set the bar so high, and it's because the prizes are bigger. They now practice more and look for that edge because there's more money to be made. What's happened in darts is that whereas when I played 95% of the crowd were dart players, now 95% of them aren't, they're there for a bloody good party, and good luck to them! There are far bigger crowds and more prizes on offer."
Anderson also thinks sports psychology could feature much more heavily in darts' future. "These players have learned to play well in pretty noisy environments now, and that's a big difference too. But the future is physical fitness, which is obviously linked to mental fitness and concentration. I've spent a lot of time with the next generation coming through and all these younger players look pretty athletic to me."
But when it comes to how to actually win tournaments, Anderson is unequivocal about what it takes. "Every player that's ever won a world title has that mean streak. That iron will to win. You need it. I'm not sure if I needed a sports psychologist to make me a better dart player, but I wanted to win so badly. All world champions are the same."
There has of course been one player that has truly mastered that millimetre, though, and no article about darts would be complete without his presence within it. Phil 'The Power' Taylor has 16 world titles to his name and no-one has come closer to mastering the sport than him. But if he has a secret he isn't forthcoming with what it is. The nearest he's come to divulging anything meaningful about how we actually did it are the usual lines: "Losing is never an option", "Train hard, work hard, be focused and play to win".
No sports psychologists and absolutely no shortcuts. And what's even more remarkable is that Taylor came to the professional sport relatively late compared to some. He was around 26 years old when he was spotted by Eric Bristow and convinced to start taking it seriously. For comparison, Michael van Gerwen won his first world title at age 24.
Bob Anderson has his own theory on Taylor's mastery of the sport, despite coming late to the party. "That mean streak I was talking about earlier, well Phil Taylor has it a mile wide. He wanted it 16 times more than anyone else. What he's done is amazing; I remember what winning one world title took out of me. To do it 16 times after he started so old is absolutely incredible."
But with Taylor's best years clearly now behind him, there's room for a new king. It's down to the rest of the best and brightest to step up, keep fighting and try to figure out how to master that millimetre.
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