Sporting inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s from within, sometimes it’s from those close to you, sometimes it’s from watching your favourite athletes perform in person or on the tv. Or it can even be from something as simple as picking up a book. In the last two decades, sports autobiographies have become increasingly popular, and while some are more tell all accounts of much publicised media stories, others can be inspirational, showing the struggles that elite sport can bring and how sportspeople overcome them. So if you’re looking for something new to read, or feel like you just need that kick start, our reading list of the best sports autobiographies might be just the ticket.
You know we love our climbing here at Decathlon, so it would feel wrong to not include this one. Now part of climbing folklore, Touching The Void began life as a book and went on to become a Bafta winning docudrama directed by Kevin MacDonald and also a West End Play. Joe Simpson's account of his and Simon Yates' (who writes 15% of the book) near fatal descent from the 20,814 ft peak Siula Grande in the Pervuian Andes is seen by many as one the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. And it’s a story that is certainly preserved, selling over a million copies, and has been translated into over 20 languages and even featured as part of the GCSE curriculum across England.
As both the one player in English football history to have captained a title winning team and make an appearance in an international tournament across three decades, it would be easy to say that Tony Adams’ career was a successful one. But the awards and accolades are just one side of his story . Throughout his career, Adams battled with a series of much publicised personal problems, and during the nineties became one of the most high profile recovering alcoholics in the UK . In his book Addicted, he talks about hitting rock bottom, his time spent in jail, and how the arrival of Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager started to help him turn it all around. While it’s a great tale of sporting redemption, Addicted is also one for anyone struggling with their own personal issues in life, and how it is possible to turn things around, and find the help they are looking for.
Fell running is not a sport that’s often spoken about. Similar to cross country but with far steeper gradients and those involved often needing to be able to navigate their own route and bring their own survival kit should something go wrong, it is seen as one of the toughest endurance sports around. The name arose with the activity originating from the Fells of northern Britain, specifically the Wainwright fells in the Lake District. For walkers and the runners alike, it’s the norm to complete all 214 of the Wainwright Fells over a number of years. In June 2014, Steve Birkenshaw attempted to break Joss Taylor’s record of completing them in 7 days 1 hour 25 minutes. There is No Map in Hell is his account of how it went. For long distance runners look for a bit of inspiration to try something new, this might just be the one for you.
One of the standout stars in the renowned Last Dance documentary that hit Netflix in 2020, Phil Jackson is seen by many as the greatest basketball coach of all time. Both a memoir and a self help book, in Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success Jackson talks about his life both as a player and a coach, how he learned the importance of team chemistry through mindfulness at an early stage which would inform how he would manage his teams. Known as the ‘Zen Master’ Jackson talks about teaching selfenesess to Michael Jordan, inspiring Dennis Rodman (and other uncoachable characters) how to be devoted to the team, and turning Kobe Bryant from a young rebel into a leader of champions. It’s a book that gives you fascinating insights to a number of basketball legends, and may even help you find new ways to motivate yourself in your active pursuits, whatever they may be.
A big part of elite sport is travelling to far flung places across the globe, and no more so than cricket. Lengthy international tours have played an integral part in the game since its beginning, and are often portrayed in the media as month-long holidays with a bit of sport played in the middle. But In Coming Back to Me, England opener Marcus Trescothick recalls how a successful international career was brought to a shuddering halt by the toils of playing abroad that ultimately lead to battles with depression. After winning the William Hill Sports Book of year in 2008, it became only the second autobiography to win the award. Since Trescothick’s struggles, there has been a greater focus on the wellbeing of cricketers, with a number of high profile players coming forward to talk about the mental strain they experience playing elite sport.
In December 2009, former Welsh and British Lions rugby captain Gareth Thomas announced he was gay. In doing so, he became the first openly gay professional rugby player, as well the world’s most famous gay athlete. In Proud, he talks about his 16 year career at the top of the game, all the while living with a secret he believed would not only ruin his own life, but also the lives of his wife and children, as well as his friends and teammates. He relives his experiences on the rugby pitch, the only place he felt he could hide from his secret. Thomas also documents the reaction to his coming out, how he’s received messages from those in similar positions and how it’s ultimately changed how he sees himself. A superb sports autobiography with a universal truth about feeling like an outsider, regardless of the amount of fans you have, and ultimately about learning to accept oneself.
It’s fair to say that throughout the history of cycling, the women’s races have not been given the same level of respect and recognition. In her book, The Breakaway, former world No 1 cyclist and Olympic athlete Nicole Cooke takes us through her journey and how she overcame the obstacles of competing as a woman in what was seen as a ‘man’s sport’. From little recognition to unpaid wages, suffering an array injuries to being surrounded by drug cheats, Cooke details her rise and how British Cycling has got itself to the dominant position we see today. It’s a book that will both inspire and question how we view women’s sport.
Known for his exploits as an England Hooker in the 1990s and now tough talking rugby commentator, Brian Moore is seen as one the game’s hardmen. However in Beware of the Dog, we see a different side to Moore, as he looks back over his tough childhood, early adult life and his career in rugby. From experiences as a manicurist, to love of reading Shakespeare before big matches and wine, to talking about the abuse he suffered as a child, there really is no other rugby player quite like Brian Moore. A heartbreaking, unusual, fascinating memoir, and perfect example of how you can’t judge anyone by face value.
In 1988, Tom Gregory swam the 32 miles of the English Channel in under 12 hours. To keep him going, he was thrown tubes of tomato soup and the odd chocolate biscuit by his coach, John Bullet. Tom Gregory was 11 years old. In A Boy in The Water, Gregory relives every difficult detail of the swim, from falling asleep, to hallucinating, to suffering so much serious shoulder and hip pain that his goggles filled with tears. The memoir is as much about Gregory’s experience in the English Channel as it is about how he ended up there, which is in no small part down to Bullet, who ran a local swimming club Eltham, south-east London. Unsurprisingly, Channel Swimming association has set the age limit to 16 now, and Gregory’s feat has never been repeated. This is a story that’s as amazing as it is shocking, particularly with the recent scandals involving sports coaches.
Last but certainly not least, it’s the story of tennis superstar Andre Agassi. A Number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, met with critical acclaim, and even described by many as the best autobiography of all time. Although a former world no.1 and eight time grand slam champion, Agassi makes no bones about the struggles he went through, both in his childhood and as a professional tennis player. He talks about the difficult relationship with demanding father who kept him under constant supervision, and how he found it hard to cope with challenges of the sport at an elite level, which would lead to Agassi resorting to drugs and alcohol to cope. A dark but funny story about life at the top but feeling like it’s the bottom, and one that any sports fan or aspiring athlete should read.