June 01, 2006

The Importance of Mental Training

By H Natarajan

It was in the Sri Lankan Cricket Board HQ in Colombo that my eyes fell on a book that I had been searching for a long time. I was keen to know more about the author and his methodologies that had helped extricate two of the greatest batsmen in the 70s from the crisis they were facing in their career.

I promptly bought three books – one for myself and gifted the other two to Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Tendulkar was then the captain of the Indian team and I thought the book may interest him while Dravid, I knew from my interactions with him, loved reading books, especially books that delved into the mental aspect of the game.

Sadly, my copy of Rudi Webster's book “Winning Ways” went missing even before I could read it.

I have not had the good fortune of the meeting Dr Webster, but a few years back we exchanged a few emails when he had sought my help to get in touch with somebody in Indian cricket. The one thing that I sensed from those communications with him was that he nursed a desire to work with Indian cricket – not necessarily with the national team.

The move to get Dr Webster help the Indian team has to be applauded. Cynics, however, may sneer that this is yet another move by Greg Chappell to get one of ‘his men’ into the think-thank working behind the scene for the Indian team. Such criticism would not only mean questioning Chappell’s integrity but also Dr Webster’s eminence as a psychologist.

Dr Webster’s appointment comes at a juncture when the team, collectively, finds itself in an inexplicable slump. If anything is questionable about the appointment it’s the fleetingly short duration. There are no easy answers to matters related to the complexities of the mind and its debatable if much good would come from just a week’s interaction between Dr Webster and the players.

Dravid was practical when he said that he did not expect “magic spell” from Dr Webster. “The idea is that the younger players should be exposed to different types of people and thoughts. Rudi knows the mental side of the game and should come handy to the team," he explained.

In the more advanced countries, sports psychologists play an important part in the careers of sportspersons. And among the well-known sports psychologist of the world is Dr Jim Loehr who has trained some of the world's greatest athletes, including mega stars like Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and golfer Mark O'Meara.

When others of his time were finding excuses for their inadequacies and inconsistencies to combat genuine pace, Sunil Gavaskar emerged from the same environment to be acknowledged as one of the all-time greatest batsmen. The era in which he played had the greatest assemblage of fast bowlers, but the Little Master stood tall. What separated SMG from the rest? Among other things, his granite toughness of mind stood out. As he has said in the past, at the highest level its temperament more than technique that separates the good players from the great. Temperament is all about the mental aspect of the game.

Guys like Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are not the paragons when it comes to adhering to the coaching manuals, but both men are supreme examples of belief in their own abilities that has made the best of bowlers look pedestrian. They have minds that are radically different from the average player and that is reflected in their performances which is different from the rest.

No player in any sport can experience the joys of being on a high all the time. And when confronted with slumps, doubts creep into the mind and defects into the game. And, if not arrested immediately, it can cause great damage – at times, irreversible. Sport is replete with instances of players at the peak of their prowess one moment and then slipping to abysmal lows quite rapidly. One need not look beyond Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Vinod Kambli, two players whose careers held great possibilities. Timely help from a sports psychologist like Dr Webster or Dr Loehr could have saved their careers from untimely and unfortunate deaths.

Greg Chappell himself was on the verge of quitting as he went through a nightmarish time scoring just 164 runs from 10 Tests in 1981-82. In a three-month period at this juncture he also played in 14 ODIs (for an average of over 17), where nine times he was dismissed for single digit scores. The frustrations reached a stage when he was contemplating quitting the game. It was this lowest point of his career that he sought help from Dr Webster. The sports psychologist told Chappell that he was not picking up the ball early in flight and as a result was not in the correct position to play his shot. Once the problem was identified, Chappell regained his magical touch and his position as one of the best batsmen of the world with three hundreds from four Tests.

When Viv Richards was going through the horrors in Australia very early in his career in the 70s, Dr Webster found out that it was simply a case of anxiety. Richards was batting then at No 5, and for a person who likes to dictate and dominate, waiting his turn to bat in a strong line-up where he was preceded by batsmen like Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredricks, Lawrence Rowe and Alvin Kallicharan was very frustrating. A promotion in the order, on Dr Webster’s advice, changed Richards’s fortunes and gave the world a batsman widely reckoned as the best after Sir Don Bradman.

Hopefully, the sessions with Dr Webster will remove the cobwebs and negativity that would have resulted in the minds of many of the Indian players following the 1-4 defeat in the ODI series against the West Indies.

The mind is capable of achieving seemingly impossible things if the thinking is along the right lines. And to help think along those lines, an expert like Dr Webster is most beneficial. Of course, a lot depends on the receptiveness of the players. It will certainly do no good to a player who deep down does not accept such thinking or dismisses it as intellectual mumbo-jumbo.

Top players in all sports, or for that matter anybody from any walk of life, will tell you the power of visualization. I have read many books and spoken to several high-achievers who all said that they were not just driven by their passion but also kept visualizing in their mind what they wanted to achieve.

Running the mile under four minutes was deemed ‘impossible’. But once Roger Bannister made the ‘impossible’ possible, his record stood exactly for 46 days. Subsequently thousands have emulated Bannister, who now reckons the day will come when someone will run it under three and a half minutes.

Having a coach and a captain who are cerebral enough to understand the positive spin-offs from strengthening the mental aspects of the game is a blessing for the Indian team. Both men are not only erudite but highly respected for what they have achieved. Dr Webster himself has a good track record: He played first-class cricket for Warwickshire and Otago and in 70 matches took 272 wickets as a fast-medium bowler at a respectable average of 19.44. He was the manager of the West Indies team in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and later performance consultant and founding director of the West Indies Cricket Board’s academy in Grenada.

The talent in this Indian team – like in the past – is undeniably rich. If there is one aspect that needs attention, it is the mental aspect of the game. If that can be fine tuned, the world will see a different Indian team.

The importance of mind can never be underestimated. Sadly, it has not got the the importance it deserves. As Dr Webster once said: “When I ask players what percentage the mind plays in competition and performance, most say about 50 to 80 percent. But when I ask them how much training time they spend on the mental aspects of their game, the answer is less than five percent.”

With sports increasingly adopting modern science to enhance performances, sports psychologists will play a greater role to play in the days to come.

May 30, 2006

Glam brigade of Indian sports

By H Natarajan

The megabucks world of modern sports is not just about sports per se. It’s a platform from where high-powered sportsperson project their personalities to influence the thinking of millions around the world and, in turn, make a huge difference to the bottom lines of corporates shelling out millions of dollars. Today, agents managing the players are as important as the coaches in life of a player. For many sportspersons, there is more money from endorsements than the game itself. Increasing the brand value of the player is the job of the agent, which means grooming them into megastars.

When Venus and Serena Williams take the court, they make as much style statements with their designer tennis attire as with their game. At major tennis events like the French Open and Wimbledon, newspapers devote copious space for the latest parade of fashion by the players.

The frenzied attention that Maria Sharapova draws from the media is not just for her tennis. The leggy Russian is the face on whom majors like Nike, Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Motorola and a host of other companies have pinned their faith to explode their sales. Not surprisingly, Sharapova rakes in excess of $20 million annually, with her agents IMG turning down more than she is earning!

Anna Kournikova did not win a single major tournament, but her mass global appeal has helped rake millions of dollars by way of endorsements.

Over the years, more Indian sportsmen than sportswomen have attracted attention for their drop-dead looks - men like Tiger Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer, Vijay Amritraj, Prakash Padukone, Roger Binny and Ravi Shastri in the past to Rahul Dravid, Ajay Jadeja, Mahesh Bhupathi, Viren Rasquinha, Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj Singh in the present, to name a few.

But when it comes to our sportswomen, the topic usually evokes general derision. Which is entirely unfair as there have been - and still are - quite a few stunningly beautiful women of substance.

Long before Sania Mirza arrived on the scene, another girl from the south attracted as much attention for her good looks and flamboyance as her ability as an top class athlete. Ashwini Nachappa, an arresting Coorgi beauty, was the anti-thesis of the shy and demure woman that the world perceived a typical Indian as. The sprinter made style statements like no other Indian – male or female – and her chic, figure-hugging fluorescent track wear earned the sobriquet of Flo-Jo of Indian athletics. The beauteous lass from Karnataka later made it to the silver screen as well. Ashwini was beauty with brains. And she spoke her mind. Today Ashwini is settled in domestic bliss but finds time to espouse causes of slum children and orphaned kids.

Two other Southern beauties in athletics were Shiny Wilson and Vandana Rao. Shiny was a quintessential beauty from Kerala. Be it in shorts as a top class athlete or in a sari as a devoted mother, she oozed class and charm, typing the Indian woman who balanced her life between career and domestic responsibilities.

Vandana remained in the shadows of PT Usha and Shiny as an athlete, but she was up there with the stunners of the track when it came to the glam quotient. Both girls went on to marry top international sportsmen – Shiny tied the knot with swimmer Cherian Wilson and Vandana married hockey player Joachim Carvalho.

One of the earliest Indian to make waves for her looks as well as her prowess as a sportswoman was Nafisa Ali. Fair, light-eyed and blessed with an infectious smile, the National swimming champion of the 70s knew that she had the looks to be among the most beautiful women of her times. She entered the Miss India and, not surprisingly, won it in 1976. Like Ashwini in a later era, Nafisa made her presence on the big screen, the notable among which was Junoon with Shashi Kapoor. Now a graying beauty, Nafisa has shown that there is as much inner beauty within her by supporting social causes like AIDS awareness.

Royal families of India have left their marks in many Indian sports, one such blue-blooded sportsperson is Bhuvaneshwari Kumari. “Candy,” as the statuesque princess of Alwar was known to her friends, was not just an aristocrat on the court but off it as well. Imperiously tall with strikingly good looks, she won the National women’s squash for 16 years in a row to be the queen of the game in India. The absence of competition among women made her make a foray into the men’s, which had to be renamed “Open category”. The story goes that one of her rivals in the Open category failed to show up, allegedly not wanting to lose at the hands of a lady and suffer life-long taunts. But even the no-show hurt the poor guy, who is now famously called “Mickey” – short for Mickey Mouse!

Candy’s domination came to an end with the rise of another beautiful girl from Mumbai – Misha Grewal. The stands would dramatically fill up when Misha took the court. She was the National Squash Champion for five consecutive years between 1992 and 1997 and rose to the No 27 in the world rankings. She was articulate and intelligent and it was no surprise when she was elected to the Board of International Squash Players’ Association. Misha quit squash and switched to a career as an NDTV anchor. She then made a foray into acting by debuting in Aamir Raza Husain’s The Legend of Ram Prince of India, where she plays the role of Sita. Misha is married to well know fashion designer Ashish Soni.

Following in the footsteps of Candy and Misha is another Coorgi, the tall Joshna Chinappa - the first Indian girl to win the British Junior Open under-19 title in 2003. Her strikingly good looks has made some people call her the Sania Mirza of Indian squash. But the great grand-daughter of Field Marshall KM Cariappa dismissed such comparisons by telling a national daily, “If people think I am the Sania Mirza of squash, then Sania is the Joshna Chinappa of tennis!” Joshna is a typical 19 year-old of modern Indian dressed in trendy jeans and T-shirt, sneakers, designer glares, highlighted hair, tattoos and a pierced navel. And one can be sure she would make waves in the years to come – on and off the court.

Anjali Bhagwat is the pretty face of the strong modern Indian woman who can be tough as any male in the big bad world out there and be a simple housewife at home. Behind the soft face and a shy smile is a champion made of steel. If you think guns are not for the average Gita, Meeta or Nita, think again: Anjali was the No 1 air rifle shooter in the world a few years back. Has her good looks not got offer to act in films? Yes, that offer did come before the last Olympics, but as of now, the pretty Maharashtrian with a disarming smile wants to just concentrate in shooting – with the gun!

One current Indian sportswoman who has everything going for her to make a career in films is the very tall and slim Anju Bobby George, winner of the long jump bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Having seen Anju in action overseas, I can say without fear of contradiction that she stands tall, literally and figuratively, among all the beautiful women in the world track and field.

If Bela Pandit were to play her tennis two decades later she would have given Sania Mirza tough competition in the glam stakes. The petite Pune lass was a stunner on the court and like Kournikova and Gabriella Sabatini on the international circuit, her oomph generated a huge following that brought her fans flocking to her matches.

The last words have to be on Sania Mirza. No Indian sportsperson past or present has whipped the kind of frenzy Sania has. She is truly a product of the times when the media in the country – the visual media, in particular – has grown in humongous proportion. The “Sania Mania” has propelled the girl from Hyderabad in an elite league that has made her one of the biggest brands among Indian celebrities. Be it the nose pin, minis or her T-shirt, anything and everything she does and says become major news and, at times, subject for needless controversies. She now needs to move around with her security guards to ward off excited fans and maniacal threats.

Sania is seen as a rival for Sharapova in the beauty stakes, which was evident during their US Open clash, when an entire nation stayed awake to watch the two beauty queens of international women’s tennis.

With the likes of Sania, Anju, Ashwini and Joshna and many more mentioned above, Indian sportswoman have not lagged behind when to comes making style, fashion and beauty statements.