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What ails Indian Sports?

Picture courtesy - NDTV Facebook page

Indian Medal winners at London 2012 – courtesy NDTV

I have to present one more article based on the Olympics – news and pictures from this quadrennial global event are being beamed to our homes every day and like me many of you have been enthralled by the drama evolving at venues across London.

Why are we discussing this on Sales Coach blog? Sports is a reflection of life and these messages are as relevant to Sales Professionals as they are to people in other walks of life.

I am fully aware that this article is being posted on the day India celebrates it’s best performance at any Olympics – a harvest of 6 medals, 2 Silvers and 4 Bronzes. That’s better than 3 or none, but far less than what we are capable off – just going by the law of averages we represent 1/6 of the global population and so 6 medals is an insignificant share. I am waiting to hear rebukes and cries of “Spoil Sport!”

The Indian hockey team sank to it’s worst showing at the Olympics by not winning a single match and ending up with the wooden spoon. Deepika Kumari the World No.1 archer and a Gold Medal hopeful did not even get past the qualification stage.

Open www.google.com, enter the words “”What ails …. “  and the first option provided by the auto-prompt of the Search Engine is “ …. Indian Sports”. Yes, with the Olympics holding No.1 position in mindspace of most Netizens in India this is the question wrapped around every keyboard-bound fingertip.

To prove my Internet savvy let me deploy the term “Trending”! “What ails Indian Sports?” is the currently trending topic; and when the curtains come down on London 2012 it will slip out off the minds of sports lovers and sports authorities.

And that is the root cause of the problem!

Winning at the Olympics is about what the athletes do before they line up to march on the opening day of the event. All the stories of sacrifice and dedication, unending hours of practice, giving up many of the good things life has to offer, shutting out all the distractions and keeping just one objective in the mind. That last word; keep that in your mind. We have to discuss it some more.

The difference between Gowda’s throw at the Men’s Discus Throw event and that made by the eventual winner was just 3 metres, or should I say THEREE METRES. That is a little over 12 feet or the length of a Sedan. But, when someone throws the discus to a distance of 65 m with the mightiest heave asking him to gain another foot of distance is like asking for a kilometer. It means being able to go beyond oneself and for that physical strength alone isn’t enough; it has to synchronise with something else.

Haven’t we heard stories where individuals performed impossible feats when faced with danger or to save a loved one? So, it is possible for all of us to dig deep and go way beyond expectation, if we want to. It’s in us!

Maybe, my fellows Indians will say that Deepika Kumari Kumari is just 18 and should be given more time. I will counter with names of Chinese swimmers and divers who are just 16 & 17 and they would respond this way – “The Chinese are like machines – they torture their athletes and force them to perform”. How about a 15 year old Lithuanian school girl or teenagers from other countries who won medals. How did they win? It’s in the mind.

The Indian Tennis Contingent showed us how mind games shouldn’t be played. The players and officials were involved in a destructive game that fractured the entire team; if there was one group that had little support of their countrymen at London 2012 it was the Indian tennis team.

I left the worst for last – the performance of our Hockey team. With the tournament over and team slated to return home in couple of days the searching for scapegoats should have started – Nobbs, the team coach who is from Australia,  will be at the receiving end; we have to find someone to blame and an outsider is a convenient target. But he isn’t the reason, the problem is elsewhere – Indians have not realized that the rest of the world plays hockey differently. So, while we play a brand that is pre-70s, the Europeans play fast and indulge in passes rather than focusing on stick-work and possession. To complicate things further hockey in India is managed by 2 associations who don’t see eye-to-eye on anything; add to that the lack of corporate support and poor infrastructure and you get the picture of a complete disaster. How can players focus on the game in such a messy situation?

Saina Nehwal knew well that she had to work at a different level if she was to counter the Chinese shuttlers – but unafraid of the opposition she took on their might and got the world rallying around her with a Saina vs. China slogan. She knows that the battle has to be won in the mind.

The winners in the Shooting events either hail from affluent families or are serving the Armed Forces – so the talents had the backing of their family or employer. They did not have to wait for support from the Government and could get on with the practice at the planned pace; but even in their case the winners were the ones who were really focused and hungry for success. Abhinav Bindra is an athlete who lost his hunger. From Beijing he had brought home the only Gold Medal won by an Indian athlete, but this time he didn’t get past the prelims. He just didn’t have the motivation to win. Again, it’s the mind that decided the result.

Watching the intensity of many of the athletes in victory and in defeat leads me to believe that champion are made as much in their mind as in their muscle and sinew.

Many of our athletes seemed to give up too fast or they lacked focus. They were not thinking on their feet and changing tactics with the demands of the situation. They did not increase concentration or will themselves to work at a higher level when expected – when one posture was not working they did not try another, when one attack was unsuccessful it was not replaced with another. They seem to be just going through the motions and when they lost there wasn’t the least bit of concern and pain.

Mery Kom was the only exception – she took it to heart and felt she had not done enough. She apologized to the entire country when there was no need to – she had given it her everything. Now, that is what champions are made off. They care! They feel dejected when they fall short of the standard set for themselves.

Our athletes need to care much more. They need feel hurt, dejected, disappointed and ashamed for the right reasons – that they failed themselves, that they did not work hard enough, that they lost an opportunity. They need to be aware that an entire nation is waiting to celebrate with them – if that is not motivation enough, what can be?

They say that the spirit of the Olympics is to participate, but I don’t believe that. I think it is about winning; it’s about doing our best and going beyond that. It’s about pushing the envelope. It’s as much about personal pride as it is about national pride – when one is served the other automatically follows. Being a journeyman gets you nowhere other than the venue of the event.

You may say that just qualifying for the Games is creditable because the cut-off is quite high – but is that what excellence is about? I think every athlete should try to be the best or at the very least deliver performance that is at one’s personal best. Many Indians athletes failed to do that, not because they lacked talent but because they did not try hard enough.

They lost the match in their mind. Yes, I think it happened mainly on account of poor mental preparation. They either did not believe in themselves or did not care enough. My suggestions to the sports authorities and to the coaches are the following:

–          Start early – the preparation for the next Olympics and the one after that should start today.

– Focus on events that we can be good at – don’t participate just for the sake of being there, participate to win.

– Spend money and effort in the areas that can produce the best results.

– Streamline the administration of sports and remove roadblocks – focus on the athletes and not on power-mongering.

– Start with a large talent pool and keep whittling down as the date approaches.

– Give the athletes as much international exposure as possible.

– Have Goals, Objectives, Deadlines and Reviews – demand performance.

– Prepare the athletes mentally – make them strong and teach them to care about what they are doing.

– As a long-term initiative develop sports facilities across the country and get more people interested in sports.

India needs to change it’s attitude towards sports and it’s sportspersons too. More parents should permit their kids to take to sports. But above all that, more Indian athletes need to feel strongly about performing at the world stage and coming away winners or at least giving a bit more than their best.

Fortunately, they don’t have to make the supreme sacrifice, but surely their honour is at stake. May India come alive in Sports!

P.S. – I am a Sales / Management Trainer and Coach, but I am passionate about sports. The performance of the Indian athletes at the Olympics has always been way below expectation and it defies logic. Most games are played in the mind and the way we play the game speaks a lot about us. Going by that logic Indians haven’t given a good account of themselves on the World Stage.

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  1. Austin
    August 12, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Well written article..Individual preparation or employer can help only in individual sports like badminton, tennis, shooting, etc. For team sports, we need good infrastucture at junior level. Where are the swimming pools, astro turf courts, synthetic tracks, landing cushion for events like high jump or pole vault? To get champions you need these facilities at grass roots level so that people can learn these techniques at young age.

    • JayadevM
      August 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Hi Austin

      Thank you!

      I agree with the need for facilities – I am told that there are many more astro-turf stadia in Germany than in India. Is it a surprise that they won today? The lack of facilities is a huge reason for the poor showing.

  2. August 12, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Disagree with your analysis. Mind / Motivation is not what differentiates the medallists from the rest of the Olympic qualifiers. Taking your example of Bindra. Post Beijing, which was the highpoint of his career so far, he’s won medals at the Commonwealth & Asian games. At the Asian shooting championships earlier this year he won gold in the 10m air rifle. So if he was motivated enough for all that, why would he suddenly stop caring at the Olympics?
    This article reminded me a bit of the usual Skip Bayless punditry. Might be worthwhile to hear what Mark Cuban thought of that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv2jqFd2-qI

    • JayadevM
      August 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      Hi Shafeek

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      Aren’t the Commonwealth and Asian Games smaller events than the Olympics? The competition at those events aren’t as intense or as high as they are at the Olympics.

      So if Bindra was motivated what went wrong at the Olympics – just, a bad day in office? A blip in performance?

      Performance in sports or in any other field is a mix of competence, preparation (physical and mental) and execution. Execution is dependent on our level of skill and our mental condition at the time of performance.

      So, the difference between the winner and the next guy is a mix of the above – if other factors are equal then the guy who is more motivated and better focused will win.

      Abhinav Bindra should be as good as the other guys lined up for shooting on that day – there was no doubt on his ability, so it had to boil down to how he executed that day – how focused he was and how he handled the pressure.

      Are you in disagreement with the logic applied in the case of Bindra or for all athletes?

      As for the video isn’t that one opinion against another? Mark Cuban made some strong points but they weren’t conclusive. They were just his point-of-view. Maybe Skip Bayliss was indulging in punditry, but isn’t that what his job is about. He may be wrong, he may be right. I am sure he is conducting that show because his opinions have found acceptance among the listeners.

      I strongly believe that the mind plays a huge role in performance, be it athletics or sales.

      • August 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

        Jayadev,
        I agree with your view that the mind plays a huge role in performance. What I don’t agree with is, your conclusion that most of our athletes did not place among the medalists due to reasons that had to do with the mind (mental strength, motivation…). I am unable to see a logical link between the results you mentioned, and the causes you inferred for them. And this not just in the case of Bindra, which I merely took as an example. Because you chose the harshest words for him (among individuals).
        I don’t see the data to support your reasoning. You may believe that mind is what differentiates between #1 (Gold) & #4 (Empty handed), and I may believe in the flying spaghetti monster. But without the evidence to back them up, they remain just that: beliefs.
        When I search in http://www.google.com, the phrase “what ails” the auto-complete suggestions I get are “You”, “the Episcopalians”, “phillip phillips” and “the episcopal church”. I suspect you were looking in http://www.google.co.in
        Abhinav Bindra: I quoted his recent results to show that he continues to be highly committed to his sport. If he felt he’d achieved everything at Beijing, he could have hung up his boots, started a shooting academy and gone around the lecture circuit. But he continues to participate at the highest levels, and continues to occasionally win medals. I don’t see any lack of motivation here. Yes, the Olympics are a notch higher than the other tournaments mentioned. However, South Korea, which has won the most medals in the Olympics shooting, and China (#4) are also part of the Asian tournaments. So it’s not a cakewalk for him there. And about mental strength, he’s already shown that he has it, at Beijing. So on what grounds do you say he has lost his hunger? How do you say he didn’t have the motivation to win?
        One thing I don’t understand is that people expected him to win just because he won at Beijing 4 years ago. He is ranked only #17 in the world in the 10m air rifle. This was his ranking before the Olympics as well. And even in Beijing he wasn’t in the top ranks. So it is more likely that 2008 was a stroke of good fortune. Though I am not implying that he was not motivated enough or good enough to win then. He was as deserving as ~ 7 others there. He was lucky to place ahead of them. I do not think there is much difference in mental strength or motivation levels of the ~ Top 20 in shooting (or other disciplines). There might be some athletes who are clearly more talented than the rest and consistently outperform their peers. Otherwise the difference in results on any particular day or even can be attributed to a host of other reasons – luck being a big one among them.
        Deepika Kumari: She didn’t become world #1 by toss of a coin. She’s been consistently winning championships including at the last world cup in archery at Turkey. And she’s done this beating the same set of archers that participated in London. She couldn’t have done this without being mentally strong.
        I don’t know why she lost her match at London. But it is not as if she was trashed. Of the 3 rounds she conceded, she was behind by 1, 1 & 2 points. The round she won was by 4 points. Maybe her British opponent had better understanding of the atmospheric condition in her home country. Humidity, Air thickness, wind draft etc, play a great role in an outdoor sport like archery. Maybe it was just slight changes in wind speed at inopportune moments. The difference between victory and defeat is only milimetres here. Maybe she didn’t wear her favourite rocket underpants that day. But how do you say it is in the mind that she lost?
        Another point to note: Unlike the Indian hockey team, she lost only one match. Same as Saina, Mary Kom, Federer, and Sushil Kumar. Unfortunately for her it happened to be in the 1st round. And there’s no repechage in archery.
        Saina: I guess you’re saying that she was prepared mentally. So how do you explain her semifinal defeat, and the fact that she was trailing in the bronze match, when the opponent conceded (though I believe she would have won if the match continued without injury to Xin).
        I didn’t watch hockey, where the results were pathetic. Though it is arguable if this is worse than 2008. But of all the Indian athletes’ whose events I followed I did not see a single person who I felt did not try his or her best. Or who didn’t care enough. Or who appeared intimidated. Your para about them giving up too fast, or lacking focus, not showing pain just doesn’t hold. All of it could be applied to Federer in his match against Murray. He kept getting broken by Murray, and wasn’t able to break back, But I didn’t notice him change tactics, increase concentration or cry after the match. But I don’t believe that he didn’t try his best, or didn’t care enough, or was not mentally strong, or was not motivated. And I don’t believe that of the Indian athletes either. Why does one have to appear melodramatic to prove that he or she cares? Should the effort you put in be enough?
        I could go on about the individual cases. But I’ll stop here and get back to my original point. I disagree with your simplification that our losses were in the mind. There may have been many and different reasons for each of them. But there’s no evidence to show that any of them had to do with the mind. I wasn’t able to follow the logical line from the facts you mentioned to the conclusions you drew from them. This smacked of armchair punditry, and hence my reference to Skip Bayless. If you reach wrong conclusions, wrong prescriptions will automatically follow.
        Mark Cuban and Skip had very different approaches to their reasoning. Mark was about specifics; while Skip was throwing generalizations such as the Miami Heat won this year because LeBron James ‘wanted it more’ than Kevin Durrant, and Heat lost the previous year, because LeBron was not focused enough.
        Mark is not just a talker with views of his own. He’s put his money on it. He owns Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Heat in the finals the previous year. He rubbishes Skip’s claim that LeBron wanted it more than Durrant. Anyone who’s reached the finals will be motivated enough to try his best to win. Mark’s argument is that whoever executes their plans better is more likely to win. At that level, the difference is not in the mind anymore.
        Skip also claimed that the Mavericks won in 2011, because LeBron was not focused. Mark went to specifics here, after 1st asking even if the Mavs stood back and did nothing, would they still have won. They played zone because the team was not young enough to play man-to-man against the quick Heat. They 2-teamed Lebron to prevent him from breaking into the perimeter. They steered him to the left of the court, where he was less likely to basket.
        All specific tactics, and execution of those. No banalities such as ‘It’s all in the mind.’ Or ‘We wanted it more.’

      • JayadevM
        August 14, 2012 at 12:24 am

        Hi Shafeek

        Have read your response – shall post my response later in the day.

      • JayadevM
        August 14, 2012 at 9:13 am

        Hi Shafeek

        It took me a while to get through that comment but you have done a great job in presenting them.

        Let me quickly get Skip vs. Mark interaction out of the way because you brought that in to say I am an Armchair Pundit. I understand that Mark was being specific and Skip was presenting things in a general way. Mark is a team-insider and talked about what his team did to counter Lebron, but those need not be the only reasons for Lebron’s failure. We have instances of team’s planning to make a player ineffective and failing to achieve that. Since, Mavs won that year it’s being attributed to that strategy totally ignoring Lebron’s (& his team’s) performance during the finals. So, even if Mark was specific he need not necessarily be right – his team did win but Lebron’s failure need not be only on account of that.

        As for me, I am an outsider to the game – the Sales Coach blog is not posing to be a specialist in Sports Psychology – however, since sportsmen are human beings we can talk about them based on their performance, body language and what they say after a win or a loss. It is an outsider’s view based on the messages I have derived from interactions with fellow humans / co-workers and with what I have observed about sportsmen on TV.

        We also have evidence of India’s performance in 30 Olympics and we have seen how so many Indian athletes perform till they achieve a certain status and afterwards.

        It is based on this body of information that I have presented my thoughts.

        Let us not even discuss Federer; he is way above most Indian athletes in terms of achievement. He has been at the pinnacle of his game for over a decade. But even athletes like him can have an off day. He can be demotivated too. However the loss at the hands of Murray at the Olympics is, in my opinion, on account of two factors:

        – Fatigue on account that extra-long semi-final match, his body would not have recovered fully.
        – A charged up Murray who wanted to exact revenge for the Wimbledon loss and get that Gold Medal.

        So Federer could have been motivated but he was up against an adversary who wanted it more.

        And let me quickly add that my article is not about medals – I don’t mind athletes losing after giving their 100%. It is a contest between equals or many times with better opponents. But how much the player contributed to the contest and how he/she felt can be understood from the way they played and from what they said afterwards.

        The way Deepika spoke and the way Mery Kom spoke after the loss tells us a lot about their mindset. I am fine with Mery, Sushil and Saina losing – these are athletes who have gumption and fight all the way. They don’t look listless or disinterested – there is aggression even in failure; the quiet fire burning inside that says “I didn’t do well today and I lost; but I am going to return stronger”.

        I would like to see that in all Indian athletes. It is terrible to hear an athlete say, after losing in the prelims – “It’s OK! 2016 Olympics is coming. I will come back and do better.” There is no thought about what had just happened. There is no sense of loss. There is no disappointment.

        So, my contention is that there was no fire in Abhinav and Deepika. They did not look like Champions or speak like Champions. If you want to know what I am speaking about just look at Usain Bolt on the TV screen. We are sure what he is about, there is no doubt there. It’s is not the gestures and the chatter, its the body the athlete’s state-of-mind – it’s confidence personified.

        The same can be said about Federer – his body language is positive and shows how calm and confident he is. We can easily recognise players going through a bad spell with the way they carry themselves – their expressions and words make it evident to us.

        When Indian athletes grow in confidence & walk into the arena with a positive mindset we will see our medal tally rise. The confidence and mindset need to be developed through a series of actions – we need a program to make that happen.

  3. August 13, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Jayadev, I thoroughly agree with you about the ‘weakness of mind’. And the attitude starts early at home. I am resisting a verbal diarrhea on how Olympics (and other sports events) are just viewed as shopping opportunities by the coaches/officials at the cost of the exchequer. Can the same be said of a Chinese delegation, or a US delegation for that matter? While it is all right to express dissenting views and one must go ahead and speak his mind as Mr Shafeek has done here, it would have made his argument a pleasure to read had it been supported by logic.

    • JayadevM
      August 13, 2012 at 3:15 am

      Hi Umashankar

      Yes, a lot more needs to done by India to remove the journeyman tag.

      Officials have been misusing delegate passes and will continue to do so. Like you said, this is their chance to have a good time for free. I am afraid there will be more such stories in the years to come.

      And all that is happening when enough is not being done for the person who is performing. India needs to do much more for it’s athletes and the athletes surely need to do much more to become International quality.

      Preparing mentally is a huge component of that preparation.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my page regularly.

      Shafeek is a good friend and an ardent sports lover. He has provided another point-of-view and we should elicit some more information from him on that input.

  4. August 13, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Wonderful article, Jayadev, and great analysis too. I’d like to add one more to the list: most Indian parents want their children to be the next Sachin or Sania or Saina or Anand or whichever sportsperson is the flavour of the day. They (and our sports administration) are not looking nurture or create someone better than these famous sportspersons. The pressure on the budding kids is tremendous.

    • JayadevM
      August 13, 2012 at 7:59 am

      Hi Sudhagee

      Thank you for the appreciation.

      You are right about Indian parents … as with schooling in sports too there is the wrong kind of pressure applied, by setting unduly high expectations. There has to be encouragement, support and guidance and the kids need to be given inputs on goal-orientation too. All that will help them to get better.

      But not pressure to be like someone else. That will kill the talent. If the kid is good the growth into someone like the heroes mentioned would be a natural culmination of the process. If the kids are groomed properly they will get there.

      Let us hope that Indian parents and sports administrators provide the right inputs and nurture talent.

  5. August 13, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Hi Jayadev

    I do agree that the state of the mind has an important part to play…Both under and over confidence are dangerous…
    Another possible thing is our players get intimidated seeing the entire contingent from other nations…
    Hence maybe we should have some counsellors on the officials side whose sole purpose is to keep the morale in its right place…
    Whatever it be, I remember some Olympics as a kid when the medals tally used to stick at zero. Compared to that 3 last year and 6 now is awesome…Kudos to those who achieved…

    • JayadevM
      August 13, 2012 at 7:54 am

      Hi Jayashree

      That is right! While 6 is better than 3 or 0 there is a lot more that is possible.

      The state of mind is different from individual-to-individual. One is in awe of the opponent and unable to cope with the stage where they are performing, another is too confident, the third in not confident enough due to poor preparation – each of these individuals need to be helped and given inputs.

      They need to focus on the task and be able to remove all other thoughts from their mind. It’s not easy and will take a lot of doing … so all with trainers and coaches like you rightly pointed out there need to be counsellors too.

      I hope someone’s got all this on the agenda.

  6. Jamy
    August 14, 2012 at 6:40 am

    Superb article Jay! Agree with you completely!

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