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It's all in the mind: The importance of mental strength for athletes

Rio Paralympics Indian Contingent
The Indian Contingent at the Rio Paralympics proved that mental strength is the key to success
CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 28 Sep 2016
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“The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight." – Arthur Ashe

Indian shooter Jitu Rai is ranked #6 in the world in the 10-metre air pistol and 50-metre air pistol events. In 2014, he won the gold medal at the Shooting World Cup and Asian Games, followed by a silver medal at the World Championships. But at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he finished 8th in the 10-metre and 12th in the 50-metre air pistol events.

Deepika Kumari, India's recurve archery star, is currently ranked #10 in the world. She is a three-time silver medallist at the Archery World Cup (2011-2013). Her highest world rank has been # 1, a pinnacle very few Indian athletes can claim to have scaled over the course of their careers. But at Rio, she lost in the Round of 16.

Since the Olympics ended, much has been said about where we stand as a sporting nation, and the areas we need to improve on. People have suggested that if we want our athletes to achieve success at the world level, we collectively need to pull our socks up.

I agree that it needs to be a combination of various things – government intervention to improve sporting infrastructure at the grassroots level, more contribution from corporates, general awareness about sports from the public, systematic allocation of funds to sports where we have a genuine medal chance – for India's performance at the highest stage to improve.

However, in my opinion, we also need to talk more about the secret weapon of every athlete, the one key ingredient that separates the good from the best. It can be an athlete’s best friend or greatest enemy – the mind. 

Jitu Rai and Deepika Kumari have achieved great success in their respective sports with whatever facilities were made available to them. They could not have reached such high world rankings if they did not have what it takes to compete with the best in the world, as many rightly point out. So what happened to them, and to various other Indian athletes, at the Rio Olympics? How could we have come away with just two medals?

The Olympics is a congregation of the best athletes in the world in their respective disciplines. Everyone is more or less at the same level technically, physically and tactically. What separates an Olympic gold from a 10th place finish, is how well the athlete is equipped to stay calm, handle the pressure that the occasion presents, and still come out on top on the given day.

It is, therefore, crucial that our athletes and government invest time and money to strengthening the mind along with fine-tuning their technique and physically bolstering their body. Being mentally strong helps athletes stay focused on the present situation without dwelling on the past or future, and it gives them the right temperament – thus enabling them to soak the pressure in tense or crucial situations.

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The great golfer Bobby Jones once said, “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” This eloquently summarises the role the mind plays in any sport, and specifically in golf.

It is a sport that lasts approximately five hours, of which only a few minutes are spent physically hitting the shot. The rest of the time is spent in walking to the ball to hit the next shot. Herein lies the difficulty, and a live manifestation of the famous adage, “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop”.

Having so much free time on your mind can work as a huge disadvantage. It allows unnecessary thoughts to creep in, and invariably the mind shifts focus either to a previous shot, or the outcome of a future shot to be played. This in turn prevents the mind from fully concentrating on the shot at hand.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that being mentally strong and having the right temperament and patience are two of the biggest keys to succeeding in golf.

Another aspect of mental strength is ‘not complaining’. As athletes, we need to make the very best use of the facilities and situations at hand, rather than lamenting about what we do not have. 

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In my personal life, I have seen no greater example of this attitude than from my father. Even today, he recounts the days of playing and practising badminton in marriage halls with high ceilings, where makeshift badminton courts were set up. What drove him and his compatriots was the sheer passion for the sport and the burning desire to succeed.

My father has instilled the attitude of “perform, don’t complain” in us, and I continue to (try and) follow that to this day!

Video Credit: Paralympic Games official YouTube channel.

On a related note, the Rio Paralympics gave us much joy. The fantastic results of our Paralympians are a testament to their mental strength; they have beaten all odds without complaining, and have come out on top. Indeed, their performance is an inspiration and lesson from which we can all learn something.

Also Read: PM Narendra Modi says government is working on scheme for Paralympics development

I genuinely feel that there is no lack of sporting ability in our country. There is talent in every nook and corner, itching to burst on to the world scene and perform great deeds. We truly have what it takes to compete with the best in the world.

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With some help from the government, corporates and public participation, India can produce many more sporting role models that the country can celebrate. Let's hope that does indeed happen in the coming few years.

Anisha Padukone is a competitive amateur golfer, having finished as the finalist at the 2014 National Championships. The daughter of badminton legend Prakash Padukone, Anisha is the proud owner of the India blazer and has been ranked among the top 10 female golfers in the country.

Published 28 Sep 2016, 16:27 IST
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