21 April 2020

Locked down sports people, read!

Chess players, in these Covid-19 times have the option of honing skills and maintaining match-practice. It’s almost as if the internet was made for the development of chess. There are online courses, YouTube videos, options to play games with real people and even tournaments. There are extensive data bases of games played by the best and the worst. There are programs that will help you analyze games, yours as well as those played by others.

That’s chess. How about other sports which require people to be fit and to test and improve skills ‘on the ground,’ so to speak?

I remember my brother Arjuna, when he was a student at Colombo University, deciding to play badminton. Now we’ve played the game since we were kids. In the garden, on the road and sometimes even on real courts. It was a fun thing. Aiya was serious.

I am not sure if there was a regular coach at the university. Typically, at the time, the senior players would help the freshers along, offering tips, putting them through practice drills and so on. That was how it was for sports like cricket and rugger. I do remember my brother borrowing books on badminton from the British Council. They were mostly about basic techniques and how to improve them.

He was serious. He read. He went to the court and practiced. In fact, his batch mates would remember that he almost lived in the gym.

You can’t do that kind of thing in this kind of situation. Unless you have your own gym. Even then, who would you test your skills against? The books and videos do tell us a lot. Doesn’t mean that what we absorb gives instant skills. Kusal Janith Perera decided to bat lefthand seeing Sanath Jayasuriya’s exploits, but it was years of hard work at the nets and being tried and tested in the middle that made him the batsman he is today. 

Just last night someone made an observation about writing: ‘It’s frustrating when these ideas run through your head but unable to find right words to describe those feelings.’

And this, the response: ‘Getting the right words, like most things, it's 99% about practice. like choosing the right shot for the particular delivery in cricket. The timing, the angle, the power seem to come naturally, but there's tons of hard work over many years that gets a great batsman to the point where he executes to perfection.’

So why do I say ‘read’? Well, there are tons of books on techniques and they are useful. There are also books written by practitioners or about them. There are, for example, two books that I still remember. There was Learie Constantine’s biography which gave such great insights into West Indian cricket and then there was Geoffrey Boycott’s recollections on the 1978/79 Ashes Series in Australia. These are stories about real life situations. They give us a flavor of what it takes to do well. They teach us about the nuances in and out of the field we need to be sensitive to if we want to perform better.

And it is not that would-be cricketers have to read the biographies of cricketers. Biographies or accounts of other people in other sports and indeed any biography for that matter, can teach us a lot.  We learn from books. And in books there are men and women engaged in competition, preparation off-field issues that bear upon performance and so on.

It’s not just about physical fitness and mastering skills. There’s a lot of ‘mind’ involved. In these restricted times where muscle is sequestered, practice out of the question and team-work untenable, there’s a lot we can do with and for the mind. 

Here’s one small lesson from a great batsman to illustrate the point. Ricky Ponting, when asked what was the secret behind his success as a batsman, simply said ‘I treat each delivery with respect.’ That’s a lesson on focus. You should never veer, never let down your guard, never let your emotions (hitting a ball out of the park or being beaten all ends up) get in the way.

It’s easy to say of course. However, once the idea takes root in mind it can help when you are out there facing the music, so to speak, be it in cricket, rugby, football or any sport. Chess included. 

We can’t do much stuck at home. We can read, though.

This article was first published in the online edition of THE MORNING [April 21, 2020]