01 May 2020

Thinking and out-thinking in sports

Mahendra Singhe Dhoni was a rare thinking skipper
There was a time when knowing the rules or having been a keen spectator was qualification enough to have a decent enough shot at making a varsity team in most sports. Those who excelled in certain sports while at school rarely entered university. It had nothing to do with the quality of minds. Simply, they spent more time on the particular sport.

For example, in the eighties, the Colombo University rugby team was captained by at least two students who had never played the game while at school. They weren’t exactly national team material but they played their hearts out nevertheless.

Campus was also an opportunity for those who gave up sports at junior level to focus on studies to return to the particular discipline or try their hand at some other sport. This is the story of one such student.

He had played cricket at junior level. He was also a very good chess player. He figured that cricket, chess and studies were too much to handle. He dropped cricket. He went on to captain the school’s chess team and he did well enough at the ALs to enter the Science Faculty, Colombo University.

Endowed with good hand-eye coordination, he picked up table tennis and badminton as an undergrad, but decided that he would focus on the latter. He devoured books on training techniques and worked hard to improve his game. He wasn’t the best player when he started out, but became quite competitive as time went on.  Then came The Game.

It was the final. The winner would be the university’s badminton champion for that year. His opponent was the badminton captain. He was better known as a tennis player, but was the brother of one of the country’s top shuttlers at the time. In short, he had the skill and quite a reputation. This is how our hero related the story a few weeks ago.

‘He destroyed me in the first set and I quickly fell behind in the second. It was then that I realized that he had a “tennis backhand.” His backhand returns had less wrist than arm. So they were weak. I capitalized, caught up and won the second set. The third was easy.’

His opponent had been gracious in defeat. He had smiled and said ‘you found my weakness.’

Today there’s lots of ways to dissect a particular player and figure out his or her weakness(es). Coaching staff (the days of a single coach for a single team are long gone) figure out plays targeting the weakness of a particular player or an entire team. The targeted player is not always unaware of weakness and as such works on remedial measures. So it evolves into a head game.

It is relatively easy to prey on someone’s weakness. However, when one realizes a weakness in one’s armor, one finds ways of compensating. The weakness doesn’t disappear immediately, though. It’s there, but exploiting it is harder. So there has to be relentless probing, harassment even, to coax out an error.

What this indicates is the important of thinking. The best leaders, coaches and players are those who happen to be the best students of the game. They are constantly thinking; before the game and during the game. They are constantly re-calibrating to account for new information. In fact, they play chess, so to speak, whichever sport they may be playing.

They try to get into the other person’s head. That’s half the battle won right there. It allows anticipation. It enhances the probability of success.

In the badminton example, a chink in the armor was discovered soon enough to turn the tide. It was too late for the other player to adjust. Now had they played again, say a few months later, he would have tried to correct the error. He could, however, let on that he had not. Consequently the victor in the earlier encounter might continue to target a non-existent weakness. That would be distraction compounded by frustration. It would give the opponent an edge.

Mind-games are often neglected, but excelling in these can yield unexpected successes. Maybe chess helped our hero, but one doesn’t have to know anything about chess to out-think an opponent.

Think about it.

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