16 June 2020

The 'never give up' of sports

Marvan Atapattu -- his story is a classic; he kept going.

This is for parents. Children are their darlings. Every little act of progress is a delight, especially with first born children. Having forgotten their own childhood and partially or completely blind to children of the same age because, well, they just don’t have eyes for anything other than their little bundles of joy, parents do tend to believe their children are special. Well, more special than parenthood warrants them to believe.

They may not share the thought with everyone, but a considerable number of parents entertain the belief that their children are gifted. This can translate into a lot of expectations as well as undue pressure on the child.

I’ve known and have heard of parents who want their children to win at all cost. The little competitor is given pep talks that overburden and distract. It is one thing to ingrain a bit of drive in the little one and quite another to make it a make or break, life or death matter, the ‘must win or else syndrome,’ if you will.

I know of young chess players who, when about to be checkmated, would just sit for more than a hour without playing that final superfluous move before losing the game. I know of kids who were checkmated by surprise and therefore couldn’t make use of the sit-and-kill-time option. Some of them have pleaded with the opponent to stay in the tournament hall for longer. ‘Because my mother/father would scold me for finishing the game so early!’

Parents can also be impatient. When the budding genius doesn’t deliver or doesn’t do so at the expected speed, they figure it’s precious time being wasted. Better, they reason, for the boy/girl to try his/her hand at something else.

There are two things they tend to miss. First, they compromise love for the particular sport. Kids need to love something if they are to get better at it. Second, they forget that kids develop at different rates. It comes in spurts sometimes and this they fail to understand. Spurt can result from a combination of hard work and luck, but neither need be a product of love for the particular sport. If it happens to be an unpalatable must-do on account of pushy parents, at some point lack of interest is likely to stump talent.

At-their-own-pace with love. That seems to be a decent enough rule of thumb few parents know about.

Watching children and parents in various sporting contexts I often return to the year 1977 and the YMBA, Borella. That’s where the Chess Federation held tournaments back then. It was my first individual tournament. The Novices. Now there were players who had taken up the game much later than I had, but whose cognitive development was naturally at a superior level simply on account of being older. We all competed as equals though. There were no age-group tournaments in that era. It was the eighth or ninth round. I was paired with an Anandian much older than I and much taller too. Rajasinghe would later captain Ananda and secure the inter-schools title for that school. I lost.

It was not the first game I had lost. I had little illusions about my strength, anyway. In general, only an upset, i.e. a loss at the hands of a player perceived to be weaker, would upset me. This was not an upset.

As was the norm, I watched some of the other games, strolled over to the next room where people played billiards and snooker and was duly delighted by angles, bank shots and such. I had to wait for my father to pick me up.

He arrived. Inquired. ‘I lost,’ I said. He made an excuse for me. ‘You must have been excited about the recital we are going to this evening.’  The recital was a sitar or sarod performance by Ustad Podi Appuhamy at the Ramakrishna Mission Hall. I hadn’t heard of the hall, the instruments, the man or the event. I didn’t say ‘yes’ but neither did I say ‘no.’ I wasn’t upset, as I said. My father couldn’t have known or might have misread my general expression. He was ‘sorting me out,’ perhaps.

Maybe he was too easy on me. I never became a great chess player. It didn’t cause any trauma either — not to me and not to my parents. But then there are parents who pull their kids out of a particular sport because they feel they just won’t make it to the top.

Making it to the top is not only about talent. It’s about doing the hard yards, so to speak. It’s about constantly reassessing strengths and constantly looking for, identifying and correcting flaws. There are psychological factors too — assessing opponents, dealing with adverse circumstances, coming to terms to bad form, developing focus etc. However, at the first sign that the kid is not the genius he/she was thought to be, parents give up.

My friend Sarath Weerakoon, who I have mentioned in this column before, puts it as follows.

‘Everybody grows at a different pace. If you do not succeed as fast as someone else, do not get disheartened. Trust the process, however, and learn what works and what doesn’t. Consistency will outlast talent. Keep going.’

Every sport has late bloomers. Google the sport along with ‘late bloomers.’ Read their stories. Be inspired. Keep going.
Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

Those who kneel are actually standing
Do you have a plan?
Strengths and weaknesses
It's all about partnerships