23 July 2020

Get the point for the team!

Inter-Schools Chess Champs 1983 [L-R: O.C De Alwis, Yogendra Atheray, Malinda Seneviratne,
R.L.W. Koggalage, D.C.L. De Alwis. Absent: Arjuna Seneviratne (Board 1) and P.C.L. Fernando (Board 6)].

D.C.L. De Alwis captained Royal College to the schools chess national title in 1986. He was a member of the champion teams from 1983 to 1986. He was a good player but not among the best in schools at the time. In fact Royal never had a star player. Experience and an absolute determination to do the best for the team more than compensated. The titles tell the story.

‘DCL’ as everyone called him had a notion of team spirit which he frequently shared with team mates and the juniors: ‘team spirit is about getting the point for the team.’ ‘The point’ was what was secured by a win. In a team event that’s the best that an individual could do. It’s about each player getting the business done. Pep talks, encouraging one another, bonding-exercises are all good, but delivery meant that each would have to focus on the matter at hand — the particular game in each and every round.

At some level it’s ‘You vs You.’ You have to be the best you can be. Playing at peak is what DCL was talking about. This means abstracting oneself from all distraction including what’s happening in the adjacent game (in these tournaments, typically, there are 6 players in each team with a reserve and therefore you’ll have at least one team mate by your side). Checking out what’s happening to your friend, whether he or she is winning or losing, will detract from focus.

That’s only part of the story. One doesn’t get woken up randomly to be told one has to perform in a couple of hours in some sport. It’s a process. It’s therefore about preparation. To deliver for the team one has to be in peak condition, physically and mentally. And there are no shortcuts when it comes to identifying and dealing with one’s flaws, studying a potential opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and strategizing accordingly.  

It’s easy to ride the tide of a team’s good fortune. It’s easy to let teammates carry you. It’s harder to realize that the team will certainly fall if everyone decides not to carry his/her load. There’s strength in numbers and sometimes numbers allow people to hide behind the performers. Tagging along is easy, but a true competitor will abhor the idea of a free ride. A true competitor in a team will look out for a teammate at all times and understand that this means he/she must give it his/her all.

DCL’s team and indeed all the teams he played in had players like that. They knew, each and everyone of them, that they weren’t stars. They knew that they had to face players who were considered better. They knew they had to punch above their respective weights. They did.  

R.L.W. Koggalage (‘Kogga’) was the reserve for three successive years. Then, in 1985, he was ‘promoted’ to play on the first board. That’s where the best players in each team played. Kogga had his work cut out for him. He was required to fight hard. It was assumed that he wouldn’t win, but that sacrifice meant  his teammates would have a slightly easier time on boards 2-6. Kogga would ‘hold’ the game. He wouldn’t take risks. He would play safe. For as long as he could. That was the plan.

Kogga did exactly as expected. He ‘held’. He didn’t take risks. He played safe. For as long as he could. However, Kogga pushed himself to deliver beyond expectation. He beat the more fancied opponents. That was a bonus for the team. All of a sudden, Kogga was no longer ‘a sacrifice.’ He could actually contribute to the overall tally of points. He was the unexpected ‘star’ that allowed his team to win in 1985 and again in 1986.

Kogga exemplified DCL’s theory of ‘team spirit.’ For three years, as mentioned, he was reserve. He never got to play except on one occasion when a teammate had to take an exam and therefore couldn’t play. He never once complained. He was happy that the team came second in 1982 (to Ananda College) and won in 1983 and 1984. He was ready though. He was ready to be the best he could be. This he proved in 1985 and again in 1986.

He got the point for the team. That’s the essence of team-spirit. DCL was right.

This article was published in 'The Morning' [July 20, 2020]

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

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