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The making and unmaking of the Indian athlete

Each federation president seems to think that coaching, fitness, advanced practice drills and local competitions will do the trick.

editorials Updated: Aug 26, 2016 12:05 IST
Ajai Pasricha
Olympic bronze winner and wrestler Sakshi Malik is welcomed on her way to her hometown Rohtak on August 24.
Olympic bronze winner and wrestler Sakshi Malik is welcomed on her way to her hometown Rohtak on August 24.(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

In its tennis pool, India has at least 10 potential champions in the age bracket of 12-18. The question is: Will their promise blossom into a victory dance at the next Olympics? Unlikely. History tells us each one will stumble when the time comes to step up from the junior ranks. The reason: Inadequate exposure to the pace and power of international competition. Only if potential champions can pit their skills against the world’s best players in their age group will they vault into the orbit of current sporting standards. That happens in cricket but nowhere else. Whether tennis, athletics, archery, basketball, cycling, fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, volleyball, boxing, soccer, golf, gymnastics, martial arts or swimming, the athletes of India are almost always denied the basic vitamins of progress by those that govern each federation.

Each federation president seems to think that coaching, fitness, advanced practice drills and local competitions will do the trick. They’re mistaken. This formula merely creates a skeletal foundation; it doesn’t build an Olympic champion.

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Let’s talk tennis. Rudiments of the game are taught at the age of seven or eight. Thereafter, the trek to the national stage takes not less than 21,480 hours of donkeywork spread over ten long years. In the course of that extended journey, three thousand-rupee shoes wear out every six weeks, twelve-dozen tennis balls are reduced to eggshells each month and racquet guts break every third day.

Hundreds of kids from middle class homes pack their tennis bags each morning not knowing what the morning will bring: a stride closer to their goal or a slide further away. Reputations are won and lost over two hours of battle. In the life of emerging tennis players, heartbreak and success go hand in hand.

They practice for hours through the searing heat of summer, immune to the sun, their fine-tuned limbs and torsos reacting faster with each passing day. They work on their technique under the watchful gaze of an anxious coach who breaks down their game into a handbook of statistics: Winners, unforced errors, double-faults and aces, each one a measure of performance.

The tennis court becomes an open classroom where lessons are drawn from the curricula of life. “What you learn from losing, you can’t learn from winning,” says a coach. “A loss is more of a gain than a win. Try explaining this to your parents.”

Parental pressures weigh heavily on young shoulders. When cracks appear from the burden of losing, a mental fitness trainer props up the mind, instilling positive thoughts in a player who has everything else: every shot in the book, every muscle in perfect working order, except the one between the ears. That needs to be strengthened.

Despite unusually high fitness levels, physical injuries strike without warning or mercy. When young feet pound hard courts for years on end, the result often is a shin splint, a stress fracture, a torn hamstring or a muscle strain. A month’s break from the game is the only remedy. Return to form is both slow and painful.

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The life of a young tennis player is punctuated with moments of uncertainty followed by periods of success in cycles of unpredictable length. Most parents never come to terms with this fact. They expect their children to win each time they step on to court. Fathers have been known to thrash their daughters when they lose. Those scars never heal.

The long hard grind might make a national champion but not an Olympic medal winner. To rise on the international stage, Indian players must draw lessons from playing faster, stronger competitors from across the world. All sports federations must set aside funds for this purpose. Only then will our champions be graduates of a global finishing school, ready to compete at the Olympic level.

Playing the circuit in Europe can cost as much as three lakhs of rupees a week, way beyond the means of the average parent. In light of this, most parents choose the soft option: American universities that offer sports scholarships to world-ranked juniors.

When homegrown sportspersons of high potential move to the US in search of international competition, the loser is India. This talent drain can only be plugged if sports federations fund the participation of juniors in high-profile global events. That’s what other sporting nations do--either at government expense or through private sponsorships. That’s why those countries have a growing band of junior athletes who carry the stamp of potential world-beaters-- and India doesn’t.

In the opinion of the professional in charge of the Swedish Junior Tennis Program, several juniors in India are “technically among the world’s best in shot making but they lack two essentials: speed and power.” How can they acquire these skills? Pat comes the answer: “Through Spanish drills and playing overseas.”

(Ajai Pasricha, the father of a tennis player, is a communications consultant and an advertising professional of 36 years standing. He can be contacted at ajaipasricha@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.)