At the age of 27, Andre Agassi was a lost talent, and a lost soul. The snazzy American had gone from a teenage prodigy to rebel without a cause, from world number 1 to 141. The confusion of his personal and professional life was gnawing away at the champion material.
Then, Steffi Graf entered his life in 1999. A model of concentration always, she told him, “Stop thinking; it’s about feeling.” “You have to be so conditioned, so practiced, that your thinking is removed, and you’re just reacting intuitively, without constantly questioning everything. I’m a thinker by nature, much too complicated. My father (Mike) tried to forbid thinking, and I tried to analyse my thinking away,” he recently said in an interview. When the mind was clearer and more at peace, Agassi rediscovered that winning feeling.
The mightiest of sportspeople fall. But the test of their fortitude is in the way they come back; emerge from the slump, reverse the losing streak. "Competition is more about the mind,” says Vishal Uppal, former India Davis Cupper. “Why do you think most people play better in practice than in matches? It’s because the pressure of a result is off their mind. You may have practiced a shot millions of times, but it still breaks down in the match. That’s because the mind is interfering. You don’t trust you mind, doubts start creeping in; you start second-guessing.”
Think for the moment
The problem begins when the thought of winning becomes the most important thing. Focus, instead, more on the process of winning — one point at a time; one stroke at a time; one stride at a time. Breaking the task down into smaller goals helps. That’s what boxer Akhil Kumar does. “Instead of thinking about winning the match, I focus on one round at a time and only concentrate on bettering my opponent. Then the rest falls in place.” If you’re running the half-marathon, don’t get daunted by the 21 km target. Enjoy the process of getting there instead, starting small and pushing yourself a little more every other week.
Shake it up
Complacency kills. If you stick to the tried and tested, comfortable in your bubble of doing the same things over and over, then a performance plateau is just around the corner. “When we are doing well, we tend to ignore the factors that got us there,” says former India Test opener Aakash Chopra. “Because everything is falling in place we don’t want to tinker with it too much. That is how you get into a rut.
“The people or teams who do well are the ones who analyse their wins as ruthlessly as the losses. They are always looking to improve their performance.” If you’ve lost six kg but have hit a plateau and can’t lose more, maybe you need to get out of your comfort zone in the gym. Take up a sport; set yourself new challenges. Don’t get bogged down.
Back to the drawing board
A slump is as common in the sporting dictionary as are winning and losing. No matter how great you are, it happens. Roger Federer went from can’t-do-no-wrong to first round loser in no time in 2007. The most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps sunk in the heats itself at the swimming championship in Stockholm this week.
Once you hit a trough in the performance graph, it’s time to get back to the drawing board. Start again, train you mind to get into winning habits. “First of all, you need to get rid of the mental anxiety. Get away from the demons of the past,” adds Uppal. “Think about what made you reach the pinnacle. Create the muscle memory again. Train the body to react in a certain way.
“At the highest level, training for sport is very specific. You need to identify the areas you are lacking in and then fix them.” As Muhammad Ali put it, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” Identify that pebble in the shoe.
Keep the faith
When you are going downhill, you pick up frustrations and shed confidence quickly. But that’s when you need to believe in yourself the most. “You are just one inning away from success,” says Chopra. When you know you’ve overcome the dips in form, carry that knowledge; draw confidence from it. “It’s never easy to be in a slump. But you can only get out if you remain positive.” Like doubts, belief too springs from the mind.