It seems only yesterday that Leander was born on June 17, 1973 in Calcutta. He was conceived at the Munich Olympics in August, 1972 by Jennifer, India basketball captain at the Asian Championship and Vece Paes, member of the India hockey team in Munich. On both counts, Leander seemed destined to be a ‘Champion’. Yes, I can write that so clinically because when it came to this precocious kid, I have always been very methodical.
The East Germans were developing champions in the cradle. I figured so should we. So we did some rudimentary exercises for Leander in the cradle developing eye-hand coordination. We had multiple balls of different sizes, colour and shapes which he played with. We had balls hanging above him so that he would pick up the rhythm and cadence of the pendulum movement.
The revelation came when he started crawling -- it was at top speed, continuous, like a wound-up toy car. Head first into the wall, back off, into the next wall and so on. Fast, balanced, persistent and stubborn. Wow, I figured. Leander had a high component of fast twitch fibres, speed and cussedness in attitude which to my mind spelled competitiveness.
At three years I made sure Leander graduated to the basic body coordinative movements. This included swimming and tri-cycling.
Once he went under at the Dalhousie Institute swimming pool. I reached in to pull him out and all that he said was: “What took you so long?” I learnt early that this was a kid who was calm under pressure.
Greatness isn’t born
As much as we would like to believe it, these traits were not inherited but inherent in Leander. Having said that, all champions are not born with special talent. I know for a fact that greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Besides, no matter how big a success saga it seems, no champion ever makes it on his own. He is a product of a support system, opportunities and his own perseverance. The principle of 10 is something I believe in: “10 years, 10,000 hours, 10, 000 repetitions of perfect deliberate practice equal greatness.” Those are not my words but something I totally believe in. Men are not born champions, winners are the product of a system.
Let me quote the man who said the basics right: “... excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work...” said Charles Darwin. That has been my guiding principle. To that mix I would also add knowledge -- the crucial elixir which lifts a mere mortal to champion heights.
I was very clear from the beginning. I wanted Leander to do what I had managed to at a smaller scale -- take on the best in the world and beat them at their own game. So Leander went to La Martiniere School for Boys in Calcutta instead of any other for they had more emphasis on sports. To my chagrin they failed him in his formative years for lack of attendance. I was trying to shield Leander from the failure and the taunts of his classmates but all he said was: “Dad, failure does not worry me. I will be a champ one day”.
The other incident that comes to mind is when Leander and I were hitting at an established club an hour before the senior members came on and the tennis secretary said that Leander was underage and could not play at that particular time. Leander responded: “One day when I am Wimbledon champion you will recognise me”. The point of these two examples is to illustrate that no wonder how much you may want your child to be a player, unless he has the necessary attitude and the pig-headedness that it takes to achieve greatness, don’t bother.
Beyond that it is all about precise planning and even more precise training. I knew early on that there are no short cuts in professional sport -- you have to find the best brains and go pay them what they want so that you can tap them for what they know. There is no point in persisting with piecemeal coaches who may or may not be able to help you take that escalator to success. We were paying coaches to the tune of $1000 a day 20 years ago so that he could get the best inputs at an early age.
I also knew that short term goals can never be measured in wins. Instead it was always about the bigger picture. It wasn’t about dominance in the juniors -- though Leander was dominant in junior tennis and that was crucial as it helped us garner urgent sponsor support -- instead it was about building a physique and an attitude to take on the big boys.
The mental aspect of sport is so huge. From an early age I groomed Leander to look at failure as a temporary hiccup. I did not berate him on his losses. But I did always praise his wins extravagantly. Kids are delicate: they can’t be exposed to the huge expectations of parents, they have to be cocooned from all that worldliness. But what one can do is mould their mental makeup. Leander had his inherent cockiness, I added to that by making him think from a very young age that he was a champion -- the thought of giving up was not an option. I sacrificed comfort, money and leisure to ensure that Leander had every possible facility to make his way in a sport that was hardly native to India.
Hard work mantra
Leander carries on to this day because from an early age he was taught to believe that there are no limits to excellence -- that one can keep going on as long as he has the desire and the commitment to keep working hard.
The amusing bit is that people see his longevity and success and attribute it to his physical traits and genes. The fact is that the best package in the world can’t deliver unless one has the will to churn talent into winning potency. This edge comes from sweat, there are no short cuts. I can go on and on. And seriously, after this piece, I am tempted to write a book on the making of Leander. People need to know that success comes from precise planning and cussed hard work. Longevity is no fluke, it’s about doing the right thing all the time.
The writer is an olympic bronze medallist in hockey