Mayank Shekhar: Sport stars are my Paulo Coelho!

Jul 18, 2017, 06:08 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Why I take life's simple, motivational gyan from seasoned players

Roger Federer holds the winner's trophy, his 19th Grand Slam. Pic/AFP
Roger Federer holds the winner's trophy, his 19th Grand Slam. Pic/AFP

While MS Dhoni's going through a downtime, and he hasn't hit the big league yet, his mentor AK Ganguly, in his biopic, tells him, life throws all kinds of balls at you -"in-swingers, out-swingers, full-tosses, and bouncers" - that you're meant to suitably play. But if there are just far too many bouncers coming your way, best to duck, lie low, and wait for things to turn. They eventually do.

Dhoni takes that lesson. As Roger Federer perhaps did, before picking up his eighth Wimbledon title on Sunday. But, this isn't about sport alone. As far as a 'Paulo Coelho' type, simple gyans of life go, it is as good as it gets. Only least surprising, that it comes from sport. Like plenty of others I've found most inspiring - having accidentally chanced upon them when stuck at crossroads.

Now, I'm no sportsperson (unless middle-school, inter-house level table-tennis counts as athletic achievement!). Growing up, I'm pretty sure my parents, like everyone else's, weren't particularly depressed by that fact - you know that "padhoge likhoge banoge nawab; kheloge koodoge banoge kharab," has been the desi parental ethos over generations.

And still, while most sports champions haven't had parallel academic careers, what the parents didn't realise is - whether their kids make a living out of sport or not, the fact of playing it professionally/seriously with an adult mind later, compressing life's severe ups and downs into a few minutes' flat, turns them naturally into pop-philosophers of a kind.

Maybe that's because in sport, you can't fake it until you make it. Or it's just the meditative quality of the concentration levels required to 'zone out' millions of eyes and screams, fixated on you, while your mind is simply geared towards a spherical object being fired at your body at breakneck speed. I'm told you can 'zone in' to be able to see a swinging cricket-ball the size of a football sometimes.

Allan Border was once asked how much money he made. He said, "I don't know. I just take care of runs. The runs take care of everything else." Of course, given sports' relentless demand for excellence, you could also 'choke' (play too safe), or 'panic' (become rash, and give the game away), being too harsh on yourself sometimes. But as Martina Navratilova puts it: It's not about how high you go when you're at your best; but how low you hit, when you're at your worst, that matters.

It's probably the best piece of advice, ironically, if you're leading a team sport, since you can't beat yourself every day for even more variables that are not in your hands. Being far too good yourself might even be a handicap sometimes. One of the finest corporate leadership, management books ever, according to business journalist Sandipan Deb, is The Art Of Captaincy by cricketer Mike Brearley, who had underwhelming personal statistics, but led England in Test Cricket to 31 wins in 39 tests.

Brearley writes, "Charisma seems to me a limited asset to a captain... Charisma does not imply steadiness, patience, concentration, or considerateness, all invaluable in a captain. Above all, placing too much emphasis on charisma might well involve ignoring the central requirement of a captain, that he knows his task. Charisma is not the same thing as leadership."

This is slightly separate from how you get to that team in the first place. I know no set of professionals as thoroughly dedicated as in sport -seeing no results for long, and no guarantees forever. So may as well sample Rahul Dravid's motivational speech: "You can plant a Chinese bamboo seed to the ground, water and nurture it, and not see a sprout for five years. Suddenly, a tiny shoot springs from the ground, and over the next six weeks, the plant grows as tall as 90 feet, as fast as 39 inches every 24 hours. You can literally watch the plant grow.

"What was the plant doing over the five years' seemingly dormant period? It was growing its roots. For five full years, it was preparing itself for rapid, massive growth. Without its root structure, the plant simply couldn't prepare itself for its future growth. Some would say the plant grew 90 feet in six weeks. I would say it grew in five years, and six weeks."

Surely, luck takes over at some point as well: You've gotta be at the right place at the right time. "That you have to be anyway," says the football guru Gary Linekar. "Sometimes, the ball comes to you!"

Even better, to end this secular sermon, a super-line by the legendary cricketer Syed Mushtaq Ali that writer Salim Khan, of the dialogue maestros Salim-Javed fame, recently introduced to us on Twitter: "Cricket ki zubaan mein suniye ki waqt kya cheez hai. Jab waqt achha hota hai, toh jahan ball padti hai, wahan bat nahin ghoomta. Jahan bat ghoomta hai, wahan ball padti hai (When the time's right, your bat doesn't swing where the ball lands. You just swing your bat, and the ball shows up!").

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to

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