My grandmother told me some of the best stories as a child. They ranged from fairies, witches, Gods, her friends, kings and queens, and robbers and policemen. The list could keep on going. After every story she would ask me what I had learned from it and tell me to give a moral to the story. After I heard a pretty intriguing robber-police story she asked me what I had learned and I had replied after a very thoughtful silence, “If I want to be a robber I will have to be smarter than the police.” She hit her hand on her head and hit me on the back. ” That is not the moral of the story you fool. The moral is to never steal because you will always get caught in the end.” Every story my grandmother told me was meant for me to choose and understand the right and the wrong. She would always make me choose a side.
As I grew older I realised at every moment in my life I will be given a choice and my grandmother was preparing me for it through her stories. As a player every decision I took was a choice. You have to choose if you want to get up early in the morning at six and train or sleep till 8. You have to choose if you want to practice six hours a day or three hours a day. You have to choose if you want to compete after your first major injury and make a comeback or quit the sport. You have to choose if you want to study as hard as you play. You have to choose between a dessert or no dessert because you are following a diet. Everything in life is a choice, and most of the time you can always choose the chocolate cake because nobody is watching but you still choose not to eat it because you have chosen to be on the right side of being an athlete. (I did choose the chocolate cake sometimes. After seven hours of training I told myself I deserved it.) I had to make a lot of these choices from a very early age and out of all the choices I have made the hardest has been this -How am I going to deal with failure? Will I let it affect my motivation or will I use it as a fuel to reach success?
Being an athlete you have to mature very quickly and sometimes deal with life’s toughest questions even before you cross your teens. Hence to deal with the pressure very early in my career I exposed myself to meditation. I was fascinated by the stories of Mahabharata and sometimes would also indulge myself in reading a few pages of The Gita. I was also a fan of Gautama Buddha and Buddhism. A lot of my friends would laugh at my obsession and ask me , ” Are you going to become a saint now?” I never looked at spirituality as a philosophical subject. It always was very practical for me. I wanted to keep calm and be focused as a player and meditation helped me achieve that. I looked at meditation as a means to a victorious end.
Both Buddhism and The Gita talk about two fundamental things which have stayed with me and which I think has helped me the most as an athlete. The first is Karma yoga and the second is choosing the Middle Path. Karma yoga literally means doing selfless actions as a way to perfection. You set yourself a goal and keep working towards it in spite of your failures and success and never stop till you achieve your desired result. The second is choosing to be on the middle path. The middle path is your ability to react to failure or success in the same way. To be in a space where neither failure nor success can affect your inner peace. It is our ability to find a constant state of happiness. Both Karmayoga and finding that middle path are most difficult things to achieve but every successful athlete has dealt with them and has found his or her own way to achieve it.
To be successful in life the most important thing is to achieve a constant state of happiness in spite of failures and, to be centered in your emotions in every circumstance you face. If you are happy you think better, you train harder and you feel much more motivated. My friend once said to me, ” I am just waiting for that one moment in life where I can find extreme happiness.” I asked him ,” What if that moment doesn’t exist? Are you choosing to not be happy till then?” It is like Christopher Gardner says in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, “It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”
As an athlete you have to learn that nothing is permanent. If you have lost ten matches in a row you might win the eleventh one. If you have won 10 matches in a row you might lose the eleventh one. The most important thing in a player’s career is to understand that you can never react to success and failure with extreme emotion of either joy or sadness. Understand that life as a sportsperson is cruel and unfair. I still remember when I became the national champion for first time in under 13 I felt like I ruled the world. I came home to a party. I was getting phone calls from relatives and friends. I was on cloud nine. The next day in practice I was almost floating in the air. My coach made me play against an under 19 singles player and I lost under five in both the games. I realised my place and my standard in a match and knew there was really not much to party about. I realised very early that as an athlete you will get to celebrate only for a day. The next day you will be the most hunted player on the circuit and everyone would want to beat you and if you are not prepared you will lose. Treat success just like a stepping stone and a validation of your hard work and move on.
In my career as an athlete I have failed many times. I have lost matches on 11-0 and 11-0, without scoring a point. I have lost matches when I was leading 20-10 after winning the first game. I have lost to players ranked much below me because I was too proud to give them their due respect. I have lost matches because my knee was hurting and I won’t accept it. I have lost matches because of a bad line call. I have lost so many times and for so many different reasons that there have been times when I have questioned myself if I had chosen the right career. But looking back I do value these failures much more than the successes I have had. In their own harsh way failures prepared me for life better than the trophies in my living room.
Never play to lose, give all your energy to win. But if you lose learn, make improvements and know that success will come if you believe in it. I am going to end this post with a few lines of the poem that is framed on my wall. A poem called “If” by Rudyard Kipling which speaks about the impotance of choosing the middle path.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!