After the OTT release of the movie ‘Saina’, my family and I have been flooded with calls and messages from friends and family all over the world.
Why should we be flooded with calls, when the movie really is about Saina and not me? The trigger is a scene that appears at around 24 mins into the movie. A match between Saina and me is shown as a turning point for her as a junior player. It is the sub-juniors national finals, where I get the better of her and win in straight sets. The scene depicts that Saina’s mother slaps her after her loss, which eventually results in her never losing a match again as a junior in India.
When a friend narrated the scene to me, memories of my 15-year-self came back flooding. I remember that match vividly – for 2 reasons.
First – I had played this particular tournament from the qualifying rounds and eventually won it.
Second – Saina had beaten me just a week before in another tournament and was expected to repeat that in the finals of sub-junior Nationals.
While both of us were under pressure, in that particular match I held my nerves better than she did. I became the sub-junior national champion for that year.
As the film suggests, what follows is that she never lost in India as a junior after that. While I got a chance to play her a lot of times, I could never beat her again. For a very long time in my career, I remained in a ‘not so coveted’ position of being the No. 2 junior player and then No.2 senior singles player in the country.
Why couldn’t I beat her after that tournament?
It was a combination of everything – the knee injury that pushed me out of the game for a year after that match, the lack of professional help, my lack of belief and the fact that by the time I came back from injury Saina had become a better athlete – both physically and mentally.
As an athlete I have been fortunate enough to have experienced all three stages of an athlete’s career. I have been the No. 1 in the country, then the No. 2 for a significant part of my career and then Top 8 in the last two years of my career. Having the opportunity to play at all the stages has been extremely interesting. I have thought a lot about which stage was the toughest. I know now that it was the second stage – which was being the second-best athlete in the country.
We live in a society that believes in the mantra, ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar‘. If you choose sports as a career, you are told that winning at all costs is all that matters. The media, the audience, your peers, your parents and coaches and most importantly you yourself look at being the second best hardly as an achievement and in fact more as a failure. When I was ranked No 2 in the country, any tournament I won where Saina did not play was considered incomplete. I remember when I played my first Grand Prix final in Germany(in which Saina didn’t play), I beat the top ten players in the world on my way to the finals but it was hardly celebrated back home. A lot of my teammates told me if Saina would have played the tournament she would have won it easily. This may have been true or may not. What everyone, including myself, seemed to have forgotten was that I had still played a Grand Prix final and I was still the only woman after Saina to have been able to do that as of that time.
The problem, I figured, was that anything I did was compared to an extra-ordinary athlete. It was impossible to be good enough until I managed to beat her. The merit of my success was defined by the level of her success. An athlete who is No. 2 always compares their effort to the No. 1 and never to the No.3 or No.4.
Therein lies the problem.
While the world would always perceive the No.2 as more of not being No 1, it was important for me to celebrate being on that podium and the journey I had made to get there. While I do that today, I never did it when I was the athlete with a silver medal around my neck. I realise that I should have enjoyed the journey a lot more while I was in it.
An episode titled, ‘The Silver Lining’ of the fantastic podcast ‘The Happiness Lab with Laurie Santos’, discusses the human biases of focusing on positive references, harsh comparison with others and focusing on the destination rather than the journey. The discussion is with Michelle Kwan – the Olympic silver medalist ice skater. The episode discusses the possibility that like the silver medalists in sports, we make the same mistakes in life too, which eventually sets us up for sadness rather than celebration.
How did Michelle Kwan break out of the gloom of missing the Gold medal?
It was by setting up a negative reference – she compared her winning the silver medal with that of winning the bronze medal, next she stopped comparing her performance with others and rather compared it with her own older self and lastly, she focused on enjoying the journey to that medal more than the colour of it.
To all my fellow second best athletes who are chasing the No. 1 spot today, please know that while Michelle’s path is really difficult to pursue, it is nevertheless worth trying. My journey of being the second-best athlete for a long time in my career wasn’t pleasant. But I tell you today that had I not embarked on it, life would have been very different for me. I am truly grateful to the lessons I learnt from being in that position. It has left me hungry and focused throughout my post athletic career and has kept me neutral to both success and failure. Like me, do not wait to celebrate your journey in retrospect, but enjoy it in the present – while you are living it. Always remember that the journey is everything, destination doesn’t compare at all. Don’t believe the lies!
Coming back to the movie ‘Saina’, here is another thing I learnt – in the full arc of a player’s life, every athlete you play in every round of every tournament, plays an important part in your own success. As an athlete I never knew that the match I played against Saina in the sub junior national finals would become a life-changing event for her as a young athlete. Just like that I am sure there have been various opponents in my own sporting journey that have played a critical role in shaping my career as an athlete.
We all need to play our part to the best of our abilities to write the history of our sport. The society we live in will focus only on the winners, which may be fair in sport but is not in life. What the world doesn’t realise, but us players should, is that there are no winners unless there are losers. Losers push the winners out of their comfort zones, force them to dig deep and find their best selves and keep them on their toes. My fellow second-best athletes, you may not know what I know now – the second-place finish is cruel but if you make peace with it you will see, like I did, it is not such a bad place to be!
I hope you all convert that silver medal into the gold medal soon, but if you don’t, remember that you WON the silver and did not LOSE the gold. Remember that always.