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Saturday, January 29, 2022

A life beyond sports

Not everyone can excel at the highest level in sports. For those who can’t, alternative career paths need to be created

Written by Pullela Gopichand |
Updated: December 25, 2021 9:15:53 am
The value of this diminishes when you hang on to a sport more than is necessary, where it turns detrimental, as it is not possible to start a new career if one overstays their welcome in sports.

I’ve had second thoughts, and my second thoughts have done double-takes, wondering why the cliche “do or die” has been allowed to go on this long in sports vocabulary. In three words, the most affirming of joys of sport get killed, and are replaced by a sense of bitter desperation to succeed that puts indescribable pressure on athletes competing at any level. Do-or-die needs to be replaced by play-and-live as sport’s clarion call.

I have been witness to the pressures of competition and seen how unrealistic expectations can get when everyone is trying to be the “next Saina” or the “next Sindhu” when they take up badminton. Likewise, have we really succeeded in finding the “next Sania Mirza or Leander or Bindra”? No. Because young kids need to take up badminton, tennis and every other sport to learn the sport, not be told that they will be a world champion on day one. Junior competitions in India need to be calibrated when used to see actual elite potential. But this should never reflect on the coach’s face that makes young vulnerable kids feel like failures.

Education and the opening up of careers suited to different aptitudes and likings have made it possible that more and more eventually succeed when moving out of the system. Sports, on the other hand, suffers from a very low success rate.
In some ways, the very process of trying to become a champion is more beneficial than becoming a champion itself — benefits that far outlive a career that could go on till 30 at best.

The value of this diminishes when you hang on to a sport more than is necessary, where it turns detrimental, as it is not possible to start a new career if one overstays their welcome in sports. Feeling lost then is a common occurrence.

So in my opinion the answer lies in the way we look at sports, and identify talent. As a matter of fact, the words talent identification should not be spoken of at an early age and scientific sporting analysis should not be done at a young age as is the norm.

Instead of this, imagine a scenario where children are exposed to several sports, grow a healthy relationship with physical activity, and then we use sports science at age of 17 or 18 to check if the kids have the potential to be world-beaters or not. This will ensure that only those who have a realistic chance to make it to the top at the world level continue chasing the difficult dream beyond 17/18, even accounting for late bloomers, whose potential will be clear by this age.

This could change for some sports, but by and large at 17 or 18, the decision has to be made whether you are good to be world-class or you need to look at other careers. I am sure with the right kind of scouting and sports science, we will be able to guide students/parents to make the right choice and to use the learnings of sports to propel and catapult them into a new and more successful career which would serve them their whole lifetime. Even top individuals who are in the system should be taken care of by giving them exit routes at various levels — at 22, at 25 even.

At each of these stages, we should have programmes which will ensure that these sportspersons are taking the learnings of sport and using them in other fields which are beneficial to themselves and to society at large.

Although sports itself has huge opportunities whether it be coaches, commentators, sports administrators etc, I would encourage sportspersons to even look at different fields altogether, not necessarily only from the sporting ecosystem. The exit from sports at various levels needs to be supported and celebrated so that we have more people using sports as a jumping board for bigger and brighter careers. The shelf-life of a sportsperson is short, unpredictable and hugely beneficial, but unless used properly it can be detrimental to his or her own growth.

Strangely, and almost as a paradox, there are an increasing number of management gurus looking towards sports to offer and impart various business and life lessons, inculcating the importance of playing a sport. Several successful people candidly admit the role that sports has played in their journey. It is uncanny that film stars, businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats are talking about how sports has contributed to their well-being and helped forge a strong character.
Even at the elite level, it is likely that professional athletes will struggle to have a clean exit path. And that makes us wonder as to why sports, which is an excellent tool for learning and excellence, imparting valuable lessons to those who are successful in life, can also lead to dire consequences for those who wish to make a career out of it.

The question arises that with such a high failure rate — in many sports, the Olympic quota for every weight category is one per country — what happens of the large numbers who miss out and do not get a chance even as funding is channelled into their training.

The sad reality is that we cannot know which of the 95 per cent or more will be a failure. But it is certain that 95 per cent or more are surely going to drop out. We focus on the 5 per cent or less. At the policy level, we almost tend to ignore the existence of the rest — who play but don’t make it big — which is a huge percentage.

The exit from sports need not be a painful/failure-related experience where it is akin to a steep fall. Failure hurts, it hurts your morale, hurts your confidence, sometimes the body and if one does not exit properly, it starts to make one negative, and when you actually come out of the sport it’s too late to learn or pursue new things.

If this was education, I am sure they would’ve changed this long ago. But we do not have a mechanism to make all of them champions under the present understanding of sport. It’s time for sports to adopt: Play and live and leave behind do-or-die

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 25, 2021 under the title ‘Play-and-live’. The writer is a Sydney Games Olympian, All England champion and national head coach of badminton

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