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Novak to nitrogen, pigs to bulls: Sports is often war

🔴 Historically, athletes can get precious about their bodies, though not many have shared Djokovic’s dislike of vaccines.

Written by Sriram Veera |
Updated: January 23, 2022 11:01:33 pm
Novak Djokovic leaves Australia after losing his appeal. (File Photo)

Novak Djokovic doesn’t want the vaccine jabs as he is against something forcibly injected in his body. He would rather “empower our metabolism to be in the best shape to defend against imposters like Covid-19”. Historically, athletes can get precious about their bodies, though not many have shared Djokovic’s dislike of vaccines.

The famous Australian pacer Jeff Thomson’s preferred exercise to get into shape before a season was to hunt pigs with bare hands. He would chase them on foot and jump at them. No wonder he rarely, if ever, sledged. He didn’t need to, for who would mess with a modern-day Obelix? He would hurl thunderbolts, curse at himself to stir himself up, and piggyback on intimidating pace to success.

In the sixth century BC, the famous wrestler Milo of Croton from ancient Greece, the story goes, once, as a boy, lifted a calf and kept lifting it every day till he grew and the calf became a cow. As an adult, the myth says, he would do the same — progressive loading, before that became a jargon — and would carry around a bull during a championship before eating it by the end.

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The greatest batsman ever, Don Bradman, developed his unique way, which he attributed for his extraordinary hand-eye coordination. As a child, he would hurl a small golf ball at a rounded water tank. It would come back at odd, unpredictable angles, and he would try to hit them with a single stump. For hours, for days, and months.

If Bradman’s way was a touch unconventional, the legendary basketball player Michael Jordan went weirder: he used strobe lights, those pulsating lights at discotheques. At the time he would shoot, camera flashes would go off from the edges of the court, which threw him off. So secretly, he got himself strobe sunglasses that mimicked those lights to train. Inadvertently, he found that not only did it help him cope with the manic flashes but also improved his neuromuscular efficiency. Years later, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry used their version of stroboscopic goggles that helped them make game action feel like slow motion. Elite military officers use them for combat training. Sport sometimes is war, alright.

Some others went commando in training. Not the serious combat stuff, but went naked. The Australian cricketer Geoff Marsh, father of Shaun and Mitchell, would wake up in the middle of the night, much to the consternation of his usual room-mate, the fellow opener David Boon, and would do shadow batting in the buff. “I was naked but I had my baggy green on, which was something,” Marsh would later say. It was something, indeed.

Some did it with their clothes on, with a bit of help from a wall. The late Martin Crowe used to tell a lovely story about the best advice he got from Sunil Gavaskar. Crowe was 18 years in the summer of 1982, plying his trade as a groundsman cum overseas player in West Yorkshire ground when India turned up to play the county. The teenager asked the secret to playing pace and bounce, and Gavaskar obliged with: “Son, it’s your eyes. Before I go out to bat, I find a wall and position into my stance with my right ear hard up against the wall. By doing this I feel my head and eyes level, my balance perfect, my feet light and ready to move. The wall is ensuring that I stay still. In the middle I pretend the wall is still there.”

Gavaskar liked his walls. He would also advise young batsmen to take a new bat and stand in front of a wall to improve the backlift. His theory was that if it goes towards third man, the bat would get damaged. Simple, and effective.

Sometimes, pretending is all a top sportsman needed. Like Crowe did once when he was sick in the hospital before a home series against West Indies. He visualised himself scoring against Malcolm Marshall and magically reprised it once on the field.

It’s not always that easy, of course. Brett Lee, the pacer, would tie a parachute to his back and run on beach sand. The extra resistance overloads the body and generates power; it helped Lee with his run-up and helped his body and mind remain calm.

Sometimes, getting angry did the trick. When the West Indian captain Clive Lloyd wanted his pace battery to be firing all cylinders, he would ask his physio Dwaine Wright to do the dirty work. “At Adelaide, once, we needed to take six wickets and then chase on the last day. Lloyd said, ‘Let’s give it a go… it’s only a short day, can you make these blokes fire? Make them angry.’ At Adelaide, behind the nets there is a hill with a big statue on top of it. For half an hour before the start of play I made the players run up and down. They weren’t happy; Croft, Holding, Roberts and Garner were hopping mad and they went out and bowled like fire. Bird (Joel Garner) was the worst, grunting and groaning. Lloyd told him, ‘You are whinging the most, take the first ball’. He got four wickets in a short time, and we chased 236 in 61 overs,” Wright once told this newspaper.

The boxer Manny Pacquiao would have his team beat him with a Thai stick even as he stood grunting as part of a nerve-stimulation exercise. The famous swimmer Michael Phelps would sleep in an altitude chamber that made his body create more red blood cells, since the chamber has less oxygen. Red blood cells was what basketball Lebron James was after too, as he dabbled with Cryotherapy: He would have liquid nitrogen blasted on his body at temperatures below 100 Fahrenheit, which apparently shoved the body into survival mode, triggering replenishment of red blood cells.

From running up hills to blasting your body with liquid nitrogen to training in the nude, athletes have their own ways to extract elite performances.

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