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Champions: born or made?

Champions: born or made?
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First Published: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 09 05 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 09 05 PM IST
On a stroll in Shivaji Park, Mumbai, the other day, I overheard a young lady imploring a cricket coach, pointing to a little boy standing next to her: “You will be able to make him like Sachin Tendulkar, na?” The coach, by now perhaps inured to this query, had a wan smile and some innocuous words in reply. “We can try,” he said to the young mom.
Nobody in Indian cricket—indeed, perhaps even world cricket—has quite captured the imagination of the world as Tendulkar has in the past quarter of a century. The fact that he made his debut at 16, is still playing at 36, and has amassed fame and fortune to last several generations obviously makes him a terrific role model to emulate. Sachin has been the most popular registered name for boys in India in the past decade and a half (Rahul comes second, with opinion divided on whether this is because of Dravid or Shah Rukh Khan, who goes by that name in several of his movies).
Millions of mothers and fathers throng cricket coaching clinics across the country hoping that their young one will be the next big thing in the game, but obviously not everybody becomes a Tendulkar. If champions were so easy to find, why would there be a need for elaborate coaching systems, sports academies, etc.? The failure rate is phenomenally high and heartache for children and their guardians is highly common.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Are champions born or are they made? Is it genes which decide how gifted a sportsperson a child will grow up into, or the rigours of extensive training, or just experience? Indeed, what goes into the making of a champion?
In a different league: (clockwise from left) Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar.
After spending 32 years writing on sports, I must admit to failure in finding hard-edged linear logic that could explain this adequately. Some champions had this, some that, some this and that, making the answer a blur rather than clear-cut. Yet, in reading further about the lives of some top-notch champions—those to the manner born, as it were—some interesting factors emerge.
The sportspersons I focused on are Tendulkar and Don Bradman (cricket), Muhammad Ali (boxing), Tiger Woods (golf), Diego Maradona (football), Roger Federer (tennis) and Michael Phelps (swimming). They cut across a cross- section of sports (individual and team), continents, race and a 90-year period to make the study wide-based.
In itself, this establishes that there is no real skew along these lines when it comes to champions: They come in all shapes, sizes, colour and from any part of the world (if anything, this should stymie any sense of chauvinism—racial or nationalistic—but that’s an issue to be addressed some other day).
How big a factor is economic well-being then? It’s a mixed bag really. In some cases, quite significant, especially to sports such as tennis, golf and swimming, but not quite so with cricket and football.
Federer, for instance, comes from an upscale background; his father was an executive with a multinational pharma company which enabled not only access to facilities, but also expenses for coaching, etc. Ditto with Phelps in swimming and Woods in golf. But Bradman’s background was modestly rural middle class, while Tendulkar’s was modestly urban middle class. Ali, in contrast, was the son of a poor (in the American context) signboard painter from Louisville, while Maradona was even more underprivileged—he was the son of a bricklayer and came from the slums of Villa Fiorito outside Buenos Aires, Argentina.
So if nationality, race and money are not necessarily important constituents, is there some other kind of trigger that can spark the pursuit of sporting excellence? Again, it’s a yes, no, maybe. Bradman, Tendulkar, Maradona and Federer were products of an environment in which their preferred sport already enjoyed mass popularity. Phelps took to swimming almost as a family thing, because his two elder sisters were already into pool training. Woods was pushed into golf from an early age as an aspirational quest by his parents.
Of all the athletes under discussion, only Ali had a cathartic experience of sorts which took his passion for boxing into overdrive. In 1954, when he was 12, Ali’s bicycle was stolen when he had gone to an auditorium. Beside himself with rage, he vent his spleen on a police officer, Joe Martin, who advised the youngster to learn boxing before he could even think of bashing up the thief in revenge. Shortly after that, Ali began serious training and dreamt of becoming a world champion.
So where and how does genius get uncovered, and what takes it to actualization? These are the aspects where the athletes mentioned in this article appear to find common ground. Without exception, all of them started pretty early in choosing their sport. Once that was done, their passion took over, and the rigour of practice became so relentless as to become manic obsessive. All these stellar performers paved the road to excellence with hours, days, months and years of blood, sweat, toil and tears: There is clearly no short cut to such high success.
Perhaps more fascinatingly, all of them not only exhibited a razor-edged competitive streak from an early age, but also set benchmarks for themselves: In that sense, they also competed against themselves, constantly striving to improve, move further away from the pack, as it were. Obviously, this requires a high level of commitment, energy, physical endurance, mental toughness—not forgetting ego. None of them ever wanted to lose.
So, if I have to list a few of the attributes that go into the making of a champion, these would be: (a) passion, (b) energy for robust practice and hard work emerging from will power, (c) capacity to learn quickly and keep learning constantly, (d) strong competitive streak, (e) gumption to do things differently, if only to prove a point to themselves and, (f) extraordinary capacity to cope with setbacks and failures through a strong mind.
I must borrow the speech former British prime minister Tony Blair gave during the Beijing Olympics in 2008: “I remember still, almost 45 years ago now, running in my first competitive race at my school sports day. I remember the running track, grass freshly mowed. A sunny day. The race was over 440 yards. Four times round our small track. I settled in behind the lead runner, calculating to overtake him on the last bend before the straight run to the finish. The race went (according) to plan until just as I reached the bend, I tried to sprint forward. Suddenly, my legs just didn’t have the energy. The mental will was there. The physical capacity was not. I remember that feeling of shock and disappointment now as clear as I did then, the disconnection between desire and ability. I still have my silver cup for coming second. But silver was not what I wanted. I wanted gold.”
The conclusion Blair draws has universal truth value: “What makes a champion? We must start with an uncomfortable truth: Natural talent helps.”
But don’t try telling that to young moms who want their six-year-old children to become the next Tendulkar.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries @livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 09 05 PM IST