Y ou can often tell athletes by their fear of sitting still. Even off the field, they’re fidgeting, strutting, alive with enviable energy. You meet Leander Paes, you think he’s got some perpetual motion disorder. It figures that when a muscle tears, and the athlete is immobilized, he turns into a creature of hair-yanking frustration, an imprisoned gazelle.
So, when Sania Mirza returned to court last week after six weeks of no play, understandably she burbled like an uncaged spirit. “I’m thrilled my knee didn’t hurt, I’m just so happy to hit a ball.”
Optimism OD: On my feet again
In sport, the anterior cruciate ligament is so precious you say prayers for its well being. Tear it, and that’s a year gone with a knee reconstruction. Hyper-extend it, like Mirza did in early March, and they ban tennis for a month.
By the time Mirza’s knee is competition-ready, it could be mid-May. By the time her game is polished for combat, it could be June. In a fleeting career, time is everything, now months have escaped, and only half of 2007 left to do so much.
Boy, this girl must be mad.
But Mirza isn’t, or won’t show it. OK, for a short while she was restless, her mind craving the competition it is addicted to. “You can’t wait to get out there, to push your body till you’re out of breath, you miss winning, you miss losing.”
I’m trying to plumb this frustration of the athlete at standstill, but I get no further. Instead I get optimism flung in my face, get hit with a charge of positivity. Mirza can see no side but the bright one.
So, she’ll tell you the injury, it did her some good. Good? In the insanity of her life, a blur of packing, flying, playing, finally, she says, “I found time with myself, to think about where I want my life to go.”
She sees an upside to the training she’s had to do post-injury, three hours a day, amassing muscle, strengthening every part “from my head to my toe”.
She even finds something to be “proud” of in her injury. In the past, she’s sustained stomach, wrist, ankle injuries perhaps caused by an unready body, a lack of strength. But the hyper-extended knee, this is a freak occurrence, her body hadn’t broken down because of training she hadn’t done, and that was heartening.
It’s so obvious what she’s doing that you have to ask Mirza, and she admits: “I love changing negatives into positives, you learn that as an athlete. The first couple of days I was annoyed, why didn’t this (injury) happen at the end of the year, but then I thought, maybe I needed the break.”
Mirza’s reflecting a mindset prevalent in the athletic tribe. For sportspeople, doubt is a disease, pessimism a curse. Hope is what sustains them, the belief that everything must be for the best. If sport is so much a mental pursuit, the strength of the mind separating opponents, then that weapon must be kept sharp and buoyant.
Everywhere optimism lurks. Athletes lose early in a tournament, but insist it’s a blessing because it gives them extra time to prepare. Experienced players in a team fall ill, and coaches say it allows youngsters the opportunity to shine. Teams lose repeatedly, and captains shrug off despair and claim “we’re in a building phase”.
Even the extraordinary athlete spins. Twice this year, Roger Federer has lost to Argentina’s Guillermo Canas, an improbable occurrence, and the Swiss acknowledged his confidence was dented.
Yet, Federer also interpreted the two defeats inventively to reassure himself, saying: “I would honestly rather lose to the same guy twice than lose to two different guys. If I lost to two different players, I would think I was not playing well, but with one guy I can think ‘OK, this guy is on a roll.’ It’s just easier to digest.”
However awkward the rationalizing seems, anything that helps the athlete “move on” is helpful. As sports psychologist Sandy Gordon says about Mirza’s fine positivity, “It’s better than saying ‘poor me’.” To feel sorry for oneself is to remain stuck in the present. To say “what next”, explains Gordon, is “to get back on the horse again”.
Mirza is ready to ride, back onto a hard tour which is “lonely”, “cut-throat” and where “many players don’t even acknowledge each other”. But she, bristling on court, chatty off it, will do just fine. Because she’s got optimism neatly packed in her kit bag.
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